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 50 Years/50 Artworks      

46.
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Robert Motherwell
(American, 1915–1991)
Untitled (Black and Orange), from The Basque Suite
1970–71
silkscreen on paper, from suite of ten, AP, 40" x 28 1/2"
Gift of the Martin S. Ackerman Foundation; Saul Steinberg, Donor

Robert Motherwell first studied art at the Otis Art Institute and the California School of Fine Arts, and went on to receive a degree in philosophy at Stanford University in 1937. He continued to study philosophy and aesthetics at Harvard University, while painting on his own. In 1940–41 Motherwell studied art history at Columbia University with Meyer Schapiro, who introduced him to many European artists who had come to New York as a result of World War II, including Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Andre Masson, and Piet Mondrian. After traveling in Europe and Mexico, Motherwell established a studio in New York in 1942, where he quickly distinguished himself as an abstractionist, gaining early recognition through exhibitions at Peggy Guggenheim’s “Art of this Century” gallery. Motherwell’s work is identified with that of the New York School, a term he himself coined to describe the first generation of American non-objective abstract painters. From early on in his career, his preoccupation was with creating non-objective, abstract images that through their expressive use of line, shape, color and implied space, sought to convey and evoke universally understood emotions, sensations and human experiences.

Motherwell was also influenced by experiments with automatism, that branch of European surrealism where forms were drawn intuitively with no preplanned composition in mind, and by poetry and aesthetic theory. He experimented with printmaking as early as 1941 but essentially abandoned the practice between the late-1940s and the late-1960s.

The Basque Suite belongs to a later phase of the artist’s career in which he helped bring about a renaissance in American printmaking, by producing prints that mirrored the painterly, gestural, and textural effects of abstract painting. The titular subject of The Basque Suite mirrors that of what many consider to be Motherwell’s most powerful large-scale abstract paintings, Elegies to the Spanish Republic, begun in 1947. Specifically, this work relies for its impact on a stark contrast between figure and ground, and on quickly executed gestural marks, not unlike those seen in Japanese calligraphy, which the artist greatly admired. Its predominant element is that of a triangle, which simultaneously reads as an archetypal symbol pointing upward, an abstracted mountain, and a forceful upward gesture. Filled with an intense yellow-orange color, the print’s upper left and top seem balanced in a yin-yang, volume-void fashion with the large expanse of white at its bottom and right.

 
 
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