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Lot 56: Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)

Post War and Contemporary Evening Sale

by Christie's

May 9, 2006

New York, NY, USA

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Description: Elegy to the Spanish Republic #130
signed 'R. Motherwell' (lower left); titled '#130' (on the reverse)
oil and acrylic on canvas
96 x 120 1/2 in. (244 x 306 cm.)
Painted in 1974-1975.

Notes: Property from the Collection of Irma and Norman Braman

This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Paintings and Collages by Robert Motherwell being prepared by the Dedalus Foundation.

Motherwell is a painter of series--throughout his career, a relatively small number of compositional starting points/subject matter intrigued him and he explored the possibilities within each one. Some of his most noteworthy series are his early Spanish Prisoner works from the 1940's, his Open Series from 1968 on, and the Spanish Elegy paintings for which the artist is best known. Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 1974-1975 is a magisterial example of the latter, and an Abstract Expressionist icon.

Motherwell's first Elegy was painted 1948. Curiously, the series which is associated with mural-size paintings began with a modest drawing, little more than a doodle, measuring 14 x 11 inches. Motherwell was co-editor of the short-lived journal Possibilities and Harold Rosenberg submitted a short, bleak poem for its next issue (which would never be published). Motherwell illuminated the somewhat bleak poem with a simple Elegy (which was named well after it was painted), consisting of three staunch vertical shafts, divided by three black ovoid forms. Given that the publication would be printed in black and white, Motherwell restricted himself to black ink, despite being a brilliant colorist in the majority of his works up to that time.
The international event that most affected Motherwell was the Spanish Civil War. This tragic conflict, which ravaged Spain and brought the Fascist Franco to power inspired a generation of artists to action, and was the inspiration for Picasso's epic Guernica. More than any other subject, it informed Motherwell's work throughout the 1940s and 1950's in his Spanish Prisoner and Elegy series. According to the artist, works like Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 1974-1975 are both specifically related to that conflict as well as a general meditation on tragedy.
Formally, the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series grew out of the artist's earlier works that were dominated by the play of geometric forms. In terms of subject mater, the Elegies have often been seen in terms of power--politically, visually and sexually. The forms have been alternatively been interpreted as a male/female duality with the phallic verticals playing off the female ovoid shapes, as well as a metaphor for the sexual organs of a bull. Assertively frontal and flat, the ovoid are held up (or crushed) by the verticals, and also suggest a kind of abstracted architecture. They can also be viewed, as in his earlier works, as a completely abstract rhythm of loose geometry. Indeed, the Elegies resistance to any single interpretation is part of their strength.
Despite working in a restrictive format, Motherwell never repeats himself, and each Elegy has a decidedly different mood. The artist varies not only the scale, but also the density of forms, the brushwork (or lack thereof) and the palette. Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 1974-1975 has a powerful architectonic quality, with the vertical black stripes, from top to bottom edge, forming columns which set up a rhythm of black and brown, and hard-edged against oval. Deep and rich tones of brown and off-white, sumptuously painted black and flashes of dark orange, blue and white create a complex color harmony. Indeed, the artist has eschewed the facile impact of expressive brushstrokes in favor of a bold, and sophisticated hard-edged composition.

Provenance: M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York

Artist or Maker: Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)

Literature: E. Turner, "The Bramans: The Happy Look." ArtNews 88, no. 3, March 1989, p. 108.

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