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A Sculptor's Picture, with Blue
$2,000,000 - 3,000,000
sold for $2,249,000
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner in 1959
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Robert Motherwell, March 9 – April 4, 1959, no. 1 (illustrated on exhibition poster)
Pasadena Art Museum, Robert Motherwell: A Retrospective Exhibition, February 18 – March 11, 1962, no. 24 (erroneously titled Sculptor’s Eulogy)
Pasadena Art Museum, November 20, 1963 - July 3, 1964 (on loan)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York School, The First Generation: Paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, June 16 – August 1, 1965, no. 70, p. 226 (illustrated, p. 104)
San Francisco Museum of Art, Santa Barbara Collects, July 11 – August 30, 1970, no. 30
Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, The Fifties: Aspects of Painting in New York, May 22 – September 21, 1980, no. 55, p. 98 (illustrated)
Stuart Preston, "The Many Faces of Painting and Sculpture," New York Times, March 15, 1959, p. 18
Helen De Mott, "In the Galleries," Arts Magazine 33, no. 7, April 1959, p. 53 (illustrated)
Jerrold Lanes, "Reflections on Post-Cubist Painting," Arts Magazine 33, no. 8, May 1959, p. 28
"The Motherwell Show," Letter to the Editor, Arts Magazine 33, no. 8, May 1959, p. 8
Barbara Lenox, "Art & Architecture on Display," Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1960, p. 16 (installation view illustrated)
Max Kozloff, "An Interview with Robert Motherwell: 'How I Admire My Colleagues!,'"Artforum 4, no. 1, September 1965, p. 33 (illustrated)
Frank O'Hara, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1965, p. 81 (Sidney Janis exhibition poster, illustrated)
Hjorvardur Harvard Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1977, no. 25, p. 49 (Sidney Janis installation view illustrated, p. 51)
"Smithsonian Highlights," Smithsonian, May 1980, p. 172 (illustrated)
Hjorvardur Harvard Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1982, no. 42, pp. 49-50 (illustrated)
Jack Flam, Katy Rogers and Tim Clifford, eds., Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1994-1991, vol. 2, New Haven, 2012, no. P173, pp. 109-110 (illustrated)
“Modern art has a different face from the art of the past because it has a somewhat different function for the artist in our time…The need is for felt experience — intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic.” — Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell’s A Sculptor’s Picture, With Blue, named after his good friend David Smith, is an absolute tour-de-force from one of the most pivotal years in the Abstract Expressionist’s personal life and career. The monumental painting was created in New York in the spring of 1958 around the time of Motherwell’s nuptials to Helen Frankenthaler. Imbued with the sense of figuration so characteristic for Motherwell’s abstract compositions, this powerful work visualizes the couple’s union with the two black amorphous forms ecstatically merging through the force of splattering brushstrokes. The luminous swathes of blue in the present work in many ways points to Motherwell’s anticipation of the honeymoon in Europe that he would take with Frankenthaler later that summer in its evocation of the light and sea of the Mediterranean landscape. He would return to this theme in later years, referencing it in such works as Summertime in Italy No. 8, 1960. A Sculptor’s Picture, With Blue represents the culmination of a discrete group of three paintings completed during the joyous period in spring of 1958. As the only work to remain in private hands, its companions now reside in prestigious permanent collections: Afternoon in Barcelona, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and The Wedding, Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. Unseen to the public for more than three decades, the work was acquired by Betty Sheinbaum directly from the artist’s 1959 solo exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York. Remaining in her collection since, Betty loaned the work to major exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Art and the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Situated at a crucial turning point in Motherwell’s over five-decade long career, A Sculptor’s Picture, With Blue is testament to the renewed joie-de-vivre, productivity and innovation that Motherwell’s deepening relationship to Helen Frankenthaler ushered in after years of sporadic artistic production and personal struggles. The romantic relationship began in 1957, shortly after Motherwell separated from his second wife Betty Little. Though Frankenthaler was fourteen years his junior, she was already a distinguished painter in her own right, and her confident and energetic presence revitalized him after a period of self-doubt and hopelessness; she notably encouraged him to avoid drinking heavily and to focus on painting again – often sleeping in his New York studio while he worked.
Demonstrating a departure from Motherwell’s earlier style, A Sculptor’s Picture, With Blue beautifully articulates the unprecedented spontaneity and freedom with which Motherwell began producing new work in 1958. While presenting a continuation of his seminal series Elegies to the Spanish Republic from the past decade and building on the composition of Jour La Maison, Nuit La Rue, 1957-1958, this painting is one of the first works that saw him embrace brighter color hues and looser gestural brushstrokes that cover the canvas with thinned veils of oil paint. As Lucy Lippard observed, “there is no doubt that Motherwell has sharpened his color sense, or at least released it, since his marriage, and the openness of his new work may be due either to constant exposure to Frankenthaler’s painting or to an increased sense of personal well-being” (Lucy Lippard, “New York Letter: Miró and Motherwell”, Art International 9, no. 9-10, December 20, 1965, p. 35). Working from his East 94th Street studio, Motherwell began to embrace a more spontaneous and fluid way of working that speaks to Frankenthaler’s influence. The dynamic process of creation is beautifully articulated in A Sculptor’s Picture, With Blue: the rivulets of the thinned pale blue oil paint that run across the underlying composition evidence Motherwell’s practice of rotating the canvas, while the black paint splatters function as traces of the expressive, muscular strength with which Motherwell has distilled his inner vision.
This mixture of instinctive free association and willfulness that characterized his pictorial idiom also played into Motherwell’s act of naming the present work. A salient example of how he typically titled his works as an extension of the painting process itself, the painting was baptized as A Sculptor’s Picture, With Blue because, by Motherwell’s own account, the great Abstract Expressionist sculptor David Smith loved it so. Smith, who had been friends with both Motherwell and Frankenthaler prior to their relationship, became a regular visitor at the couple’s New York residence starting in April 1958 and it was here that he expressed his great admiration for the painting. As Motherwell fondly recalled his friendship to Smith, “I enjoyed his companionship more completely than any artist I have ever known; he was literally a member of my family. I have had many close friends among New York artists over the years, but…only David Smith’s openness was matched to my own instincts” (Robert Motherwell, 1971, in The Writings of Robert Motherwell, Berkeley, 2007, p. 282). The fact that A Sculptor’s Picture, With Blue combines the explosive energy of American abstraction with two powerful forms that have a sculptural presence must have appealed to Smith, and illustrates a fascinating link between the black forms that are central to Motherwell’s most important work from this period such as the Elegy series, and the influence of sculpture, through Motherwell’s friendship with David Smith.
Not only does A Sculptor’s Picture, With Blue offer us a unique snapshot of this remarkable moment in time within the history of Abstract Expressionism, it moreover represents the beginning of Motherwell’s mature practice. In its extreme departure from Motherwell’s earlier style, A Sculptor’s Picture, With Blue set the stage for Motherwell’s artistic breakthrough immediately thereafter in France in the summer of 1958 that resulted in his famed Iberia series and a powerful resurgence of his Spanish Elegies series. The singular significance of Sculptor’s Picture, With Blue within this larger body of work from 1958 becomes apparent in its enthusiastic critical reception upon its debut at Motherwell’s landmark exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, in 1959. Of all the works on view, the present work was notably celebrated in over four art reviews as the highlight of the exhibition. The New York Times critic Stuart Preston wrote: “'A Sculptor’s Picture, with Blue’, is a beauty. Two solid sensuously rounded black shapes, wrapped in mystery and no longer lumpish and inert, float on a cloud of light-color. Their sense of movement and their weightlessness give this picture a monumental buoyancy” (Stuart Preston, "The Many Faces of Painting and Sculpture", New York Times, March 15, 1959, p. 18).
“I think that one's art is one's effort to wed oneself to the universe, to unify oneself through union“, Motherwell had explained in 1951, “The need is for felt experience— intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic” (Robert Motherwell,"What Abstract Art Means to Me”, The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, Spring 1951, in Robert Motherwell, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1965, p. 45). Created some seven years after that artistic statement, A Sculptor’s Picture, With Blue represents the ultimate embodiment of Motherwell’s pursuit of expressing his lived – and importantly felt – within his art. A jubilant celebration of life, A Sculptor’s Picture, With Blue powerfully ushered in what would become Motherwell’s most celebrated period, painting, as Hjorvardur Harvard Arnason put forward, “with an energy and variety of creative imagination unmatched in any previous period of his career” (Hjorvardur Harvard Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1982, p. 50).
American • 1915 - 1991
One of the youngest proponents of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Robert Motherwell rose to critical acclaim with his first solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery in 1944. Not only was Motherwell one of the major practicing Abstract Expressionist artists, he was, in fact, the main intellectual driving force within the movement—corralling fellow New York painters such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hoffman and William Baziotes into his circle. Motherwell later coined the term the "New York School", a designation synonymous to Abstract Expressionism that loosely refers to a wide variety of non-objective work produced in New York between 1940 and 1960.
During an over five-decade-long career, Motherwell created a large and powerful body of varied work that includes paintings, drawings, prints and collages. Motherwell's work is most generally characterized by simple shapes, broad color contrasts and a dynamic interplay between restrained and gestural brushstrokes. Above all, it demonstrates his approach to art-making as a response to the complexity of lived, and importantly felt, experience.
A Sculptor's Picture, with Blue
$2,000,000 - 3,000,000
sold for $2,249,000
New York Auction 16 November 2017