Open No. 153: In Scarlet with White Line

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  • Provenance

    Dedalus Foundation, New York (acquired in 1991)
    Acquired from the above via Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    London, Bernard Jacobson Gallery, Robert Motherwell: Five Great Opens, October 15 - November 22, 2008
    New York, Paul Kasmin Gallery, The New York School, 1969: Henry Geldzahler at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, January 13 - March 14, 2015
    New York, Mnuchin Gallery, Reds, April 27 - June 9, 2018, pp. 11, 94 (illustrated, pp. 46-47)

  • Literature

    Robert S. Mattison, et. al., Robert Motherwell: Open, London, 2009, p. 182 (illustrated, pp. 100-101)
    Jack Flam, Katy Rogers and Tim Clifford, eds., Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, vol. II, New Haven, 2012, no. P556, p. 296 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Visually sparse, yet resplendent in color, Robert Motherwell’s Open No. 153: In Scarlet with White Line, 1970, envelops the viewer in an atmospheric red color field, the vast expanse of which is only interrupted by minimally rendered white lines. An early example from Motherwell‘s seminal Open series, it takes a prime position as one of the three largest paintings that the artist created in 1970, which includes Open No. 150: In Black and Cream (Rothko Elegy), Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. It is in works such as the present one that Motherwell proves himself a remarkable colorist. Anticipating such paintings as Phoenician Red Studio, 1977, Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, Open No. 153 is a monumental ode to Motherwell’s love for the color red. His varied application of color and brushwork imbues the canvas with a rich texture and gives rise to vibrating movement as light reflects off the paint surface, heightening the expressive power of color.

    Encountering Open No. 153 is to experience an overwhelming sense of serenity, contemplation and Zen-like harmony that is wholly unique to Motherwell’s Open series. The Opens represented a major shift from the gestural brushstrokes and black and white starkness of Motherwell’s preceding Elegies, an ongoing series begun in the late 1940s. If the Elegies were frequently imbued with undertones of tragedy and suffering, works such as the present one reflect the opposite spectrum of Motherwell’s sensibility. As Motherwell himself observed, “There is more emphasis on ‘feeling’ + less on ‘emotion.’ The ‘Open’ series is less aggressive than my older paintings” (Robert Motherwell, quoted in Irmeline Lebeer, “Robert Motherwell (Entretien avec l'artiste)”, Chroniques de Van vivant, no. 22, July- August 1971, n.p.). With the Opens, Motherwell had finally found the means to recalibrate his practice in the wake of his mid-career retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965, which, having received mixed reviews and disrupting his work schedule, had given rise to a sort of creative standstill.

    The immediate origins of the Open series were inspired by chance when Motherwell was working in his studio in 1967. Struck by the relationship that resulted from leaning a smaller canvas against a larger one, he outlined the smaller canvas in charcoal on the larger one. According to Motherwell, “The series began as a ‘door’”, which he “ultimately reversed into a ‘window’” (Robert Motherwell, “Statement of the Open Series”, 1969, in Dore Ashton, ed., The Writings of Robert Motherwell, Berkeley, 2007, p. 244). That the first such Open painting was borne from a chance episode was not surprising for an artist such as Motherwell, who since his early contact with Surrealism held a firm belief in the generative potential of chance, memory and imagination. Less immediately apparent to Motherwell, however, was that the theme of the window had already figured earlier in his career – a fact he realized more than a year after his first Opens upon rediscovering his Spanish Picture with Window, 1941, now in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    “There is no escape from one’s individuality!”, Motherwell remarked in his 1969 Statement on the Open Series, only to perceptively add, “Nor from one's collectivity” (Robert Motherwell, “Statement of the Open Series”, 1969, in Dore Ashton, ed., The Writings of Robert Motherwell, Berkeley, 2007, p. 243). The subject of the window is indeed a recurring art historical theme, used by Leon Battista Alberti as a metaphor for painting itself in the Renaissance and frequently painted by the Fauves. Opens reveal Motherwell’s renewed engagement with the motif as explored by Henri Matisse, which was arguably prompted by The Museum of Modern Art’s 1966 retrospective of the Fauve master where Motherwell saw many of the paintings in person for the first time, including the highly abstracted Porte-fenêtre à Collioure, 1914, the View of Notre-Dame, 1914, and The Piano Lesson, 1916. With the present work, Motherwell appears to be specifically channeling Matisse’s The Red Studio, 1911, a painting he loved for “the redness of red in vermillion” and which notably depicted a number of paintings stacked on the floor against an empty frame leaning against a red wall - an intriguing parallel to Motherwell’s own chance juxtaposition of canvases.

    Though many of Motherwell’s Opens have naturalistic points of reference and often evoke the image of a window against a wall, he emphasized that the motif of the window mainly represented a poetic metaphor to him. It is indeed illuminating that he ultimately chose to title the series “Open” rather than “Windows”, which he had been considering up until early 1969. Skimming through his copy of the Random House Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language for new prompts and associations, Motherwell was intrigued by the conceptual breadth and ambiguity of the myriad of definitions for the word “open”. Echoing Stéphane Mallarmé’s belief that a poem should transcend a specific entity, idea, or event, Motherwell strove to create open-ended paintings. His paintings are neither meant as direct correspondences to the real world, nor are they exemplary of abstraction as an end in itself. Rather, they are meant to convey “felt content”, which in relation to the Opens Motherwell described as "colorful and sensuous, and in spatial depth” (Robert Motherwell, “Statement of the ‘Open’ Series”, 1969, in Dore Ashton, ed., The Writings of Robert Motherwell, Berkeley, 2007, p. 123-124).

    This notion of open-endedness also informed Motherwell’s unprecedented embrace of color with the series, likely prompted by his discovery of Rafael Alberti’s 1948 poem cycle A la pintura in 1967. Motherwell’s fascination with the Spanish poet’s writing crucially gave rise to his acclaimed artist’s book of the same name in 1972, which juxtaposed his own Open prints with Alberti’s poetic invocations of color. As with the dictionary definition of "open", there is not just one, but several poetic invocations of the color red. As Dore Ashton noted, “When Motherwell uses certain colors, they are always associated in his own mind with specific sense impressions…Red: memories of Mexico; The Red Studio by Matisse; blood and duende, folk art” (Dore Ashton, Robert Motherwell, exh. cat., Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1983, p. 35).

    The sensuous spaces Motherwell created through the subtle interplay of line and color powerfully pay tribute to the legacy of Joan Miró. As Rosalind Krauss noted in her review of the Opens when they debuted at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in 1969, “Like Miró’s art, Motherwell’s own has been a continuous investigation into the nature of signs…The U is merely the simplest graphic symbol for an opening and on one level it functions to reinforce the natural tendency for a color field to suggest a yielding, penetrable sense of depth” (Rosalind Krauss, “Robert Motherwell’s New Paintings”, Artforum 7, no. 9, May 1969, p. 28). Motherwell’s radiant color fields reveal his admiration for Miró’s painterly nuance; as he highlighted himself, “[Miró’s] rhythmically animated, colored surface-plane…is invariably expressive, mainly of feelings” (Robert Motherwell, “The Significance of Miró”, 1959, in Dore Ashton, ed., The Writings of Robert Motherwell, Berkeley, 2007, p. 191).

    Although Motherwell’s Opens at first glance appeared to be a response to a particular moment in time when minimalist impulses had all but outmoded Abstract Expressionism, they in fact represented a unique convergence of chance and history. Motherwell's continued emphasis on feeling and renewed engagement with the art of Miró and Matisse set the works apart from concurrent aspirations of emphasizing the literalness of painting. Rather, works such as Open No. 153 convey a spirit of freedom, peacefulness and unity of timeless resonance. As Robert S. Mattison indeed put in a nutshell, “like the ripples of a stone thrown into a pond, they encourage ever expanding and enriching rings of meaning” (Robert S. Mattison, Robert Motherwell: Open, London, 2009, p. 11).

  • Artist Bio

    Robert Motherwell

    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.

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Property from a Prominent Private American Collection

Open No. 153: In Scarlet with White Line

signed with the artist's initials "R.M" lower right
acrylic on canvas
86 1/2 x 140 1/4 in. (219.7 x 356.2 cm.)
Painted in 1970.

Estimate
$2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

sold for $2,295,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278
aloiacono@phillips.com

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2018