Robert Motherwell - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 16, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Robert Motherwell, 'Untitled (Elegy)', Lot 32

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 16 May 2019

  • Provenance

    M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York
    Private Collection, California (acquired in 1985)
    Thence by descent to the present owner

  • Literature

    Gabriella Drudi, Note romane a Robert Motherwell, Rome, 1984, p. 123 (titled Elegy to the Spanish Republic; illustrated in progress in the artist's studio, pp. 3, 6, 29, 63)
    Robert Motherwell, "Philosophy and Abstract Expressionism: A Painter's Palette", Harvard Graduate Society Newsletter, winter 1987, p. 6 (illustrated in progress in the artist's studio)
    Marcelin Pleynet, Robert Motherwell, Paris, 1989, p. 242 (titled Elegy to the Spanish Republic; illustrated in progress in the artist's studio, p. 173)
    Robert Motherwell: A Dialogue with Literature, exh. cat., Galerie Bernd Klüser, Munich, 2001, p. 60 (illustrated in progress in the artist's studio)
    Jack Flam, Katy Rogers and Tim Clifford, Robert Motherwell: Paintings and Collages, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, vol. 2, New Haven, 2012, no. P1110, p. 532 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Painted in 1983-1985, Untitled (Elegy) is a vivid example of the ambitious work Robert Motherwell pursued in the last decade of his life. The work eloquently encapsulates the adroitness with which Motherwell reimagined the most celebrated subjects from the previous four decades. Untitled (Elegy) articulates the tension between abstraction and figuration that characterizes his most iconic Elegies, begun in the late 1940s, with the interrogation of line and ground that defined his Opens of the 1960s. Here, Motherwell has placed his powerful ovoid shape upon a luminous ground consisting of layered washes of cream, grey, and blue, creating a space that has no reference beyond itself. The sensuous space created through the subtle interplay of line and color powerfully pays homage to his earlier Elegies, capturing “the complex interplay of timelessness and grief achieved in the very best works of the series” (Tim Clifford, in Jack Flam, ed., Motherwell: 100 Years, Milan, 2015, p. 301). This work has been held in the same family’s private collection since its completion in 1985.

    Untitled (Elegy) is a testament to Motherwell’s remarkable ability to continuously reinvent himself, refusing to have his work reduced to a single style. From the 1970s, Motherwell became the subject of increasing art historical study as one of the few remaining survivors of the Abstract Expressionist generation. A series of major exhibitions provided him the opportunity to review his life’s work during these years, culminating in 1983 with his first U.S. retrospective since 1965 at the Albright-Knox Gallery that travelled to Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. During the same period, in 1974, with his 60th birthday approaching, Motherwell underwent a series of major surgeries, nearly dying on the operating table. His confrontation with his own mortality, coupled with the systemic process of reviewing his own canon for inclusion in these retrospectives, left marked traces in his work for years to come as it brought about an immensely fruitful period in his practice, one that saw him invent, reinvigorate, work and rework many of his most important thematic pursuits.

    While the Elegy works had always meditated on the opposition between life and death, the series took on a deeper significance for Motherwell in his later years. In 1971, Motherwell began to paint his first large Elegies since 1967. These works pay homage to the evolution his practice underwent with the Opens, capturing the sensitivity to structure and surface that defined that series. As Tim Clifford notes, "After the relative serenity of the Open series, these works revived…an archaism and brutality that typified many of his best works dating to the 1940s” (Tim Clifford, in Jack Flam, ed., Motherwell: 100 Years, Milan, 2015, p. 282).

    These works marked the beginning of a new and sustained exploration of the Elegies that stretched throughout the decade, ultimately transforming in a number of surprising ways during the 1980s. Motherwell’s large new painting studio allowed him to undertake a number of monumental works at the same time, which synthesized and transformed his earlier preoccupations into something fresh. His penchant for working up small images into large pictures was characteristic of his later years and is exhibited in the genesis of Untitled (Elegy). This work finds its point of departure in a work conceived concurrently, the smaller Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 161, 1983-1985. This methodology of working articulates Motherwell’s statement that, “Making an Elegy is like building a temple, an altar, a ritual place. The Elegies are never ‘a throw of the dice.’ They are almost the only pictures I do in the way one traditionally thinks of a Western artist working on a large scale, whether Leonardo or Rubens or Seurat, of starting with sketches, or using all one’s resources to make a complete image, not improvised” (Robert Motherwell, quoted in interview with Jack Flam, October 2, 1982, in Jack Flam, ed., Motherwell: 100 Years, Milan, 2015, p. 121).

    While Untitled (Elegy) certainly pays homage to the classic form of the early black and white Elegy, Motherwell’s restrained use of color here elegantly articulates his new approach. Where the Elegies of the 1950s had the stark clarity of black shadows and sunlight, the 1970s were defined by a range of rich earth tones. As such, the works of the 1980s brought about a different way of working with the Elegy motif and color. The varied application of color and brushwork imbues the works from this period with a rich texture and vibration of light that at once reference the gesturality and chromatic starkness of the Elegies and the Zen-like spatial harmony characteristic of the Opens. In addition, the linear articulation of space and color in Untitled (Elegy) appears to pay homage to both his own recent work in collage as well as that of Henri Matisse.

    The present work exemplifies how, nearly four decades after he began his Elegies, the series continued to absorb him, driving the artist to probe the limits of virtually everything he undertook. “The Elegy series still goes on,” Motherwell explained, “because life and death still go on, and Elegies must be written” (Robert Motherwell, quoted in interview with Rudi Blesh, May 23, 30, June 6, 1961, in Jack Flam, ed., Motherwell: 100 Years, Milan, 2015, p. 274). The process of invention and reinvention was to define his work going forward, with the last decade of his life characterized by an undiminished sense of joie-de-vivre. “One wonderful thing about creativity,” Motherwell said two years after painting this work, “is that you’re never wholly satisfied with what you’re trying to do. There’s always the anguish, the pleasurable challenge…For me, to retire from painting would be to retire from life” (Robert Motherwell, quoted in Nan Robertson, “Artists in Old Age: The Fires of Creativity Burn Undiminished”, The New York Times, January 22, 1986, online).

  • Artist Biography

    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 Private West Coast Collection


Untitled (Elegy)

signed "R. Motherwell" upper left; further signed and dated "R. Motherwell 1983-85 (4 Nov.)" on the reverse
acrylic and charcoal on canvas
66 x 90 in. (167.6 x 228.6 cm.)
Executed in 1983-1985.

$2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Sold for $4,580,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 16 May | On View at 432 and 450 Park Avenue