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

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  • Provenance

    Private Collection (acquired in 1973)
    John C. Stoller & Co., Minneapolis
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Literature

    Jack Flam, Katy Rogers and Tim Clifford, Robert Motherwell: Paintings and Collages, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, vol. 2, New Haven, 2012, no. P502, p. 275 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    A prime early example of his celebrated Opens series, Robert Motherwell’s Open No. 119: In Blue with Charcoal Line immerses the viewer in a charged field of blue. Similar to many of his masterworks, Motherwell worked on this painting over the course of a few years, revisiting it a few times between 1969 and 1972. In the Opens, which occupied the artist primarily between 1967 and 1974, Motherwell channeled his expressive abilities through a format that was defined by its incredible economy of means. This is evident in the three-sided "U" form that articulates the upper section of the present work, which reappears, in a number of guises, in other related paintings. While many of the other works from the series feature these lines against a monochrome backdrop, in Open No. 119: In Blue with Charcoal Line the artist created a surface that appears at first two-tone, but which reveals itself on closer inspection to be far more complex, with the purple and green hues glowing through like embers. In so doing, these colors highlight the active brushwork Motherwell has used, revealing the artist’s process and hand. It is a mark of the esteem accorded to the Opens that a large number of them feature in international institutional collections, such as The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    In the Opens, Motherwell found a basis upon which to hang infinite variations of expression, a technique he was already exploring in his ongoing series the Elegies to the Spanish Republic, with their instantly recognizable rhythmic blots and bars of black. Just as the Elegies owed their existence in part to the chance rediscovery of an old drawing made to accompany a poem, the Opens had their inception in a fortunate accident. It was when he had leaned his painting Summertime in Italy, 1967, against another larger ochre monochrome work, that he was struck by its fortuitous visual intensity. “So I outlined the smaller canvas in charcoal (onto the yellow ochre of the larger canvas) so that the lines looked like a door—a very abstract one” (Robert Motherwell, quoted in Jack Flam, Katy Rogers and Tim Clifford, Motherwell: 100 Years, Milan, 2015, p. 177). Eventually, Motherwell would invert this picture that became known as Open No. 1: In Yellow Ochre, introducing the “U” that is seen in here. In many ways, Motherwell was also turning to one of his earliest paintings, Spanish Picture with Window, 1941, held in the permanent collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which represented his first exploration of the geometric motif that would reappear in the Opens.

    The Opens also afforded Motherwell an opportunity to immerse himself in color, investigating its moods and meanings in a different manner than what the more sober, black and white Elegies allowed for. As Motherwell explained, “I use each color as simply symbolic: ochre for the earth, green for the grass, blue for the sky and sea. I guess that black and white, which I use most often, tend to be the protagonists” (Robert Motherwell, quoted in Dore Ashton, Twentieth-Century Artists on Art, New York, 1985, p. 236).

    With its dominant blue backdrop, Open No. 119: In Blue with Charcoal Line can be seen as a direct reference to two other crucial antecedents: Joan Miró and Henri Matisse. Two of Matisse’s paintings in particular are often referenced as inspirations to Motherwell’s Opens French Window at Collioure, Musée National d’Arte Moderne, Paris and View of Notre Dame, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, both dating from 1914. It was only in 1966, the year before Motherwell began his Opens, that Matisse’s View of Notre Dame was placed on display at The Museum of Modern Art. In that work, the ornate, perhaps even decorative landscape of Paris—so celebrated in the lyrical works of legions of earlier painters—was stripped back to a rigid yet eloquent geometry of lines against a blue backdrop. Motherwell also found inspiration in the 1925 blue paintings of Miró’s, alongside whom he would work when commissioned to create works for the new wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1974. These artists both used blue and distilled their forms to the barest, most eloquent minimum. In so doing, they set a clear precedent for Open No. 119: In Blue with Charcoal Line.

    Motherwell, an incredibly erudite artist, may have looked to the past in his pictures, but he also looked to the present. The pared-back nature of the Opens has seen them compared - even by Motherwell himself - to the Minimal art that was on the ascent at the time. This reveals the extent to which Motherwell, one of the pioneers of the New York School, was nonetheless aware and even open to the advancements being made elsewhere in the sphere of art at the time. However, Motherwell and Minimalism diverged in many ways, some of those illustrated by the present work. Looking at its surface, it is clear that this is not just an object, but a tumult of brushstrokes. In perceiving the various brushstrokes that have been used to build up its deceptively complex composition, the viewer is made vividly, even viscerally, aware of the artist’s own actions and presence. “In the end I realize that whatever ‘meaning’ that picture has is just the accumulated ‘meaning’ of ten thousand brush strokes, each one being decided as it was painted…as the accumulation of hundreds of decisions with the brush…But when you steadily work at something over a period of time, your whole being must emerge” (Robert Motherwell, quoted in Robert Motherwell, exh. cat., Albright-Knox Gallery, New York, Buffalo, 1983, p. 12).

  • 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 the Miles and Shirley Fiterman Collection


Open No. 119: In Blue with Charcoal Line

signed and dated "R Motherwell 70" upper right; further signed, titled and dated ““OPEN #119” R. Motherwell Summer, 1969" on the reverse
acrylic and charcoal on canvas
60 x 72 in. (152.4 x 182.9 cm.)
Executed in 1969-1972.

$1,500,000 - 2,000,000 

Sold for $1,520,000

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