Robert Motherwell - 20th Century & Contemporary Art New York Tuesday, July 18, 2023 | Phillips
  • A rich, wide rectangle of true ultramarine fills the upper left quadrant of Robert Motherwell’s Open No. 137: In Ultramarine on Beige, 1969. A triangular mark and several vertical incisions add depth to the sea of ultramarine, perhaps suggesting the view of a sailboat out an open window. The wavering vertical edge of the blue “window,” however, reminds the viewer that, ultimately, Open No. 137 is an abstract work, an exploration of a formal theme in two colors.


    The color blue, one of Motherwell’s favorites, evokes grand art historical precedents, from the blue skies of Giotto to Joan Miró’s Bleu triptych, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Rafael Alberti’s 1948 poem cycle, A la pintura, which includes an ode to the color blue, also comes to mind; Motherwell illustrated the poem in an artist’s book of Open prints from 1968-1972, concurrent with the creation of Open No. 137.


    René Magritte, La Recherche de la verité, 1963. Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Belgium. Image: Photothèque R. Magritte /Adagp Images, Paris, / SCALA, Florence, Artwork: © 2023 C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    The artist’s Open series, executed between 1967 and 1974, marked an evolution in his painting practice towards an increasing economy of form. As Motherwell himself explained in a statement from 1969, he found his initial inspiration for the series from the way in which a smaller, painted canvas leaned against the unpainted verso of a larger canvas in his studio. He traced the outline of the smaller canvas onto the larger with charcoal, then flipped the larger canvas upside down; per Motherwell, “the series began as a ‘door,’ which I ultimately reversed into a ‘window.’”i


    Open No. 137: In Ultramarine on Beige returns to the series’ genesis through Motherwell’s use of charcoal, while the ultramarine window laying against painted beige, the color of raw canvas, inverts Motherwell’s initial experiment. The economy of form—two rectangles, interposed—belies a rich formal understanding of abstraction, and years’ worth of variations by one of the discipline’s most erudite masters.



    i Robert Motherwell, “Statement on the ‘Open’ Series,” [1969], in Dore Ashton, ed., The Writings of Robert Motherwell, Berkeley, 2007, p. 244.

    • Provenance

      Dedalus Foundation, New York (acquired directly from the artist in 1991)
      Jerald Melberg Gallery, Charlotte
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Concord, New Hampshire, Art Center in Hargate, St. Paul’s School, Paintings and Collages by Robert Motherwell, February 1970, no. 34
      Princeton University Art Museum, Robert Motherwell: Recent Work, January 5–February 17, 1973, no. 63, p. 76
      Charlotte, Jerald Melberg Gallery, Robert Motherwell: A Survey, Paintings/Paper/Prints, January 22–March 22, 2013

    • Literature

      Jack Flam, Katy Rogers and Tim Clifford, eds., Robert Motherwell: Paintings and Collages, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Volume Two, Paintings on Canvas and Panel, New Haven, 2012, no. P542, p. 290 (illustrated)

    • 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 an Esteemed Collection


Open No. 137: In Ultramarine on Beige

incised with the artist's signature "Motherwell" upper left; partially titled "OPEN 137" on the stretcher
acrylic and charcoal on canvas
20 x 24 in. (50.8 x 61 cm)
Executed in 1969.

Full Cataloguing

$80,000 - 120,000 

Sold for $114,300

Contact Specialist

Nina Piro
Specialist, Associate Vice President

20th Century & Contemporary Art

New York Auction 18 July 2023