Motherwell in Provincetown

To mark the beginning of summer, we honor Robert Motherwell’s strong connection to the beachside community of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he lived and worked almost every summer for fifty years. Motherwell was happiest while at the Cape, and could engage in his work without the pressures of the New York art world and the distraction of everyday life.

In the summer of 1962, twenty years after he first started visiting Provincetown, Motherwell began his Beside the Sea series, while renting a studio at the Days Lumberyard. It was also the summer that he negotiated the purchase of 631 Commercial Street, which served as his summer home and studio until the end of his life.

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Beside the Sea, 1962. Oil on paper, 28 ¾ x 22 ¾”
Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler at Days Lumberyard, summer 1961
Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler at Days Lumberyard, summer 1961

In his 1978 essay “Provincetown and Days Lumberyard: A Memoir,” Motherwell praised the quality of Provincetown’s light, and described how living in Provincetown stimulated his creativity.

Motherwell in his Provincetown studio, 1969
Motherwell in his Provincetown studio, 1969

“People tend to forget that Provincetown is (roughly) on the forty-two degree meridian, as is Barcelona and Opporto and Cannes and Rome (almost exactly) and Macedonia and Istanbul and Peking (more or less), a distinctly warm southern light compared to Northern Europe, a light as seductive to painters in the Modernist tradition as geometry was to the ancient Greek philosophers and musicians, not to mention Mohammedan designers.

At any rate, the Days barn was filled with lovely light, and with clean, open, large, aged space. In 1962 I painted there one of my finest of the series of paintings called Elegy to the Spanish Republic (the one now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York); and also began a series of very free oils on paper, collectively called Beside the Sea… Then I owned the old farmhouse on the Northeast corner of Allerton and Commercial Streets (No. 622). Catty-corner from it for sale was a c. 1900 tiny A-house summer cottage on the water, for which I was negotiating all that summer. The price was reasonable enough ($13,000 I think, i.e., $4,500 down payment), but it was owned by numerous heirs, each of whose share would not amount to much, so there was much hesitation and consultation. After painting at Days barn all day, in the late afternoon I would sometimes sit on the seaside steps of the unoccupied A-cottage, hypnotized by the ever-changing tidal flats, hoping against hope that those beautiful thirty-three feet of bayside might end up mine, to convert into windswept studios for Helen and me, and into a beachhouse for my young daughters, Jeannie and Lise. The property (until 1976) had a massive concrete seawall, and, sitting dreaming on the steps, I used to be struck by the beauty, the force and the grace, at high tide with a strong Southwest wind of the seaspray spurting up, sometimes taller than a man, above the seawall.

After a time, I began experimenting with painting the seaspray, at Days barn. I quickly discovered that I could not imitate the spray satisfactorily—as Arp says, “I like nature, but not its substitutes.” It then occurred to me to use nature’s own process: after all, I was using liquid oil paint mixed in a bucket, not much more viscous than salt water. So, with dripping brush, I hit the drawing paper with all my force. There was indeed painted spray, but the physical force with which it was produced split the rag paper wide open. The next day, at Jim Forsberg’s marvelous Studio Shop, I bought a package of five-ply (that is, paper sheets made of five sheets laminated together, tougher to tear than playing cards) Strathmore one hundred percent rag paper. I also made yard-long handles for my brushes. I hit the laminated paper with the full force of my one hundred eighty pounds, with the paintbrush moving in a six-foot arc—I remember the sensation as that of cracking a bullwhip. An adequate equivalent of the pounding summer seaspray appeared, in deep sky blue, on that lovely kid finish, creamy white laminated paper, without splitting or tearing, to my delight. I made thirty or so more . . . I write this now, sixteen years later, sitting exactly where I sat then, observing the savagery again of a sunlit summer sea driven hard at high tide by the prevailing Southwest wind against the massive bulkhead Bill Fitts built for me two years ago, following the structured principles laid down by the late Jimmy Thomas forty years ago.”

Beside the Sea with Bulkhead, 1962. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 68 ¾ x 54 1/8”
Beside the Sea with Bulkhead, 1962. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 68 ¾ x 54 1/8”

My daughter Jeannie has her own studio next door, and if she lives to a normal age, she may be watching, beside the sea, the spray half a century from now. Summer people are never wholly accepted by natives, but that does not prevent us from absorbing the light and the sea air as deeply as any, almost into one’s blood, certainly into one’s eye and mind and painting wrist.”

Bumper sticker on Motherwell’s flat files from his Greenwich studio
Bumper sticker on Motherwell’s flat files from his Greenwich studio
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