A Case Study of Robert Motherwell’s Reworking Method

Motherwell frequently revised his works, some over long periods of time, and some after they were reproduced in publications or exhibited. One of the most complicated histories of reworking involved Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, which was repainted several times both before and after being exhibited. Begun in 1975, this painting was originally based on the composition of an earlier, small-scale work, Spanish Elegy with Orange No. 3 but it subsequently underwent a number of permutations and revisions that lasted from the mid-1970s well into the next decade.

 

Spanish Elegy with Orange No. 3, 1944. Acrylic and graphite on canvas board, 8 x 10 in.
Spanish Elegy with Orange No. 3, 1944. Acrylic and graphite on canvas board, 8 x 10 in.

In its very first version, it contained areas of orange, like the small picture on which it was modeled, but Motherwell repainted it entirely in black and white shortly afterward, and it was photographed on September 19, 1975.

 

Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, as photographed on September 19, 1975
Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, as photographed on September 19, 1975

He made significant revisions soon after this, and it looked quite different when it was photographed again on October 27, 1975.

 

Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, as photographed on October 27, 1975
Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, as photographed on October 27, 1975

He made major revisions again before it was photographed on February 10, 1976.

 

Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, as photographed on February 10, 1976
Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, as photographed on February 10, 1976

It was revised yet again before it was shown at his 1977 retrospective exhibitions in Paris and Edinburgh. In 1982 Motherwell reworked it again, adding large areas of pink and yellow ochre, before it was shown at his 1983 retrospective at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, where it was reproduced in the catalogue.

 

Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, as photographed on December 22, 1982
Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, as photographed on December 22, 1982

After it was returned to him in 1985, he revised it yet again, painting over the pink areas with ochre as you can see in the final image.

In many cases, it is difficult to say exactly what prompted Motherwell to rework a given picture at a certain time. It was not simply a matter of “perfectionism,” since he himself accepted as a kind of philosophical truth that a work of art could never be perfect. The most surprising thing is how many pictures he revised—mostly paintings on canvas and panel, but also collages and paintings on paper— and also how many times he chose to repaint a picture when it would have seemed easier simply to start a new one, and how much time and effort he gave to the revision of both important and minor pictures. It was as if he was constantly trying to find, redefine, and find again an elusive reality not only within the world, but within himself.

Note: This blog post was adapted from the Robert Motherwell Catalogue Raisonné.

Intergenerational Dialogues at the Dedalus Foundation

When Motherwell founded the Dedalus Foundation in 1981, its purpose was stated as follows, “To serve the public interest by endeavoring to foster, cultivate, develop, and support public understanding and appreciation of the principles of modern art expressed through the theories of modernism as expressed in the works and writings of Robert Motherwell and other artists.”

In order to further Motherwell’s legacy, the Foundation has begun to expand its educational programs for children and adults in our Sunset Park location. The Dedalus Foundation’s President and CEO, Jack Flam, sat down with Programs Director Katy Rogers to discuss the organization’s mission and how it is enacted through a dynamic roster of evolving programs.
Continue reading “Intergenerational Dialogues at the Dedalus Foundation”

Welcome to the Dedalus Foundation Blog

Welcome to the new blog feature on the Dedalus Foundation website. We are very excited to introduce this new forum, which will allow us to present information related to the Foundation’s programs and the art of Robert Motherwell. The blog will include short essays, scholarly articles, and reflections about modern art and modernism, and the role of arts education in contemporary society.