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Throughout much of his career, Motherwell was deeply engaged with the possibilities inherent in exploring a single motif, akin to the way that a composer might be fascinated by the expressive potential offered by variations on a musical theme.

Working serially also offered Motherwell a kind of exhilaration through the exploration of the potential contained within existing motifs.

When I need joy, I find it only in making free variations on what I have already discovered, what I know to be mine.” 
Robert Motherwell

This virtual exhibition focuses on Scarlet with Gauloises, a series of collages that demonstrates two very different approaches Motherwell used to make pictures. There was the struggle to find the initial concept, and then the following blissful exploration of that concept through variation.

By the time Motherwell began work on Scarlet with Gauloises in the summer of 1972, seriality was not new to his repertoire, he had already painted numerous Elegies and over 200 variations on the Opens. Moreover, in the early 1970s, his recent immersion in the inherently serial process of making editioned prints led him to reconsider the nature of seriality, which greatly impacted his approach to the Scarlet with Gauloises collages.

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In these works, slight adjustments to the red paint or in the tearing of the cigarette packages echo some of the process of refining and revising printed proofs until the final edition is decided upon.

While working on the Scarlet with Gauloises collages, Motherwell noted: “In the last week of June 1972, made 25 variations on this theme, in the summer studio at Provincetown, Mass. (Probably will make more as the summer progresses).” This method of what might be called serial revision was particularly appealing to Motherwell, as it allowed him to permanently capture all the variations of a motif without having to decide on a single final image.

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Robert Motherwell making collages in his Greenwich studio, 1976

The Scarlet with Gauloises collages are a prime example of the way in which music profoundly affected Motherwell’s work. His use of variations within a series is analogous to the Baroque musical shorthand figured bass, which allowed the performer to creatively interpret a harmony over a central tonality.

This is particularly evident in the Scarlet with Gauloises collages, in which the repeated red ground creates an overall tone, varied somewhat by the lines incised in it, and the different positions and slight adjustments in the torn Gauloises packages and the paint around them create variations in pitch and rhythm. When seen together, the melodic lines of the collages emerge from the inventive repetitions and variations in the series as a whole.

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