A Normally Sensual Artist

A few years ago I heard the prominent art critic and historian Katy Siegal describe Motherwell as “an intellectual,” meaning to distinguish him from more intuitive or emotional artists—to distinguish him from real artists, in other words. I find this to be the worst kind of drug store psychology: to posit a break between mind and heart, or mind and body; to say that since Motherwell wrote intelligently and had a literary bent that his art could not be as full blooded and human as anyone else’s. Best to look at the work. Does this piece seem particularly intellectual?

Robert Motherwell, Threatening Presence 1976 (studio view)

Robert Motherwell, Threatening Presence 1976 (studio view)

Maybe theatrical. Or vulgar, in the same way that Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” was vulgar. But intellectual? It’s important to realize that words like intellectual, vulgar and theatrical are value free descriptions, neither good nor bad, but we give them value according as our circumstances change over time. The studio view gives a sense of its enormous scale—also sheer size, though that’s not the same thing, nor as important—and scale plays a big role in producing both vulgarity and theatricality. But I don’t see how scale has any relation to the intellect.

Here’s another giant monster, also 15 feet wide, but in this case the monster is more or less hidden in the dark, which might make it more threatening for some.

Robert Motherwell, Face of the Night (for Octavio Paz) 1981

Robert Motherwell, Face of the Night (for Octavio Paz) 1981

If we’re going to accept that abstraction is figurative, why shouldn’t it be monstrous? The real distinction is not between the abstract and the figurative, but between the normally beautiful and the beauty that precedes and transcends the human norm, so well documented in photography and academic painting.

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