The Supreme Doodler

Robert Motherwell, Concept of Woman, 1946. Crayon and watercolor on paper, The Phillips Collection, Gift of Louis and Susan Stamberg, 2014

“One of my natural talents that I don’t use enough in painting is line and paint both. I guess the closest example, though he does miniatures compared to what I do, is Paul Klee.”—Robert Motherwell

obert Motherwell had extensive contact with Paul Klee’s art, both in reproductions in books he owned, as well as in the “hundreds of Klees” he saw in exhibitions in New York. Professing his admiration for Klee as a “supreme doodler,” Motherwell equated doodling to automatic drawing, a method he was first introduced to by Surrealist Roberto Matta in 1941. “I think doodling is strictly one of the alternative ways of drawing. So far as I know, every Paul Klee, after his maturity, invariably began with doodling.”

In his witty Concept of Woman, Motherwell exploits his talent as a doodler in both line and color. Doodling was, however, only the first step in a dynamically evolving process Motherwell called “the automatic and formal beauty that is the end result of an emerging process.” In Concept of Woman, Motherwell begins the composition with freely drawn lines and circular forms that eventually achieve a structural rhythm evocative of a female figure. The “real content” of painting, Motherwell argued, was an expression of a person’s mysterious and elusive qualities, perhaps an aspect that underlies this work’s evocative title.

This work is on view in Ten Americans: After Paul Klee through May 6, 2018.

Frankenthaler and Motherwell: A Painterly Marriage

Motherwell in white and yellow ochre_Frankenthaler runningscape

(left) Robert Motherwell, In White and Yellow Ochre, 1961. Oil, charcoal, ink, tempera and paper collage on paper, 40 7/8 x 27 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, acquired 1965. Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY (right) Helen Frankenthaler, Runningscape, 1962. Oil on canvas, 32 in x 52 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of Gifford and Joann Phillips, 2009; © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Two of the Phillips’s most cherished Abstract Expressionist artists, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell, shared more than a style of painting: they were also married from 1958 to 1971. Currently, a group of the couple’s works from the museum’s permanent collection are on display in neighboring galleries. Four of my favorites are Canyon and Runningscape, both by Frankenthaler, and In White and Yellow Ochre and Chi Ama, Crede by Motherwell.

Studying these works in a group, I began to think of the differences in the two artists’ styles, despite the fact that all four of the works were created in the early 1960s. I compared the soft applications of oil and acrylic in both of Frankenthaler’s works to the more aggressive elements in Motherwell’s. Utilizing varied textures, Motherwell’s In White and Yellow Ochre combines mediums with collaged materials, resulting in a harsher design and abstracted contours. In contrast, Frankenthaler uses oil paint like watercolor in Runningscape, thinning it into washes that bleed into each other to create a fluid design. Each of the artists’ larger pieces—Frankenthaler’s Canyon and Motherwell’s Chi Ama, Crede—also contain these distinctions, Canyon being composed of expansive fields of saturated color and Chi Ama, Crede of jagged applications in dull maroons and browns.

Frankenthaler canyon_Motherwell chi ama crede

(left) Helen Frankenthaler, Canyon, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 46 1/8 in x 52 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions and funds given by Gifford Phillips, 2001; © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (right) Robert Motherwell, Chi Ama, Crede, 1962. Oil on canvas, 82 x 141 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, The Whitehead Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Laughlin Phillips, Mr. and Mrs. Marc E. Leland, and the Honorable Ann Winkelman Brown and Donald A. Brown, 1998; Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

What is interesting is that both artists were influenced by the same group of contemporaries: Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. They also created these works in the early years of their marriage, when they were likely collaborating and comparing painting techniques. Their differences are thus results of their own personal styles retained throughout their independent careers. Frankenthaler’s paintings are distinctly feminine, whereas Motherwell’s works have a more aggressive appearance of masculinity. This pair of artists serve as a unique look at the female and male perspectives on a specific movement of art.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern

To Press

Last week, we came across this fantastic video (via the Modern Art Notes blog), in which The Dedalus Foundation documents the production of a Robert Motherwell catalogue raisonné. We’ve briefly dipped in to this subject on the blog in the past. As you can imagine, the reproduction of works of art, in such a definitive resource, is not a simple process.