To hell with the lyrics

Peter Campbell

  • The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell edited by Stephanie Terenzio
    Oxford, 325 pp, £35.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 19 507700 8

In her essay ‘Good Boys and Dead Girls’ Mary Gordon identifies the ‘American innocent’. She tracks him – young, restless and bad news for women – through the novels of Faulkner, Dreiser and Updike. ‘All that matters is that his heart must be pure, and he must move forward to the quest which for so many male American writers is the most crucial one: the search for the unfettered self.’ The ‘unfettered self’, or rather its expression in paint, was exactly what the makers of Abstract Expressionism in the Forties and Fifties pursued. Robert Motherwell was one of them, and his collected writings – a revealing gloss on artists of the School of New York and on modern painting in general – reflect one of history’s ironies.

The Abstract Expressionists, who set out rebellious and vulnerable, were wrong-footed when the epic battle they saw coming with the Philistine was won at the first engagement. The unrealised expectation of a struggle to come has left its mark on Motherwell’s writings. The editor of this collection suggests that Motherwell drew back from having the pieces collected during his lifetime because he felt the early ones argued the case for abstraction too defensively, and the later ones, risking more by way of self-revelation, were too like surrogates for art itself. What they show is that, although the outward struggle was over, the inner one went on. Despite the increasing ease which success brought, the premise implicit in the original quest – that romantic isolation must be the lot of the true artist – was lived out. Hints of the dark undertow can be found in Motherwell’s descriptions of his friends. Franz Kline was ‘funny and shrewd, always filled with comradely affection, even tenderness’ but this ‘covered something much deeper and blacker, that we all respected’. In an obituary of the sculptor David Smith he describes the good times they had and adds: ‘we both knew damned well the black abyss in each of us that the sun and the daughters’ skin and the bounty and the drink could alleviate but not begin to fill, a certain kind, I suppose of puritanical bravado, of holding off the demons of guilt and depression that largely destroyed in one way or another the abstract expressionist generation, whose suffering and labour was to make it easier, but not realer, for the next generation. And if they liked it cool, we liked it warm.’ The cool generation – Pop, or minimalist – was riding the wave as he wrote that in the early Seventies.

Among Motherwell’s peers, writing and high talk were suspect, and Motherwell himself was, from time to time, accused of being too intellectual. It is easy to see why painters without his philosophical bent – he had studied philosophy at Stanford – found laconic, real men’s talk to be appropriate, like blue jeans and plaid shirts, to a way of working which set the visceral and energetic against the intellectual and analytic. But Motherwell, too, could talk macho. He describes how he and David Smith would ‘talk about certain male things: Mercedes Benz (to which he converted me), shotguns, the wonders of Dunhill’s tobacco shop’. After all, good tobacco was no barrier to the search for the unfettered self, because that search was an inner thing; no matter how dapper you might appear, you could still feel the prickle of the hair shirt, and still try for a serious equation between what you were and what you made. Motherwell believed the inner struggle showed.

In a piece called ‘A Tour of the Sublime’, written in 1948, he looked to a modern art which would reject the rhetoric of the old sublime, ‘the glory of conquerors and politicos and mountains’, while projecting ‘in the midst of a shrieking world’ a new sublime – ‘an expression of living and its end that is silent and ordered’. This un-ironic view of the artist’s role has very little in common with the cultural nihilism of the European line of Modernism; and yet it was this line which underwrote Abstract Expressionist theory.

Motherwell was actively involved in making the European connection, however – in particular, through contacts he had with Surrealists and Dadas, as he called them, in New York in the Forties, when he was editing a series on the documents of modern art. Big, strong paintings, a hybrid vigour, were the result of this transatlantic marriage. The European strains of cultural despair and pathological psychology were bred out, with the result that American Abstract Expressionism achieved without trying what the Russian Constructivists had struggled for: a modern style which was acceptable propaganda for the native culture. Its large scale, seriousness and high, obscure themes made Abstract Expressionism perfect official art. Troubled by the élitism implicit in the modern programme, Motherwell asserted a democracy of sensitivity. While one early piece has it that ‘realism historically has always been mainly the mode for reaching the vulgar, the great lump of people,’ elsewhere he writes: ‘In our society art is most integrated in persons under seven, and in patients in hospitals, and these two classes have by far the highest percentage of true artists in my opinion.’ A wilderness of the unconscious was to be found in the pre- and nonrational mind. Of modern art he said: ‘it is as though a few gifted children were able to outwit the adult world and protect their own felt necessities.’

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