Bernard Jacobson on Why Robert Motherwell Is “America’s Great Artist”

“When I wrote the last line, I was walking in France—we have a house there—and I came across an animal. And I got the last line. I burst into tears. I thought, ‘I’ve got it,’” Bernard Jacobson told Artsy, regarding his highly personal biography of Robert Motherwell. Robert Motherwell: The Making of an American Giant is the product of an 11-year love affair with the artist’s work, and the prose brims with the author’s emotional investment in his subject.

Jacobson took a two-year sabbatical from his eponymous London gallery to produce the biography: one year to write it and a second to rewrite it. “The first book was hopeless” he said. “It was pure emotion and passion. And then I went back into it, and that was where I struggled. The first year was kind of fun, and the second year was tough.” The resulting book (released by 21 Publishing) is an impassioned case for Motherwell’s preeminence—connecting the great artist’s life and work and allowing each to shine a light on the other. 

Robert Motherwell: Black,” the current exhibition at Bernard Jacobson, is another fruit of the gallerist’s obsession. The pieces on view are united, as the title suggests, by their somber black-and-white palette. Black was both a structural element and a symbolic conduit for Motherwell. In art historian Jack Flam’s 1991 book Motherwell, the artist reflected on his favorite tones: “I guess black and white, which I use most often, tend to be the protagonists.” Using black as both medium and message allowed Motherwell to create works that were formally abstract but maintained a strong connection to the physical world.

An example of the complex way in which black functions in Motherwell’s oeuvre can be seen in his works relating to Spain such as Homage to Catalonia (1985),  Iberia No. 30 (1969) and Elegy for the Spanish Republic 110E (1968). Black has multiple resonances in these works, reflecting both its cultural significance on the Iberian Peninsula and Motherwell’s response to the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that had a profound impact on the young artist. Indeed, Motherwell described his celebrated “Elegies” series as an “attempt to compose a subjective image of modern Spain. They are all in black and white: celebrations of death, songs of mourning, elegies—barbaric and severe,” according to Antje Quast’s 2003 article in Word and Image.

The works in “Robert Motherwell: Black,” a mere fraction of Jacobson’s collection, are exquisite: brooding and sexually charged. Is Motherwell, as Jacobson declares, “America’s great artist?” Perhaps it doesn’t matter. One of the many stories the dealer told me about his hero involves Motherwell’s early encounter with Matisse, of which he reputedly said, “I felt I’d been shot through the heart with an arrow.” Regardless of Motherwell’s ranking, spending time with these complex, emotional works left me feeling the same way.


—Laura Purseglove


Robert Motherwell: Black” is on view at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London, Jun. 25–Aug. 28, 2015.


Follow Bernard Jacobson Gallery and the Dedalus Foundation on Artsy.

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