Face of the Night (for Octavio Paz)
Motherwell began sketching the forms for this painting as early as March 1977. The initial composition was based on the small Primordial Sketch No. 8 and contained a looming black form on an ochre ground, similar in feeling to large-scale works such as Threatening Presence and Primal Image, both of which appear alongside this painting in studio photographs. Motherwell subsequently added striped bands of yellow, pink, green, and red to the ground, apparently inspired by Matisse’s design for the cover of the catalogue for his 1951 retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. (Matisse’s design was also used on the invitation for the opening of the 1978 exhibition Matisse in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and a copy of this invitation was hanging on Motherwell’s studio wall while he was working on this painting.) That highly colored version of the painting was exhibited at the Ulrich Museum of Art in 1979 under the title Cuba y la Noche, which was taken from the first line of “Dos Patrias” by the Cuban poet José Marti (1853–1985); the line reads: “Dos patrias tengo yo: Cuba y la noche” (I have two homelands: Cuba, and the night).
In 1981 Motherwell dramatically altered this painting by adding large areas of black over most of the brightly colored areas. He then gave the work a new title, Face of the Night, after a phrase in a poem by his friend Octavio Paz (1914–1998), “Piedra de Sol” (Sunstone): “puerta del ser, despiértame, amanece, / déjame ver el rostro de este día, / déjame ver el rostro de esta noche” (door of being, dawn and wake me, / allow me to see the face of this day, / allow me to see the face of this night); translation by Eliot Weinberger, The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz: 1957–1987 (New York: New Directions, 1987), p. 33.
Motherwell discussed in detail the “three radical transformations” that this painting went through, and its relation to his “monster” paintings and to collage, in an interview with Jack Flam (see Motherwell in Albright-Knox Art Gallery exh. cat. 1983, pp. 16–17). In a December 10, 1985, letter to the English curator Bryan Robertson, he noted that this painting was “in a sense ‘literary’ in various submerged and indirect references—the Mexican color in the Paz picture, and that ominousness that is one major chord in the Mexican experience” (Dedalus Foundation Archives).
Below is an excerpt from a letter from Octavio Paz to Motherwell. Written on March 6, 1985, Paz describes his encounter with the painting at the exhibition Robert Motherwell, at the Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum from December 6, 1984—February 3, 1985.
March 6, 1985
We have been traveling for nearly four months — Francfort, Hong Kong, Japan, Bangkok, India and finally Paris, where we stayed one month — and since our return to Mexico I have been trying to write you a letter. But I mean: a real letter that could express my emotion at seeing, in our way home, in New York, your great exhibition and, specially, — The Face of the Night. Two facets of your work impress me particularly: the strength, sometimes violent and somber, — others fervent and dynamic, and the lyrical and poetic — always with a kind of sober elegance (in the collages), nostalgia and irony. I see both modes in The Face of the Night. It is a painting of strange power, it is mysterious and has a reality of its own — concrete, palpable. I see it — or rather, I hear it — as an enormous syllable coming out from the depth of the darkness. The face but also the heart of the night. And its mouth: la bouche d’ombre. The words of the beginning, — those sounds and forms used by time and matter to create — nature’s language before man and history. You have made a painting that is the visual equivalent of a poem made of — “words—beyond—the words”. The poem every poet dreams to write: to change into words the dark language of the beginning. You have given me great joy. To thank you for the dedication of this great painting will be, at the same time, redundant and insufficient… Nevertheless: ¡gracias!