Why Robert Motherwell Would Have Loved The Art Genome Project … and More from Jack Flam, President of the Dedalus Foundation

Artsy Editorial
May 28, 2013 2:15AM

This week, Artsy features our partner the Dedalus Foundation, founded by artist Robert Motherwell. The recently opened exhibition Robert Motherwell: Early Collages (on view at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, through September 8th) showcases the artist’s early experiments with papier collé technique. These collages express the chaos and violence of war and successfully established Motherwell as a major figure in postwar American art. In this interview, Artsy's Chief Curator, Christine Kuan, speaks with Jack Flam, President and CEO of the Dedalus Foundation, about the exhibition, the Foundation’s mission, and the outlook for artists in the United States.

Christine Kuan: Peggy Guggenheim was an early patron of Motherwell. What makes this exhibition of Motherwell works in Venice so special?

Jack Flam: It was Peggy Guggenheim who first encouraged Motherwell to do collages in 1943, and collage remained an extremely important medium for him throughout his life. He called collage “the 20th century’s greatest creative innovation,” and the inherently disjunctive nature of collage-making pervaded every aspect of his activity—his painting, his writing, his editing, and his ideas about modernism itself. He understood collage to be not only a technical procedure, but also an aesthetic— a way of  responding to the discontinuities of the modern world.

Motherwell was the only major artist of his generation to produce a major oeuvre in collage, and he used a very broad range of technical and formal means. He also used many different kinds of paper, including printed packaging and labels from commercial products, such as cigarettes, foods, and drinks, which display his precocious engagement with popular culture. Many of the works in this show, which includes what is probably the very first collage he made, have not been seen since they were first shown in the 1940s, and some have never been shown at all. Even the better-known works are especially revealing in the context of this exhibition, which was curated in a masterly way by Susan Davidson and her team.

CK: The Foundation just published a three-volume catalogue raisonné on Motherwell’s paintings and collages last year. What’s next after such a monumental project?

JF: One of the Foundation’s main missions is to inform the public about the life and work of Robert Motherwell, so research and publications about all aspects of Motherwell’s art are important parts of our mission. We will continue to do online updates and supplements to the catalogue raisonné of the paintings and collages, and we will also continue to give opinions about works of art that are submitted to us. In this respect we are taking a different position from many other artists’ foundations, which have stopped giving such opinions; but we feel it is important to do so in order to protect the integrity of Motherwell’s work and of post-war American art in general. We are also undertaking a catalogue raisonné of Motherwell’s drawings, which we hope to publish within the next few years. Also, starting next fall, the Foundation will be programming exhibitions and other events in a gallery space at Industry City in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, where we will be involved with a broad range of very exciting exhibitions and a number of educational programs.

CK: The Dedalus Foundation was established by Motherwell to foster the study and public appreciation of modern art. How do you see Artsy furthering the Foundation’s mission?

JF: Motherwell was deeply interested in education, in the public having access to art, and to the intellectual and spiritual issues involved with the creation and exhibition of works of art. In addition to being a great artist, he taught for many years, and he also lectured widely and wrote a great deal. Near the beginning of his career, in 1944, he initiated the renowned Documents of Modern Art series, which made the writings of modern artists available to a broad audience.

Artsy provides a platform that makes both images and documentary information freely available to a broad audience. And it does so in relation to an ingenious “genome” model that I think would have greatly appealed to Motherwell, in the way it combines an astute analysis of the morphology and structure of works of art with the very pragmatic purpose of providing maximum accessibility to a wide range of imagery. Motherwell himself, of course, did not use digital imagery. But I think if he were alive today he would be intrigued by the possibilities that Artsy offers to people from all over the world with interest in a wide range of artistic expressions. One of the Dedalus Foundation’s main goals is to educate both the general public and the art community, and Artsy provides a very good platform for doing this.

CK: You have been President of the Foundation since 2002. What are the most challenging aspects of running a major artist Foundation today?

JF: Every artist foundation faces two main kinds of challenges: One has to do with the legacy of the artist who started the foundation; the other has to do with the actual programs that the foundation is running. In terms of the individual artist, I believe that the Foundation’s most important mission is to protect the legacy of the artist in a number of different ways. The Dedalus Foundation inherited the moral rights and copyrights to all of Motherwell’s works, and so we oversee, in conjunction with VAGA, all reproductions of his art and publications of his writings. Protecting the moral rights of the artist also includes addressing issues of authenticity, to make sure that fakes are not reproduced in books and do not enter the market.

The Foundation’s programs are united by our commitment to modern art and modernism, and to promoting visual literacy. In addition to maintaining our own collection of Motherwell’s work and overseeing research about Motherwell we also are very much involved in four other domains as they pertain to modern art: arts education, curatorial projects, research and publication, and archives and conservation. We have given support to a number of museum exhibitions, and have funded and partnered with educational institutions for a broad range of projects. We have supported research and publications about modern art through fellowships and through a number of not-for-profit institutions, and we have a particular interest in the issues involved with properly addressing the preservation of archives and oral histories, and the conservation of works of art.

One very exciting recent development is the expansion of our curatorial and educational programs in a very beautiful space in Industry City, where we will be managing exhibitions in an art gallery and also sponsoring educational initiatives. Since 1999 we have been giving scholarships to graduating seniors from New York City public high schools. This year, for the first time, we will be able to exhibit the works by the winners of the scholarships in our first event in Industry City (on view June 6th to 23rd).

CK: The Foundation gives a wide range of grants to institutions, scholars, and artists. As art funding is increasingly cut at the national and state levels in the United States, what do you think is the outlook for artists and art education in this country?

JF: I think that it’s fair to say that in this country the arts have never been given the kind of official acknowledgment or priority that they deserve. Nonetheless, and perhaps it’s a very particular aspect of the American genius, even as things are officially ignored they are able to thrive through popular support. As a result, even though funding for arts education is said to be generally decreasing all over the country, articles in the press about the booming art market, and the constantly expanding number of visitors to museums have shown that people are generally more aware of the visual arts than ever before.

The Dedalus Foundation is deeply involved with visual literacy; in a sense, it is the bedrock that underlies most of our programs. And in this respect we are honoring the wishes of our founder: Robert Motherwell was greatly interested in the notion of vision as a means of communicating awareness about the worlds both around and within us, and in teaching people to see. Fortunately, the temporary cuts in public funding for arts education in the last few years since the financial crisis have not slowed the growth of interest in the arts. Instead, we see expanding audiences of people of all ages who demand fuller and richer experiences from the arts, and who we hope will eventually help bring about more support from government to the arts in general.

Jack Flam is President and CEO of the Dedalus Foundation, founded by the artist Robert Motherwell in 1981. Read more about Flam here.

Artsy Editorial