Robert Motherwell, ‘The Great Wall of China No. 5’, 1971-1984, Sotheby's: Contemporary Art Day Auction

From the Catalogue

“I came to realize how different the spatial conceptions are in my paintings…I have been conscious of the Oriental concept of a painting representing a void, and that anything that happens on a painting plane is happening against an ultimate metaphysical void.” —Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell was the youngest of the protagonists in the epic tale of the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, yet he would become one of its most eloquent theoreticians and create some of its most archetypal imagery. Motherwell was a student of both philosophy and art history, deeply conversant in modernist thought and widely read in the symbolist literature of Stéphane Mallarmé, James Joyce and Octavio Paz among others. Like many of his fellow Abstract Expressionists, Motherwell was particularly inspired by the Symbolist poet Mallarmé’s premise that a poem – and by extension any creative form – should not represent a specific event, object or idea but rather capture and convey the emotive essence of it. In The Great Wall of China No. 5, Motherwell uses Franz Kafka’s short story published in 1931 as inspiration for a small but powerful series of four paintings on the subject.

Kafka’s short story “The Great Wall of China” imbues the east-to-west landmark along the country’s northern border with symbolism; the piece-meal building of the wall is treated as a metaphor for human nature, the need for a common goal, and the satisfaction and meaning derived from its achievement. It is a physical record tying together the past and the present. Motherwell’s The Great Wall of China No. 5 is similarly a record of ‘work’; the artist revisited his original 1971 composition sometime between 1973 and 1984, painting over a dark central rectangle and adding the Open-like forms within it and the curving, calligraphic marks along the left edge. The Open-like form within the small central rectangle is related to the Shem the Penman paintings from 1972 which refer to the archetypal artist character from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Motherwell quite literally built upon past work, creating a final image that was layered in its varied references and reflective of the passage of time.

At the core of Motherwell’s oeuvre though is a belief in the potency of aesthetic symbolism and the emotive authority of painting in the 20th century. Although the formal characteristics of The Great Wall of China No. 5 relate most to the artist’s Open series, the more deeply seated humanistic concerns remind us of the artist’s ground-breaking Elegies to the Spanish Republic. Initially inspired by the Spanish Civil War and the poetry of Harold Rosenberg and Federico Garciá Lorca, the series would evolve into a general meditation on life and death and would occupy Motherwell between 1949 and 1991, the last year of his life. In a similar nod to contemporary politics, Motherwell’s Great Wall of China series might also acknowledge Henry Kissinger’s visit to the country in 1971 which paved the way for Richard Nixon’s historic visit the following February. While the present work belongs to a series representing a comparatively brief moment within Motherwell’s career, these paintings are no less potent in their grasp of form and color as conduits to human emotion and collective experience.

Motherwell took pride in being a part of the lineage of modern painting, and embraced in his work the influence of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. Of equal interest were Asian traditions of painting, drawing, and calligraphy. These varied influences are expressed in the spontaneous and dynamic, but also decisive, text-like, mark making throughout. The architectonic scaffolding created by the three lines at center, serve to anchor the composition and define physical space. Motherwell’s bold use of color opens up myriad associations; especially in considering the title of the painting, the rich turmeric hue conjures the ancient Spice Trade or sun-bleached brick. The remarkable complexity of The Great Wall of China No. 5 is the result of his embracing a wide range of ideological and aesthetic positions.

Courtesy of Sotheby's

Signature: signed and dated Sept. 71; signed, titled and dated Summer 1971 on the reverse

Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Robert Motherwell: Recent Paintings, June - August 1972, cat. no. 8
Princeton University Art Museum, Robert Motherwell: Recent Work, January - February 1973, cat. no. 10, p. 70, illustrated
Leverkusen, Museum Morsbroich, Motherwell, October 2004 - January 2005, pp. 72-73, illustrated in color

Robert Hughes, "A Sense of Exuberance," Time 100, No. 3, 17 July 1972, pp. 54-55, illustrated in color
Marjorie Welish, "Robert Motherwell: Bridging the Generations," Art International 16, No. 10, December 1972, pp. 44-45, illustrated in color
Pierre Volboudt, "Perspectives de Robert Motherwell," XXe Siècle 35, No. 40, June 1973, p. 86
H. H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York 1977, pl. 217, n.p., illustrated
Gabriella Drudi, Note Romane à Robert Motherwell, Milan 1984, p. 113, illustrated in color
Gabriella Drudi, Robert Motherwell Notes Romaines, Paris 1988, p. 119, illustrated in color
Alan Shipley, "Tribute to Motherwell," Modern Painters, No. 4, Winter 1991, p. 113, illustrated
Ante Lorscheider, "In den Farben leuchtet das Unbewusste," Westfälische Rundschau, 21 October 2004, illustrated
Bertram Müller, "Spanische Elegien," Rheinische Post, 22 October 2004, Sec. A, p. 8
Jack Flam, Katy Rogers and Tim Clifford, Eds., Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Vol. 2: Paintings on Canvas and Panel, New Haven 2012, cat. no. P618, pp. 320-321, illustrated in color
Jack Flam, Katy Rogers and Tim Clifford, Eds., Motherwell: 100 Years, Milan 2015, cat. no. 286, p. 275, illustrated in color

Dedalus Foundation, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner

About Robert Motherwell

Alongside Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell is considered one of the great American Abstract Expressionist painters. His esteemed intellect not only undergirded his gorgeous, expressive paintings—frequently featuring bold black shapes against fields of color—but also made Motherwell one of the leading writers, theorists, and advocates of the New York School. He forged close friendships with the European Surrealists and other intellectuals over his interests in poetry and philosophy, and as such served as a vital link between the pre-war avant-garde in Europe and its post-war counterpart in New York, establishing automatism and psychoanalysis as central concerns of American abstraction. "It's not that the creative act and the critical act are simultaneous," Motherwell said. "It's more like you blurt something out and then analyze it.

American, 1915-1991, Aberdeen, Washington, based in New York and Greenwich, Connecticut