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Robert Motherwell's Untitled (Imaginary Landscape) mixed media from 1941 is significant not merely as one of the artist's earliest documented works, but also as his first experiment with the Surrealist automatist technique that he would employ for the rest of his career. In 1940, twenty-five-year-old Motherwell stood at a critical juncture in his life, deciding whether to pursue a professional path in academia or in studio art. Having graduated in 1937 from Stanford University with a degree in philosophy and French Symbolist literature, he started a doctoral program in philosophy at Harvard University and three years later shifted gears, entering Columbia University's Ph.D. program in the Department of Art History and Archeology. At Columbia, Motherwell studied with the famous art historian Meyer Shapiro, who, recognizing his student's voracious intellect and interest in painting, encouraged him to meet artists who had recently moved to New York from a war-besieged Europe. One of these artists was the Swiss Surrealist Kurt Seligmann. While Motherwell fundamentally disliked Seligmann's paintings of Hieronymous Bosch-like fantastic creatures, he did appreciate the older artist's deep knowledge of Symbolist poetry. The two developed a friendship, and Seligmann offered to teach Motherwell monoprinting, or painting directly on a printing plate and running the plate through the press for a unique image. Motherwell produced the present lot, Untitled (Imaginary Landscape), a monoprint combined with painted additions to the paper after the pulling of the plate, in Seligmann's Fortieth Street studio likely in April of 1941, as suggested by a page from a New York Times issue, dated April 27, 1941, found beneath the original backing board of the work. The second artist who profoundly impacted Motherwell's early work like Untitled (Imaginary Landscape) was the Chilean painter Roberto Antonio Sebastian Matta Aschaurren, whom Motherwell met in Seligmann's studio in February 1941. Matta introduced the young artist to the Surrealist technique of automatism, where the conscious mind is suppressed, thereby unleashing the free creation of forms. During the 1930s, the Surrealists practiced different types of visual automatism, including frottage, or rubbing pencil and paper over wood grain and then transforming the patterns into images; collage, or randomly tearing and scattering pieces of paper or string onto a support; and fumage, or burning a candle over a wet canvas to form mysterious shapes. Matta popularized automatic "doodling" or "scribbling." In this process, the artist loses control of his hand and makes gestural marks on paper or canvas; then, after studying the particular configuration of the marks, he reworks them into images. Motherwell readily adopted Matta's psychic doodling as "a means both to probe his subconscious and to explore the possibilities of the medium. . . in ways that would have been otherwise closed to him" (J. Flam, Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonne, 1941-1991, Volume One, New Haven, 2012, p. 7). As Motherwell's first automatist work, Untitled (Imaginary Landscape) exhibits the strong influence Matta, known for his colorful otherworldly "landscapes" populated by biomorphic forms. Here, Motherwell painted onto a printing plate-subsequently topped with paper and run through a press-- swirls of color loosely resembling a landscape: a "boulder" on the right, "tree" on the left, and brown "horizon line" separate a yellow foreground from a grey "sky" with ovoid "planet." After pulling the monotype, he then painted the work with fine lines and geometric symbols. Compositionally and thematically, Untitled (Imaginary Landscape) resembles a gouache that Motherwell made several weeks later for his friend and fellow Seligmann student Barbara Reis, the daughter of modern art collectors Bernard and Rebecca Reis; in this work, a leafy tree on the left flanking a central fiery nimbus sit atop an orange ground, offset by a grey sky. Untitled (Imaginary Landscape)'s luscious, wide-ranging palette-lemon, salmon, blue-grey, cobalt, turquoise, pink, and ochre-as well as its distinctive organic shapes--"pineapple tree," paramecium-like "rock," and celestial "eye"-borrow directly from Matta's Surrealist vocabulary. In June 1941, two months after Motherwell made Untitled (Imaginary Landscape), he traveled with Matta to Mexico, continuing his exploration of automatism in a series of works that further contextualize the present lot. Throughout his life, Motherwell maintained passionate feelings about Mexico, for it was here that he decided to become a professional artist and fell in love with the actress Maria Emilia Ferreira y Moyers, who became his wife. For several weeks in July, he concentrated on automatist ink and watercolor drawings, what he later called the Mexican Sketchbook. Like Untitled (Imaginary Landscape), these works emerged from spontaneous, gestural scribbling and referenced landscapes; after studying the initial freeform composition, Motherwell linked or filled in certain lines with black ink to define flat silhouettes, spatial grids, and organic shapes like spiraling "eyes." In Mexico, Motherwell also applied his automatist process to his first mature painting, a portrait of Maria, La Belle Mexicaine, whose vibrant yellow-salmon colors recall those in Untitled (Imaginary Landscape). Motherwell explained, "I began [the picture] automatically--the automatism consisting of dabs of paint scraped across the surface of the canvas with razors or sticks or spatulas . . . but then in my efforts to resolve the picture a great deal of the canvas would slowly be covered over with a more formal, architectonic surface. . . . [The] portrait would have had a different figuration if it were not being worked out also in relation to the primary automatism" (Flam, p. 7-8). The automatist working method that Motherwell initiated with Untitled (Imaginary Landscape) and honed in Mexico informed all of his future iconic series, including Elegy to the Spanish Republic and the Opens, which became increasingly abstract. Jack Flam, in his catalogue raisonne of the artist, elucidates, "[Motherwell's] process of creating a picture would involve moving back and forth between spontaneous forms that came from deep within the psyche and a process of modulation or what he called he called 'correction,' in which the composition of the picture would be reshaped by a more conscious reworking of what had emerged; he often spoke of the process of creation as being like a voyage into the unknown, where the intended results and chance encounters would commingle with each other, depending on the circumstances of creation" (Flam, p. 8). According to Flam, Motherwell readily embraced automatism as a "strategy to free himself not only from the constraints of conscious thought but from the sense of psychic suffocation that had characterized his childhood" (Flam, p. 7). In this context, Untitled (Imaginary Landscape) stands as far more than a rare early Motherwell; it marks his liberation from societal expectations and discovery of a technique that enabled him to create his unique and powerful oeuvre.
Signature: Signed upper left: Motherwell 41
Image rights: Courtesy of Heritage Auctions
J. Flam, K. Rogers, and T. Clifford, Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012, vol. 1, p. 283.
Otto Seligman Gallery, Seattle, Washington, circa 1941; Chauncey Lee Harris; Private collection, San Francisco, California, acquired before 1985.
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
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