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Artist: Robert Motherwell (American, 1915 - 1991)

Date: 1952
Medium: Brush-applied black ink over graphite on wove paper mounted on illustration board
Overall: 21 1/2 x 29 1/2in. (54.6 x 74.9cm)
Framed: 33 x 43in. (83.8 x 109.2cm)
Signed: Verso, upper left (graphite): 'Robert Motherwell / 1952'
Credit Line: Edward W. Root Bequest
Object number: 57.201
Text Entries

Motherwell’s 1970 essay “Thoughts on Drawing” functions as his credo for the medium.(2) He proposed that “(a) drawing is that visual expression that painting is not, or alternately, (b) drawing is visual expression to which color is not essential.” Believing that painting is more poetic and drawing more intellectual, he further wrote, “Drawing is faster than painting, perhaps the only medium as fast as the mind itself.”(3) Drawing’s potential for spontaneity made it the perfect exploratory vehicle for Motherwell’s surrealist-influenced use of automatism to sound, but then transform, a subconscious reservoir of imagery.(4) By necessity, then, his own drawings had to be made quickly. During the 1950s, Motherwell began using brush and ink, but he initially created the underlying armature of the form in the MWPI work with a quick gestural sketch of broad, soft graphite.(5)

Although Motherwell maintained that he “almost never” began a composition with an image in mind, abstract figuration pervades his work.(6) The title of the MWPI drawing makes reference to a human subject, a traditional model-in-the-artist’s-studio theme. The ninety- degree angle drawn at the top right center suggests the back of a chair in which the figure sits. The “body” is composed of large, white bulbous forms echoed and held in counterpoint by two, smaller black forms above. In description, the work is female; in intention, it is masculine, and the masculine overwhelms the feminine as the artist imposes himself on his art.(7)

The arresting, bold image of the MWPI drawing is indicative of Motherwell’s ability to exploit and balance the inherent tension of black and white working in concert, the possibilities of which he first began investigating in earnest after 1948.(8) For his Elegies for the Spanish Republic, Motherwell described black as death and white as “éclat,” life.(9) However, this powerfully simple juxtaposition, these “absolutes,” as Jack Flam described them, can be interpreted more broadly as essential dualities that often inform Motherwell’s work.(10) In the MWPI sheet, Motherwell unites positive and negative, female and male, eastern and western traditions, drawing and painting.


1. The Kootz exhibition included a second drawing entitled Nude with the same dimensions (no. 23).

2. Robert Motherwell, “Thoughts on Drawing,” Motherwell, in The Drawing Society National Exhibition 1970 (New York: American Federation of the Arts, 1970); also reprinted in Stephanie Terenzio, The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell (New York and Oxford, Eng: Oxford University Press, 1992), 192-94.

3. Motherwell, “Thoughts on Drawing,” in Terenzio, Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, 193-94.

4. See Jack Flam’s essay in Robert Motherwell: Drawings, A Retrospective, 1941 to the Present (Houston, Tex.: Janie C. Lee Gallery, 1979), unpaginated. Motherwell, in Jack Flam, “With Robert Motherwell,” in Robert Motherwell (New York and Buffalo, N.Y.: Abbeville Press, 1983), 23, also acknowledged the influence of Japanese Zen calligraphy on his working method.

5. This seems a residual practice from the previous decade, when he drew figures in ink and then filled in the background with wash.

6. Flam, “With Robert Motherwell,” in Robert Motherwell, 17. While Motherwell would become definitively associated with non-objective painting, he recognized that figuration remained in his work.

7. In western art, “Nude” generally means female, or is otherwise qualified as “Male Nude."

8. See also Stephanie Terenzio, Robert Motherwell and Black (Storrs, Conn.: The University of Connecticut, 1980).

9. Robert Motherwell, “A Conversation at Lunch,” An Exhibition of the Work of Robert Motherwell (Northampton, Mass: Smith College Museum of Art, 1963), unpaginated.

10. Flam, “With Robert Motherwell,” in Robert Motherwell, 10. Flam, 27, provides a partial list of Motherwell’s complex, often conflicting, nature—“the puritan and the sensualist, the social being and the recluse, the thinker and the force of nature.”


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