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The Tomb of Captain Ahab

Not on view

The Tomb of Captain Ahab

Artist: Robert Motherwell (American, 1915 - 1991)

Date: 1953
Medium: Oil on canvas board
Framed: 8 x 10 3/16in. (20.3 x 25.9cm)
Signed: Verso: 'R. Motherwell / 1953'
Inscribed: Verso: 'The Tomb of Cap'tain / Ahab'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 59.14
Label Text
Robert Motherwell's small study, The Tomb of Captain Ahab, refers to Herman Melville's epic novel Moby Dick. Motherwell, however, was an avowed abstract painter and used this literary subject merely as the starting point for his painterly concerns. He wrote: "There is a chapter in Moby Dick that evokes white's qualities as no painter could, except in his medium."

Motherwell painted with black and white for much of his life; he was very sensitive to the physical and symbolic properties of these two polarities. He stated: "Black does not reflect, but absorbs all light; that is its essential nature; while that of white is to reflect all light." He further described black as "death" and white as "éclat" or life. Motherwell juxtaposed black and white in his work to create tension and balance of absolutes, such as male/female or positive/negative.


Text Entries

Many Abstract Expressionists regarded Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as the American equivalent of James Joyce’s Ulysses. For them it was a symbolic journey to the unconscious. These artists followed the Surrealists in being interested in psychology and the writings of Sigmund Freud. In addition, they were fascinated with Carl Jung’s concept of the archetype as a genetically encoded pre- disposition to a universal concept.

The Abstract Expressionists practiced a free-associational technique which the Surrealists had termed “psychic automatism” and Robert Motherwell called “plastic automatism.” Motherwell was well-read in French symbolist poetry and transformed Stephane Mallarmé’s dictum, that poems are made with words not ideas, into a belief that paintings are made with paint, not ideas.

The Tomb of Captain Ahab is a small sketch based on Motherwell’s ideas about the role of the unconscious in art and the use of plastic automatism as an initiatory technique. The painting is a variation on his “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” series with an important difference: the free-form amoebic shapes are not caught between implacable verticals—all the black forms are set in a sea of white paint that seems to be at the point of engulfing them. This active white background, which looks like a white wall in most of the “Elegies,” is an important clue to the painting’s title and gives form to the following statement made by Motherwell in 1950 about the way he regards black- and-white pigments:

The chemistry of the pigments is interesting: ivory black, like bone black, is made from charred bones or horns, carbon black is the result of burnt gas, and the most common whites—apart from cold, slimy zinc oxide and recent bright titanium dioxide—are made from lead, and are extremely poisonous on contact with the body. Being soot, black is light and flufly, weighing a twelfth of the average pigment; it needs much oil to become a painter’s paste, and dries slowly. Sometimes I wonder, laying in a great black stripe on a canvas, what animal ’s bones ( or horns) are making the furrows of my picture. . . . Black does not reflect, but absorbs all light; that is its essential nature; while that of white is to reflect all light. . . . For the rest, there is a chapter in Moby Dick that evokes white’s qualities as no painter could, except in his medium. (1)

Despite being one of the most literate Abstract Expressionists, Motherwell avoids storytelling and works to let paint and his way of applying it connote the feeling of his painting. Titles are only clues to the feelings manifested by these resolutely abstract works.



1. As quoted in Stephanie Terenzio, Robert Motherwell and Black, exhibition catalog (Storrs, Conn.: William Benton Museum of Art, 1980), p. 94.

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