Discovering Affinities between Ancient and Contemporary Cultural Heritage Conservation

By Sarah Montonchaikul, 2019-2020 Dedalus Foundation Fellow in Conservation

Conservators of modern and contemporary artworks face a range of challenges from treating works done in unorthodox materials, such as polyurethane plastics, to seemingly non-material performance works that exist only fleetingly in real time. Their responsibility to preserve and maintain objects that resist traditional art historical and conservation taxonomies, however, has shaped the development of art conservation theory beyond modern and contemporary art and has inspired me to critically examine how we approach the preservation of cultural heritage today. 

The conservation of modern and contemporary art is often complicated by the need to mediate the tension between the intangible or conceptual aspects of a work and its tangible counterparts. The physical deterioration and material changes undergone by an artwork over time are familiar, even expected, phenomena that must be carefully recorded in the course of designing a conservation treatment. At the same time, conservators must also record the above-mentioned intangible and conceptual aspects of a work that are not so easily captured via the usual documentation modes, i.e., photography and other imaging techniques. Some questions naturally follow: if an artwork does not exist physically, how can it be accurately documented and monitored? If a performance piece, which performance is the original or authentic one?[1] In order to arrive at a course of treatment that is comprehensive and appropriate, modern and contemporary art conservators need to go beyond the checklist of material changes.  But are they alone in this respect?

It is not just modern and contemporary art conservators who encounter objects that demand an investigation of both their material and immaterial elements. My experience as a Dedalus Foundation Fellow and a student working on an archaeological excavation, prompted me to reflect upon the affinities that exist with the complex notion of authenticity and adequate documentation.

I have treated a variety of works during my education and training as an objects conservator, spanning objects from Egypt’s Old Kingdom period (ca. 2649–2130 B.C.E.) to Angel: The Shoe Shiner, a sculpture made by Pepón Osorio in 1993.[2] My art historical interests are similarly broad. With this background, I found myself drawn to an active discussion in conservation scholarship: can comparisons be made between the value systems that inform the treatment of archaeological objects and those espoused by modern and contemporary art conservators? A recent conservation treatment conducted on a site in Abydos, Egypt, pointed to some intriguing parallels between the decision-making processes of these seemingly disparate conservation specializations. 

The North Abydos Expedition, jointly sponsored by NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts and Princeton University, began the 2020 season in February with excavations of a part of the ancient site known familiarly as “Peet’s Cemetery D.”[3] This section of the Abydos archaeological landscape has seen frequent, multi-purpose use over more than 3500 years, from the Early Dynastic through the Coptic Periods, with activities that ranged in scope from Early Dynastic breweries to Middle Kingdom funerary practice to Late Antique monastic dwellings. After several weeks of excavation, the archaeologists exposed a child’s wooden coffin dating from the Middle Kingdom period, ca. 1900 B.C.E. (fig. 1).

Fig 1. Child’s wooden coffin, Middle Kingdom period. Photo: Sarah Montonchaikul, North Abydos Expedition

Object retrieval in an active excavation context raises issues of documentation and prioritization related to the value of an artifact’s tangible existence, the value of the intangible information it embodies, and the methods by which archaeologists and conservators collaboratively work towards research goals of excavation. This case study of the child’s coffin prompted an examination of the relationship between the object’s physical existence and its function as an artifact in the archaeological record relative to the research questions of the 2020 excavation season. The archaeologists working in Peet’s Cemetery D this season were investigating the Early Dynastic breweries and activities associated with beer production, whose extant remains lie beneath thousands of years of sand and soil accumulation. In the process of excavation, archaeologists recovered artifacts (finds) and architectural fragments from all periods of habitation and use before exposing the stratigraphic layers dating to the Early Dynastic. The child’s coffin––likely made and used during Dynasty 12, much later than the strata with the breweries––posed a significant challenge to both the conservation and excavation teams.

The coffin was in a state of extreme deterioration as seen in Figure 1. The walls and lid sustained severe insect damage and buckled inward, losing all structural integrity and allowing burial soil to fill the interior of the coffin. Upon closer examination, all of the damage appeared to have occurred post-interment, indicating that the burial remains found inside were likely undisturbed. The construction and decoration of the coffin were commensurate with a date of the 12th Dynasty and featured no distinguishing campaigns of ornament or significant departures from common woodworking methods of this period. As such, the coffin represented typical funerary furnishings of the Middle Kingdom, many examples of which were already in the storage depots at Abydos. The conservation team presented the observations made during our examination of the coffin in the field; most notably that a heroic effort would be needed to successfully recover the find due to its extreme vulnerability.  Additionally, accessing the interior of the coffin to document the burial would require lifting fragments of the lid and clearing away all of the burial soil that had infiltrated over centuries. These tasks in turn would require several days of active conservation work, which would halt all excavation efforts in the sector. Access to the Early Dynastic material beneath the coffin would be delayed significantly in the midst of an already-abbreviated excavation timeline. Another important constraint was the time it would take to process, document, and recover the human remains in the coffin in a safe and conscientious manner.[4] This essential part of treatment could not be compromised.

 Fig 2. View of the excavation area with the child’s coffin highlighted in yellow. Photo: Sarah Montonchaikul, North Abydos Expedition

A swift decision was necessary. Given that the find presented very real obstacles to accessing evidence of ancient brewing activity present in the archaeological record below, that many coffins of this material and manufacture have been studied previously, and that recovering this one would require an enormous investment of time and materials (both of which are precious commodities onsite), it was decided that the coffin itself could not be salvaged and would in fact be destroyed in the process of excavating further. However, a careful record of it would first be made; and before this could occur, it had to be stabilized in situ for documentation. While all excavated objects that undergo conservation are photographed before and after treatment, special care was taken with the child’s coffin to photograph the intermediate steps of the consolidation and stabilization treatment of the exterior paint layers in detail. The consolidation did not alter the color or sheen of the paint significantly, but instead stabilized the object’s surface, allowing further removal – and further documentation – to take place. Details of the object’s physical nature and archaeological context were documented using narrative records in the form of excavator’s field notebooks and conservation treatment reports, high resolution photography at several different stages of removal, and GIS-point mapping of the coffin. A fragment of the coffin was retained in onsite storage, which could be used for instrumental analysis if future research was required.

Thus, the suite of documentation and the fragment of wood came to represent the “object” in place of the coffin’s actual, physical existence. While the decision not to preserve the material of the object may seem to run counter to the preservation objectives of art conservation, the role of documentation as a surrogate for an art object is not uncommon in the field of modern and contemporary art conservation. Pip Laurenson addresses this tension between the material and the immaterial, writing:

What is emerging is a conceptual dependency between the ontological framework in which an object is classified and described and the attending concept of authenticity. If the ontological framework is focused on the material so will the notion of authenticity. If the ontological framework shifts, then we expect a similar shift in our concepts of authenticity, change and loss.[5]

The conversation between the archaeologists and us, the conservators, will sound familiar to anyone who has participated in the documentation of a performance artwork. In the case of the child’s coffin, our course of treatment resulted from the ontological shift that was necessitated by the conditions of fieldwork. Rather than focusing on the material existence of the coffin, we prioritized its preservation through documentation. The sample retained in storage can provide useful insight into the materials used to create the coffin and scholars can refer to the object file with the treatment narrative and photography to study the object in an archaeological context. We can consider the documented coffin as a representation of itself, a different yet nonetheless informative mode of existence.

Documentation of performance works also fill this different but informative role. Consider the work of Brazilian Neo-Concrete artist Lygia Clark, who created wearable artworks that were meant to be performed. She said of her work: “What’s important is the act of doing, in the present.”[6] One such work, O eu e o tu (The I and the You), is a pair of electric blue suits worn by two participants which are connected by a cord attached to each abdomen.[7] Clark saw her audience as living elements of sculpture from this period of her work. They inhabit the suits and move in them, activating the artwork and completing it. Photographic documentation of the performance provides key details that present a holistic understanding of the work beyond a technical examination of the extant suits. The industrial rubber, foam, vinyl, acrylon, zippers, water, and fabric should be preserved as essential components of The I and the You, but the record of the performative component of the work is a conservation activity that is just as essential. The photographs signal that the work is not contained only within the physical bounds of the suits nor within the image field of the photograph. They are records of what the completed artwork was, is, and should be in the future.

As Jonah Westerman posits, performance and documentation are inextricably linked. What that documentation is, precisely, is not fixed; performance and documentation are “dynamically co-determining.”[8] The performance informs its documentation and vice versa. They coexist as essential elements forming the work. The coffin fragment as the vestige of its physical existence, the remains of the individual buried within it, and the suite of documentation produced are these essential elements, both necessary to understand the artifact as a whole. 

My year as a Dedalus Foundation Fellow allowed me to synthesize these two seemingly disparate interests within the fields of art history and conservation. The malleability of the conservation theories has enriched my understanding of created objects of material culture, whether they were made millennia ago or just last year. By interrogating traditional frameworks of conservation and art historical investigation, we can devise conservation protocols that best serve the preservation needs of these complex artworks.

[1] For further discussion: Bek, Reinhard: Between Ephemeral and Material – Documentation and Preservation of Technology Based Works of Art; In: Scholte, Tatja; Glenn Wharton (ed); ‘Inside Installations – Theory and Practice in the Care of Complex Artworks, Amsterdam, 2011, p. 205 – 215; Laurenson, Pip: Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-Based Media Installations, In: Tate Papers, Tate’s Online Research Journal,
Phillips, Joanna. “Reporting Iterations: A Documentation Model for Time-Based Media Art.” In Performing Documentation, Revista de História da Arte, edited by Gunnar Heydenreich, Rita Macedo, and Lucia Matos, pp. 168–79. Lisbon: Instituto de Historia da Arte, 2015.


[3] For more information, visit

[4] While the treatment of the human remains associated with this burial is outside the scope of this blogpost, it is important to note that the North Abydos Expedition bioarchaeologists recovered the remains after photographic documentation of their location in situ. Human remains are stored separately from artifacts in the North Abydos Expedition storage building and are not treated by the conservation team. However, conservators and bioarchaeologists at Abydos work together to design and implement appropriate housing materials for human remains.

[5] Laurenson, Pip: Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-Based Media Installations, In: Tate Papers, Tate’s Online Research Journal,

[6] Glenn Lowry and Connie Butler, Lygia Clark. O Eu e o Tu (The I and the You). 1967. (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014),

[7] The Hammer Museum allows access to these photos in its digital archive called “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985,” Courtesy of ‘The World of Lygia Clark’ Cultural Association:

[8] Giannchi, Gabriella (ed); Westerman, Jonah (ed): Histories of Performance Documentation, 2018, p. 2.


Motherwell was quite aware of how important it was to understand a body of work within the context of an artist’s work space. Back in 1944, he tried to convince Alfred H. Barr Jr. (the founding director at MoMA) to buy the studio of Piet Mondrian shortly after the artist’s death.  Mondrian’s studio, Motherwell later wrote, “with its red, blue, and yellow squares, and the thousands of pinholes in the white walls,” was in itself a kind of work of art, “which to a young artist, was a most moving and illuminating insight into his working procedures.”1

It was in the studio that Motherwell said he felt the most real to himself, and it was in his studios that some of the most interesting evidence of his creative process can be found. For example, though Motherwell kept no formal written journal or diary, he frequently jotted down certain pressing thoughts, essentially short epigrams for the purpose of pinning them to his studio wall.2 He would post his writings on the wall as though they were drawings, and felt that this process stimulated his writing as well as his painting.3 As he wrote in the Preface to his pioneering anthology, The Dada Painters and Poets (1951), “…my inspiration — which may sound absurd — was to pin these sheets upon the forty-foot wall of my painting studio, and then to begin moving them around like a collage. It was only then that I began to hit it exactly because, although I couldn’t read them from a distance, I could remember the particular passages from the way they looked. In this manner, I could keep everything in my mind–what I said, what I hadn’t said–and rearrange the sequence and order until it all came to life.”

Fig. 1 Motherwell in his Eighth Street studio (Greenwich Village), 1945.
Photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son.

In Motherwell’s first set of creative spaces, there was no separation between his living quarters and his painting space.4 It was not until 1947 that he would have a space that allowed for a separation between home and studio. That year, Motherwell had the architect Pierre Chareau design a home and studio that was built on a two-acre property in East Hampton. Chareau’s design used surplus army Quonset huts and other, simple low-cost materials. But Motherwell only used that studio for a few years before moving back to New York City, where he had a number of different studios over the years, and where he developed his renowned Elegy series.

Fig. 2 & 3 Motherwell’s Quonset hut house and studio, designed by Pierre Chareau, East Hampton. Photographed by Ronny Jacques.
Fig 4. “Grenada”, 1948-1949, Oil and casein on paper mounted on Masonite, 47 x 55 in.

Motherwell believed that the ideal studio would be a place where an artist could work in solitude. In a 1951 essay, “The Rise and Continuity of Abstract Art,” Motherwell places emphasis on the modern artist’s existence as a solitary individual. He goes on to cite a Chinese artist who argued that the best place for a studio is on a mountaintop and that withdrawal from the world is a necessary condition of contemplation — the solitary studio.5 The practicalities of everyday life, however, made this difficult, sometimes impossible. The use of his Upper East Side space affirms this. From 1951 to 1953, for example, while he was teaching at Hunter College, he used the dining room of his nearby apartment as his studio.

In 1953, Motherwell purchased a five-story brownstone townhouse on East 94th Street. He worked in the dining room while the building was being renovated, and afterward in the basement. The basement was eventually converted into a studio space that was only semi-private and that he felt to be an “inadequate in space,” which limited the size of his works.

Fig. 5 Motherwell’s basement studio at 173 East 94th St. New York, Winter 1957-58. Left to right: “Spanish Elegy XIV (Palamos),” “Collage with Ochre and Black,” and on the easel “Diary of a Painter,” in progress. Photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son.

During the 1950s and 1960s, his most private studio spaces were in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he spent his summers. As his daughter Jeannie has written, “Dad was most prolific in his Provincetown studio. Spending only four months of the year there, he produced more work than he did in any other of his studios or at any other time of year.”6 It was there that he began the series of paintings on paper, Beside the Sea (1962-1966) – which evoked metaphorical representations of nature.

Fig 6. Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown, summer of 1961
Fig. 7 “Beside the Sea No. 22,” 1962, Oil on paper, 29 x 23 in.
Fig. 8 Motherwell in his Provincetown Studio, 1969. “Open #97: The Spanish House,” 1969.

It wasn’t until he moved to a carriage house in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1970, at the time of his divorce from Helen Frankenthaler, that he found a space that encompassed his ideal of working on a “solitary mountaintop.” Moving away from Manhattan’s social scene gave him more mental space and allowed him to create studio spaces that were tailored to his needs. He built a large painting studio, which was attached to the house, and used the spaces on the ground floor of the house to have separate, smaller studios for collages and printmaking. In a 1977 interview with French critic Guy Scarpetta, Motherwell explained that the various studios helped him to work out various aspects of his art. “If one problem puzzles me, I can leave the work in progress in situ undisturbed in its own ambiance, and try my hand in another studio; and in constantly passing through the various studios, I sometimes unexpectedly see out of the corner of my eye the solution to an older problem, a solution that may have come from so completely focusing on another problem in another studio, that I can see the older problem more detachedly.”7

Fig. 9 Greenwich Studio, 1975. Photographed by Renate Ponsold.
Fig. 10 Robert Motherwell making collages in Greenwich studio, 1976. Photographed by Renate Ponsold.

Motherwell wrote that “the struggle of most modern painters takes place in their studios.”8 For him, the studio was not only a space to trigger self-inflicted struggle, but to find a place of refuge, which also served as a combination of a diary and muse. “I cannot paint in an empty studio,” he wrote. “I need to be surrounded by my own work–paintings, collages, drawings, etchings and the rest. I do not work on one painting at a time, but on several at once. This permits comparison: when one painting seems more realized or stronger than others I try to raise the remaining works to the same level.”9

Within the five decades committed to his art, Motherwell came to terms with what it truly means to achieve a “studio on a mountaintop.” While he in no way achieved this ideal studio in its literal form, he did so figuratively and not without sacrifice and reconciliation.


1 Robert Motherwell, “Letter to Ive-Alain Bois,” The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, October 1980, Oxford University Press, 1992,p. 240

2 Stephanie Terenzio, “Occasional Pieces,” The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 125

3 Ibid. p. 125

4 Katy Rogers, “Studio Spaces,” Motherwell 100 Years. Skira, 2015, p. 250

5 Robert Motherwell, “The Rise and Continuity of Abstract Art,” April 12, 1951, Collected Writings, p. 87

6 Jeannie Motherwell, “Studio Show Recollections.”

7 “Les 9 Ateliers De RM” with Guy Scarpetta, 1977.

8 “Prefatory Note to Max Ernst et al.,” Max Ernst: Beyond Painting and Other Writings by the Artist and His Friends, The Documents of Modern Art, no. 7 (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1948), pp. v-vi.

9 Paul Gardner, “When Is a Painting Finished?” Art News 84, no. 9 (November 1985): 94.

Linking Word and Image in Robert Motherwell’s Archives

Fig. 1 The Homely Protestant 1948, oil on Masonite

Robert Motherwell was a serious reader of modern literature and James Joyce was the kind of modern artist with whom he most closely identified. In 1935, at the age of twenty, Motherwell bought a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses in Paris and he would continue to consult the book throughout his career. The titles of many of his works come from phrases in Joyce’s books, and the Dedalus Foundation is even named for Stephen Dedalus, a protagonist in Joyce’s novels Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.

In explaining this connection, Motherwell described an event involving a copy of Finnegans Wake:

Joyce is permanently on my mind. For over forty years I have dedicated pictures to him and taken titles from him. The title for “The Homely Protestant” [an oil on Masonite painting], which is from 1948 and one of my most important pictures comes from Joyce. The Surrealists used to say, if you’re stuck for a title, take a book, it must be your favorite book. Close your eyes and open it at random. Put your finger on the page and use that as the title. I was stuck with that picture. I didn’t know what it was even though I knew it was very abstractly a figure with a certain quality. When I put my finger on the words, “The Homely Protestant,” I thought, of course, it’s a self-portrait.[i]

In 1980, Motherwell participated in the International James Joyce Foundation’s annual meeting in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he was on a panel with Nathan Halper, a Joyce scholar and friend. That event reignited Motherwell’s interest in Joyce, and led to his doing a suite of illustrations for an Arion Press edition of Ulysses.

Motherwell had several copies of Ulysses in his library, which is now part of the Dedalus Foundation archives. We can get a sense of how Motherwell read by looking at these cherished books of his, and seeing how he underlined several evocative phrases, some of which ended up as the titles of his own works.

Fig. 2 Robert Motherwell’s Copy of ‘Ulysses’ 1961 Bodley Head Edition

Fig. 3 Underlining in ‘Ulysses’ by Motherwell of the phrase “saint Stephen’s iron crown.”

Pictured above is the page in one of his copies of Ulysses where Motherwell underlined the phrase “saint Stephen’s iron crown.” In September 1981, he painted Stephen’s Iron Crown in acrylic on canvas as part of the Drunk with Turpentine Series.

Fig. 4 ‘Stephen’s Iron Crown’, 1981, acrylic on canvas

Then, in 1982, he produced a print titled Stephen’s Iron Crown Etched.

Fig. 5 ‘Stephen’s Iron Crown’ Etched, 1981

In late 1981 and early 1982, he discussed the meaning of the phrase and its location in the edition of Ulysses shown above in letters he exchanged with Nathan Halper. (Fig. 6-8)

Fig. 6 letter from Nathan Halper to Robert Motherwell dated November 9, 1981

Fig. 8 Letter from R. Motherwell to Nathan Halper February 18, 1982

Fig. 7 Reply to Nathan Halper by R. Motherwell dated November 25, 1981

Of course, we don’t know for certain when Motherwell underlined the phrase in his copy of Ulysses, but it is tempting to see these materials as showing a sequence of events.

Only a few years later, in 1985, Motherwell agreed to illustrate an edition of Ulysses for Arion Press, which was published in 1988. The Arion Press publication was recently mentioned in a New York Times article by Jack Hitt titled “The Strange Case of the Missing Joyce Scholar,” about the scholar James Kidd, who had been engaged in producing a definitive edition of Ulysses. Hitt wrote that “Early on in the Joyce wars, in fact, Arion Press issued a new edition of ‘Ulysses’ that included some of the preliminary Kidd edits. The book was luxurious, with prints by Robert Motherwell, and only 175 of them were printed.”

Fig. 9 Ulyssses illustrated by Motherwell and published by Arion Press, 1988

This beautiful book is now on view at the Dedalus Foundation in Brooklyn in an exhibition titled “Word and Image: Literary Influences in Motherwell’s Works.”

The exhibition includes other paintings and prints inspired by Motherwell’s love of literature, including works by Octavio Paz and Rafael Alberti. The exhibition can be seen by appointment and will be on view through the end of the summer.

[i] David Hayman, “An Appreciation: Ulysses and Motherwell: Illustrating an Affinity,” James Joyce Quarterly vol. 26 no. 4 Summer 1989, p. 588.

Katie Yamasaki

Katie Yamasaki is a muralist, community artist, teacher, and illustrator based in Brooklyn. Her work as an artist has a wonderful way of sparking dialogues among diverse groups of people of all ages. Yamasaki’s artwork is known internationally; she has painted more than eighty murals in places all around world. She is also very familiar to our neighbors in Sunset Park, where two of her murals are located. One is on 3rd Avenue and 23rd Street, and the other is at PS 24, just two blocks away from the Dedalus Foundation’s Sunset Park location.

Yamasaki’s work installed at the Dedalus Foundation, Sunset Park offices
Yamasaki’s work installed at the Dedalus Foundation, Sunset Park offices

On March 31, 2017 the Dedalus Foundation’s Interns from Sunset Park High School visited Katie Yamasaki in her Red Hook studio. During their visit, students discussed immigrant heritage, the history of Japanese internment during World War II, and Yamasaki’s own career trajectory as a working artist.

Dedalus Foundation High School Interns visiting Yamasaki’s studio
Dedalus Foundation High School Interns visiting Yamasaki’s studio

This summer our Sunset Park office is proud host to an exhibition that includes twenty-seven of Yamasaki’s paintings from two series. Portraits from Yamasaki’s Pintando Postales series invite viewers to imagine life in two distinct cities from the perspective of middle school children. Pintando Postales are large-scale portraits that were inspired by correspondence between children in Santiago de Cuba and New York City. Yamasaki describes them as an attempt to illustrate childhood and adolescence from the voice of the child, catching the moment in life where identity, imagination, and expression are at once hugely important, and extremely fluid concepts.

Yamasaki’s work installed at the Dedalus Foundation, Sunset Park offices
Yamasaki’s work installed at the Dedalus Foundation, Sunset Park offices

Many of the works on view at the Dedalus Foundation are original illustrations from Fish for Jimmy, Yamasaki’s first book as both author and illustrator, which was published by Holiday House in 2013. In this book, based on Yamasaki’s own family history in Japanese internment camps, the often omitted experience of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War is explained and illustrated from the perspective of children. In a review of Fish for Jimmy, the New York Times praised Yamasaki’s illustrations, saying, “Yamasaki creates sweeping paintings that capture the story in a literal manner even as she makes bold metaphorical leaps. The overall result is a dramatic, visual feast.” McGraw-Hill recently purchased Fish for Jimmy to include in their textbooks, an achievement of particular significance to Yamasaki who remembers being corrected by her history teachers: “When I was in junior high school, I actually had teachers tell me that the internment didn’t happen – this after asking me to tell the class, because you’re Japanese – what happened on December 7, 1941 (Pearl Harbor). To have my work about the internment be included into the same textbooks that my former ignorant teachers would have used in the classroom is incredibly satisfying.”

Katie Yamasaki, Fish for Jimmy Paintings: 6_7, 2007. Acrylic on canvas, 13” x 24”
Katie Yamasaki, Fish for Jimmy Paintings: 6_7, 2007. Acrylic on canvas, 13” x 24”

Yamasaki’s artwork will be on view at the Dedalus Foundation until the end of August, allowing the students in our Summer Programs to use Yamasaki’s artwork as a direct source of inspiration. Local community groups are also invited to use the gallery as a classroom for guided visits. The exhibition is open to the public by appointment from 9:30am-5:30pm, Monday-Friday.

 Dedalus Foundation Pre College Portfolio Students looking at the exhibition
Dedalus Foundation Pre College Portfolio Students looking at the exhibition

To schedule an appointment or group visit please contact or call 212.220.4220.

Motherwell in Provincetown

To mark the beginning of summer, we honor Robert Motherwell’s strong connection to the beachside community of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he lived and worked almost every summer for fifty years. Motherwell was happiest while at the Cape, and could engage in his work without the pressures of the New York art world and the distraction of everyday life.

In the summer of 1962, twenty years after he first started visiting Provincetown, Motherwell began his Beside the Sea series, while renting a studio at the Days Lumberyard. It was also the summer that he negotiated the purchase of 631 Commercial Street, which served as his summer home and studio until the end of his life.

Beside the Sea, 1962. Oil on paper, 28 ¾ x 22 ¾”

Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler at Days Lumberyard, summer 1961
Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler at Days Lumberyard, summer 1961

In his 1978 essay “Provincetown and Days Lumberyard: A Memoir,” Motherwell praised the quality of Provincetown’s light, and described how living in Provincetown stimulated his creativity.

Motherwell in his Provincetown studio, 1969
Motherwell in his Provincetown studio, 1969

“People tend to forget that Provincetown is (roughly) on the forty-two degree meridian, as is Barcelona and Opporto and Cannes and Rome (almost exactly) and Macedonia and Istanbul and Peking (more or less), a distinctly warm southern light compared to Northern Europe, a light as seductive to painters in the Modernist tradition as geometry was to the ancient Greek philosophers and musicians, not to mention Mohammedan designers.

At any rate, the Days barn was filled with lovely light, and with clean, open, large, aged space. In 1962 I painted there one of my finest of the series of paintings called Elegy to the Spanish Republic (the one now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York); and also began a series of very free oils on paper, collectively called Beside the Sea… Then I owned the old farmhouse on the Northeast corner of Allerton and Commercial Streets (No. 622). Catty-corner from it for sale was a c. 1900 tiny A-house summer cottage on the water, for which I was negotiating all that summer. The price was reasonable enough ($13,000 I think, i.e., $4,500 down payment), but it was owned by numerous heirs, each of whose share would not amount to much, so there was much hesitation and consultation. After painting at Days barn all day, in the late afternoon I would sometimes sit on the seaside steps of the unoccupied A-cottage, hypnotized by the ever-changing tidal flats, hoping against hope that those beautiful thirty-three feet of bayside might end up mine, to convert into windswept studios for Helen and me, and into a beachhouse for my young daughters, Jeannie and Lise. The property (until 1976) had a massive concrete seawall, and, sitting dreaming on the steps, I used to be struck by the beauty, the force and the grace, at high tide with a strong Southwest wind of the seaspray spurting up, sometimes taller than a man, above the seawall.

After a time, I began experimenting with painting the seaspray, at Days barn. I quickly discovered that I could not imitate the spray satisfactorily—as Arp says, “I like nature, but not its substitutes.” It then occurred to me to use nature’s own process: after all, I was using liquid oil paint mixed in a bucket, not much more viscous than salt water. So, with dripping brush, I hit the drawing paper with all my force. There was indeed painted spray, but the physical force with which it was produced split the rag paper wide open. The next day, at Jim Forsberg’s marvelous Studio Shop, I bought a package of five-ply (that is, paper sheets made of five sheets laminated together, tougher to tear than playing cards) Strathmore one hundred percent rag paper. I also made yard-long handles for my brushes. I hit the laminated paper with the full force of my one hundred eighty pounds, with the paintbrush moving in a six-foot arc—I remember the sensation as that of cracking a bullwhip. An adequate equivalent of the pounding summer seaspray appeared, in deep sky blue, on that lovely kid finish, creamy white laminated paper, without splitting or tearing, to my delight. I made thirty or so more . . . I write this now, sixteen years later, sitting exactly where I sat then, observing the savagery again of a sunlit summer sea driven hard at high tide by the prevailing Southwest wind against the massive bulkhead Bill Fitts built for me two years ago, following the structured principles laid down by the late Jimmy Thomas forty years ago.”

Beside the Sea with Bulkhead, 1962. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 68 ¾ x 54 1/8”
Beside the Sea with Bulkhead, 1962. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 68 ¾ x 54 1/8”

My daughter Jeannie has her own studio next door, and if she lives to a normal age, she may be watching, beside the sea, the spray half a century from now. Summer people are never wholly accepted by natives, but that does not prevent us from absorbing the light and the sea air as deeply as any, almost into one’s blood, certainly into one’s eye and mind and painting wrist.”

Bumper sticker on Motherwell’s flat files from his Greenwich studio
Bumper sticker on Motherwell’s flat files from his Greenwich studio

Matisse and American Art at the Montclair Art Museum

The Montclair Art Museum’s exhibition Matisse and American Art (on view through June 18, 2017) examines Henri Matisse’s profound impact on American modern art from 1907 to the present. The exhibition juxtaposes 19 works by Matisse with 44 works by American artists including Robert Motherwell , Max Weber, Alfred Maurer, Maurice Prendergast, Stuart Davis, Richard Diebenkorn, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Romare Bearden, John Baldessari, Sophie Matisse, Faith Ringgold, and Helen Frankenthaler.

Motherwell first encountered Matisse’s paintings in the fall of 1935 at the home of Michael and Sarah Stein. He later recalled that the works he saw there, “[w]ent through my heart like a golden arrow and I had one real intuition immediately. I thought this is what I want to belong to.” That initial response carried through Motherwell’s life, influencing his works across media but especially in his collages. For the last two decades of his life, Motherwell had a Matisse cutout, La Danseuse, hanging in his home.

The wall of Motherwell’s living quarters in June 1983. Matisse’s "La Danseuse," ca. 1949 can be seen at the center surrounded by Motherwell’s own works.
The wall of Motherwell’s living quarters in June 1983. Matisse’s “La Danseuse,” ca. 1949 can be seen at the center surrounded by Motherwell’s own works.

Matisse and American Art includes Motherwell’s 1977 collage Cathedral II. The work reflects Motherwell’s familiarity with Matisse’s method of collage, especially the act of cutting and arranging which added a physicality to the to the composition.

Robert Motherwell, “Cathedral II,” 1977. Acrylic, pasted papers, and graphite on paper, 30 x 20 in. © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA. New York, NY.
Robert Motherwell, “Cathedral II,” 1977. Acrylic, pasted papers, and graphite on paper, 30 x 20 in. © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA. New York, NY.

Robert Motherwell and Pierre Chareau

Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design was on view at the Jewish Museum until March 26, 2017.

Pierre Chareau in Motherwell’s Studio
Pierre Chareau in Motherwell’s Studio

French architect and interior designer Pierre Chareau spent the final years of his life in exile and relative obscurity in New York. Despite being a member of the prestigious Société des Artistes Décorateurs (an extraordinarily talented group of artists who specialized in creating unified interiors) in France, traces of his final years spent in America are limited and his American designs have received relatively little attention. He designed two built works in the United States: La Colline in Spring Valley, New York for the pianist Germaine Monteux and the writer Nancy Laughlin in 1950; and Robert Motherwell’s East Hampton studio and home in 1947.

Interior of the East Hampton Quonset hut.
Interior of the East Hampton Quonset hut.

Motherwell was introduced to Chareau and his wife Dollie by Anaïs Nin in the summer of 1944. Motherwell connected with Chareau in part because he believed that they both worked using “the collage principle, inspired by materials,” in their respective fields. In 1946 Motherwell asked Chareau to serve as the architecture editor for his review Possibilities, which he coedited with the critic Harold Rosenberg and the composer John Cage.


In 1947, Motherwell asked Chareau to design a house and studio on his two-acre property in East Hampton. For his fee, Chareau received a small piece of the Motherwell property on which he built a cottage that followed the so-called “primitive hut” concept later used by the French architect Corbusier in his Petit Cabanon. The Motherwell home and studio were built using surplus Quonset huts and utilized low cost materials like an industrial greenhouse window; concrete blocks for the retaining walls; plywood; and brick and oak logs for the floor.


The house gained some notoriety when it was photographed for Harper’s Bazaar in June of 1948. The photographs in the magazine show Chareau and the Motherwells as well as Anne Clark, and her young twin sons (including a young Gordon Matta-Clark) in the different rooms around the house.


The Chareaus were early collectors of Motherwell’s work and owned several of his paintings and drawings, including Line Figure in Beige and Mauve, 1946 and Constructed Figures, 1944 both of which are on display at the Jewish Museum until March 26.

MW P0034
“Line Figure in Beige and Mauve”, 1946. Oil and sand on canvas board, 30 x 22 in.
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA. New York, NY.

"Constructed Figures," 1944. Ink on paper, 11 1/8 x 14 1/2 in. © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA. New York, NY.
“Constructed Figures,” 1944. Ink on paper, 11 1/8 x 14 1/2 in.
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA. New York, NY.

To learn more about Robert Motherwell’s relationship with Pierre Chareau make sure to visit the Jewish Museum before March 26. More information about the exhibition can be found here.

From the Archives

The Dedalus Foundation is home to thousands of Motherwell’s professional and personal papers and photographs, including correspondence, datebooks, and interviews. The material in the archives not only allows us to reconstruct the artist’s daily activities and studio practice, but it also gives us a clear picture of Motherwell as an individual.

The images in the archives span Motherwell’s career and contain everything from his old lecture slides to photographs of works and exhibitions. Some of the most enlightening and engaging images are of Motherwell’s personal life and his travels, especially during the 1960s when he was married to the painter Helen Frankenthaler.

In the fall of 1961, Motherwell and Frankenthaler traveled to France where they each had solo exhibitions, he with Galerie Heinz Berggruen and she with Galerie Lawrence. On October 9, Frankenthaler wrote to friends, “Bob’s vernissage was last Tuesday the show is something to be proud of, great crowd and lots of familiar faces. We’re busy and feeling splendid (Even had a drink atop the Eiffel Tower today—gevalt!).”





Motherwell’s personal photographs sometimes shed light on his creative process. Photographs taken by Motherwell and Frankenthaler in Alassio, Italy illustrate how Motherwell incorporated the shapes of the landscape and the color of the beach umbrellas into Summertime in Italy No. 3, 1960.


"Summertime in Italy No. 3," 1960
“Summertime in Italy No. 3,” 1960



Travel served as an inspiration for a number Motherwell’s works throughout his career, including the collage The French Line, 1960. Motherwell meant the title to be a multiple pun, which he explained in the catalogue for his 1963 Smith College exhibition: “The French advertisement is from a box of diet-crackers (the French always talk about one’s line in relation to weight); the line of the Riviera coast is visible; it is one of the most ‘French’ pictures I have ever painted (and in this sense follows the ‘French Line’ in painting); I travelled on the French line to Europe to paint it.” There is a photograph of a French Line ship in the slides from Motherwell and Frankenthaler’s trip, perhaps meant to commemorate the literal inspiration for the collage’s title.


"The French Line," 1960
“The French Line,” 1960


The Dedalus Foundation archives are currently closed to the public, but research requests may still be directed to To learn more about the Foundation’s archives, or to view digitized materials, please click here.

© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA. New York, NY.

High School Scholarship Program – 2016 Winners

Each year, the Dedalus Foundation offers twelve scholarships in fine art and art history to graduating seniors from New York City public schools. The fine art scholarship acknowledges technical skill as well as creativity in forms and materials, while the art history scholarship rewards clear writing, insight, and creativity in subject matter. These scholarships honor Robert Motherwell’s lifelong interest in arts education at all levels.

Below is a selection of work from the 2016 fine art scholarship winners. Applications for the 2017 scholarship competition are live on our site here.


Oonagh Carroll-Warhola, Lunar Garden
Oonagh Carroll-Warhola, LaGuardia High School, Lunar Garden, Oil on canvas, 28 x 34 in.

Joelsy Fernandez, Fleeting
Joelsy Fernandez, Frank Sinatra High School, Fleeting, Acrylic, graphite, plastic, and thread on linen, 11 x 8.5 in.

Robert Gomez, "Since little"
Robert Gomez, High School of Art and Design,”Since little,” Oil on canvas, 34 1/4 x 20 in.

Elizabeth Goncharova, "Currents"
Elizabeth Goncharova, LaGuardia High School, “Currents,” Marker, ink, and gesso on paper, 47.75 x 58.5 in.

Peidong Lin, "Untitled,"
Peidong Lin, Robert H. Goddard High, “Untitled,” Pencil on paper, 9 x 12 in.

Gabrielle Robinson, "HAUNTED"
Gabrielle Robinson, LaGuardia High School, “HAUNTED,” Photograph, 20 x 16 in.

Nina Vazquez, "R train Social"
Nina Vazquez, High School of Art and Design, “R train Social,” Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in.

As a part of our commitment to the neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where our community education programs are based, we also offer a fine art scholarship specifically to a graduating senior from Sunset Park High School.


Tahiry Guevara, "Untitled"
Tahiry Guevara, Sunset Park High School, “Untitled,” Acrylic and paper flowers on canvas, 24 x 22 in.

A Case Study of Robert Motherwell’s Reworking Method

Motherwell frequently revised his works, some over long periods of time, and some after they were reproduced in publications or exhibited. One of the most complicated histories of reworking involved Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, which was repainted several times both before and after being exhibited. Begun in 1975, this painting was originally based on the composition of an earlier, small-scale work, Spanish Elegy with Orange No. 3 but it subsequently underwent a number of permutations and revisions that lasted from the mid-1970s well into the next decade.


Spanish Elegy with Orange No. 3, 1944. Acrylic and graphite on canvas board, 8 x 10 in.
Spanish Elegy with Orange No. 3, 1944. Acrylic and graphite on canvas board, 8 x 10 in.

In its very first version, it contained areas of orange, like the small picture on which it was modeled, but Motherwell repainted it entirely in black and white shortly afterward, and it was photographed on September 19, 1975.


Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, as photographed on September 19, 1975
Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, as photographed on September 19, 1975

He made significant revisions soon after this, and it looked quite different when it was photographed again on October 27, 1975.


Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, as photographed on October 27, 1975
Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, as photographed on October 27, 1975

He made major revisions again before it was photographed on February 10, 1976.


Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, as photographed on February 10, 1976
Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, as photographed on February 10, 1976

It was revised yet again before it was shown at his 1977 retrospective exhibitions in Paris and Edinburgh. In 1982 Motherwell reworked it again, adding large areas of pink and yellow ochre, before it was shown at his 1983 retrospective at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, where it was reproduced in the catalogue.


Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, as photographed on December 22, 1982
Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 132, as photographed on December 22, 1982

After it was returned to him in 1985, he revised it yet again, painting over the pink areas with ochre as you can see in the final image.

In many cases, it is difficult to say exactly what prompted Motherwell to rework a given picture at a certain time. It was not simply a matter of “perfectionism,” since he himself accepted as a kind of philosophical truth that a work of art could never be perfect. The most surprising thing is how many pictures he revised—mostly paintings on canvas and panel, but also collages and paintings on paper— and also how many times he chose to repaint a picture when it would have seemed easier simply to start a new one, and how much time and effort he gave to the revision of both important and minor pictures. It was as if he was constantly trying to find, redefine, and find again an elusive reality not only within the world, but within himself.

Note: This blog post was adapted from the Robert Motherwell Catalogue Raisonné.