THE ‘SOLITARY STUDIO’ AS MUSE

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.

Endnotes

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.” https://jeanniemotherwell.com/studio-show-recollections-page-2

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.

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-no-3
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