Financial Times, 24th January 2015


Robert Motherwell, Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London

Jackie Wullschlager

The show is an opportunity to reconsider this most European-inflected and nuanced of the American abstract expressionists
M

arking Motherwell’s 100th birthday today, Bernard Jacobson launches his new Mayfair gallery with a retrospective, the first such survey in London since 1978 and an opportunity to reconsider this most European-inflected and nuanced of the American abstract expressionists.

Born in Washington, Motherwell was educated in California to help his frail health: the broad spaces and bright colours in his paintings look back to childhood experience of landscape, countered by the tragic black vein resonant of illness and mortality.

He decided to become an artist after visiting France in 1938, entering into life-long dialogue with Parisian modernism and 20th-century European history and literature. Among major paintings here is a large-scale “Elegy to the Spanish Republic”, structured around rough-edged, ovoid forms, suggesting the life force, squashed between dense, deathly bands in an austere yet velvety black-dominated palette; the second version of the semifigurative “The Homely Protestant”, titled after a phrase from Finnegans Wake and perhaps a late self-portrait; and the stark “Open 22” from the series of incomplete charcoal rectangles on monochrome grounds referencing Matisse’s paintings of open windows.

Motherwell was the abstract expressionist most held by remnants of the figurative. Often gesture becomes image, as here in “Beside the Sea No. 3”, a sweeping, splattered curve rising from black and pale blue strips: Motherwell splashed oil paint against rag paper with full force to parallel the rush of spray on the coast in front of his Provincetown studio.

Essentially a graphic artist, Motherwell condenses contradictory sensibilities — grace and violence, spontaneity and control, light and dark — particularly effectively in works on paper, of which this show has far-ranging examples: collages where tearing substitutes for drawing, and numerous, varied prints published by Jacobson over the last half century.

jacobsongallery.com, 020 7734 3431, today to March 28