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Motherwell’s Black Paintings

Dominique Levy Gallery is showing a series of important paintings by Robert Motherwell in her New York gallery that beg for an explanation.  These are large powerful works in a series of elegies on the Spanish Civil War.  They are mostly black paint on white canvass.  If there is color; it is nominal, almost gratutitous:  a few painting in the series have small amounts of color, tones of grey or tan as background to the black; a desert earth tone and a small window of color might break the dominance of blackness. 
What united these paintings visually is the mass of black shapes unlike any thing in nature; they are painterly shapes that grow from the artist’s own visceral feelings, presumably feelings generated from thinking on the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War.  Garcia Lorca’s poetry plays a role.  We are reminded by the gallery’s background information that Motherwell’s early twenty’s, when he was just beginning to paint, coincided with the Spanish Civil War and Guernica.  The elegy series on exhibit, done decades later, many from the 1970’s, represent an obsession,
a wrestling with an unresolved political wrong (Franco was still in power),  deep dark feelings.  There is something brutal here, something very wrong.  These paintings occupy a great deal of space: they enter the room like a sculpture.  They defy definition.  They are not static: they move around, they make sounds.  When you turn away they stay with you.  The impression is powerful.  

In other works Motherwell’s blackness can be light and more akin to calligraphy.   At the Print Show in the Park Avenue Armory a few blocks away I came upon Motherwell prints where the back shapes float in space.   They seem unrelated to the heavy, deliberately crude grounded shapes of the Elegy Series.  They show a different, more playful side of Motherwell. 

Motherwell is an artist who remains very much with us. He left a lasting impression. It will not go away.  The paintings at Dominique Levy are mostly from major museums whose curators recognize that their own individual works grow and live by being together in a group.  It this combination of paintings that makes this show so powerful.  

Robert Motherwell: Elegy to the Spanish Republic will be on show until Januray 9 at Dominique Levy, 909 Madison Avenue.