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Art

Expanding Our Idea of Motherwell with “Opens”

By Katy Donoghue

June 17, 2015

This is the last week to see Andrea Rosen’s fantastic exhibition of Robert Motherwell’s “Opens” in New York (it closes June 20). The show challenges our understanding of the artist as he exists in the art historical canon. It’s a lesser-known series by the artist, probably best identified by his “Elegies.” These are standout pieces that he painted over the course of decades, that showcase him as a colorist and separate from the austere, stark black and white paintings that have come to be synonymous with his name.

“Motherwell couldn’t be any more historically significant, nobody’s doubting that,” Rosen said in a recent interview. “But looking at the ‘Opens’ at this moment in the perception of how much we are looking at abstraction…can change and add to our understanding of an artist.”

The story goes that in the late sixties, Motherwell had a large painting leaning against the wall of his studio with a smaller canvas leaning against it. He traced the outline of the smaller canvas onto the larger canvas in charcoal, so it looked like a drawing of a doorway. He flipped it, and it became a window. Originally, he thought of calling the series “Windows,” but decided to go with a more general term. He eventually even wanted to print the Webster’s Dictionary definition of the word “open” with the works in order to push people to find different, more expansive associations.

Motherwell worked on the series starting in 1967, continuing in the 70s, and returning again to it in the 80s. He made around 100 of them in the first year and a half, and probably made close to 350 in the end. The selection of paintings at Andrea Rosen are both large and small, featuring striking bold shades of blue (a shade he fought for ownership over when divorcing artist Helen Frankenthaler), bright ochres, deep reds, greens, and graphic grays. The “opens” are sometimes made up of three simple lines–in paint or charcoal–creating an open-ended rectangle, or more detailed depictions that definitely call to mind windows. They are atmospheric and spatial, made from layering colors like orange and blue to create a vibrating surface. Those shades make direct references to sky and earth, like in the work Cape Cod, painted during one of his summers on the East Coast.

“The more famous an artist becomes, the more we want to reduce them to one idea,” said gallery director Sam Sheiness, walking through the gallery with us in early May. “We want to really expand people’s understanding of Motherwell so you start to understand all of his bodies of work differently.” Be sure to expand your own idea of Motherwell before the show comes down this weekend.

Andrea RosenAndrea Rosen GalleryHelen FrankenthalerKaty DonoghueRobert MotherwellSam SheinessWhitewall

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