Robert Motherwell: Lyric Suite
On ViewKasmin Gallery
April 28 – June 4, 2022
My first encounter with Robert Motherwell’s ink paintings, collectively titled Lyric Suite, occurred in 1965. Not only was this the same year the works in this series were painted, but it was also the year of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art featuring Motherwell’s large-scale works on canvas—such as those from the “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” series—curated by the distinguished poet Frank O’Hara. This would eventually combine with a separate exhibition of the artist’s works on paper, including those from Lyric Suite. It was within this context that the works currently on view at Kasmin Gallery emerged into notoriety.
Lyric Suite was conceived as a series of ink paintings on Japanese rice paper, executed by what the artist called “automatic painting”—meaning there was no predetermined concept as to what or how he would paint. According to the artist, he would paint “without a priori traditional or moral prejudices or a posteriori ones, without iconography, and above all without revisions or additions upon critical reflection and judgment. Give up one’s being to the enterprise and see what lies within...”
This line of thought was taken further in an interview with Jack Flam, printed for another retrospective in 1983, this one at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. It is here that Motherwell clarifies his interest in Asian art, identifying Japanese Zen painting in particular as an important source for his works on paper: “Aside from the obvious reduction of color, the predominance of black and white, and the importance of gesture, essentially it is the concept...”
My return, decades later, to deciphering the Lyric Suite at the Kasmin Gallery largely confirms what I had seen, more or less naively, the first time around. These ink paintings on Japanese rice paper are distinctly integrated with one another, not holistically or through formal deliberation, but by a more indirect, perhaps unconscious, attempt to create a feeling of indeterminacy. The influence of East Asian art that Motherwell has described provides a context for their subtle delivery that appears significant—equal in importance to seeing them from the artist’s own perspective, what Motherwell refers to as the metaphysical void.
To me, the painterly forms in Lyric Suite appear rigorous and actively engaged, a concrete vocabulary of abstract imagery in the process of emergence. Each painting carries its own identity and persuasive presence. They were done on white sheets of Japanese unryu paper—often referred to as “rice paper”—uniformly measuring 11 by 9 inches. Motherwell’s aleatory brushwork of black and sepia ink, occasionally mixed with sienna, blue, and orange, suggests a pictorial space becoming more activated over time, if not optically transformed. In contrast to an earlier series, Beside the Sea (1962), primarily painted with oil— not ink—on paper, here the imagery is more routine, although not repetitive, in the vein of abstract expressionism. Although less developed, it is powerfully rhythmic.
In their use of ink, the paintings included in Lyric Suite offer a lesser-known approach to abstract painting, particularly unfamiliar to western audiences. They project an alternative openness whereby the ink appears to have a consciousness of its own, an ineluctable presence that is instinctively felt among ink painters in China. The Chinese and Japanese traditions of art, as described by Motherwell, have a tendency to combine both material and spiritual concerns. They thereby awaken a Zen-like protocol through the absence of meaning, cultivating, in other words, “emptiness” (sunyata). In contrast to most western art, Motherwell’s ink paintings reveal an indirectness that takes the mind back to the beginning of the creative process. Through these miniature paintings one gets the sense that Motherwell was physically seeking the origins of art—an aspiration that many of his brilliant writings have made explicit.
The current exhibition of more than 60 works on paper were selected from among 550 designated by the artist as belonging to the Lyric Suite, which he originally believed would number 1000. While the artist never achieved this figure, his desire to do so gives some idea not only of Motherwell’s ambition, but his extraordinary generosity. I came to recognize these qualities personally, if only briefly, as components, equally palpable, that constitute the very presence of Lyric Suite.