Robert Motherwell and David Smith: Paper Trails
“Dear Smith,” Robert Motherwell wrote in May 1947, “We are beginning a new review…and I would like very much to run some reproductions of your work with a statement…that has to do with your interior life.” The review was called Possibilities, and though it would run for only one issue, the deep friendship between Motherwell and David Smith generated by this invitation would last until Smith’s untimely death in 1965. When Motherwell and painter Helen Frankenthaler began dating in 1957, the friendship deepened, and Frankenthaler became an essential part of it. The three artists exchanged letters across long geographic distances, with Smith chiefly writing from his home in Bolton Landing in the Adirondack Mountains, and Motherwell and Frankenthaler writing to Smith from their homes in Provincetown and New York City or while on international vacations. Yet the letters tell only a partial story: The artists’ drawings, paintings, and sculptures reveal a largely non-verbal and, arguably, more intimate dialogue.
Early in their courtship, Motherwell and Frankenthaler visited Smith in Bolton Landing. In a following letter, Frankenthaler sketched six sculptures by Smith that she especially admired. This sketch may be considered the first visual communication, in drawing, among the artists. In 1960, Motherwell gifted two horizontal ink drawings to Smith’s daughters, Rebecca and Candida. They feature passages of dark gray wash and streaks of red, gold, and blue, with meandering, linear marks in pencil. In 1961, Smith would make the large sculpture Gondola (1961) in response to Motherwell’s iconic painting series, the “Elegies to the Spanish Republic” (1948-91). Motherwell later wrote of the early- to mid-1960s as a moment when “the two artists I saw most frequently were of course my wife Helen Frankenthaler, and our close friend, David Smith, both prolific artists whose fecundity moved me more than I was aware of then.”
In early 1941, Motherwell had made the decision to abandon his pursuit of a graduate degree in art history to focus on his own practice. He quickly became acquainted with Surrealist artists and World War II émigrés Kurt Seligmann, Gordon Onslow-Ford, Matta, and, during a prolonged stay in Mexico, Wolfgang Paalen; Possibilities was modeled, to some extent, on Paalen’s dissident Surrealist journal, DYN. Under the tutelage of these artists, Motherwell adopted certain fundamental techniques of Surrealist artmaking, such as the use of psychic automatism and staining to unharness the subconscious mind and circumvent the impulse to render narrative images. “If you start with stains,” Matta advised, “if you read them by the automatic, hallucinatory method, you will see things in them arising out of hidden desire.” Motherwell’s use of automatist drawing alongside chance effects produced by inky stains and splatters characterizes many works on paper made throughout his career.
Smith had moved to Bolton Landing in 1940. Over the next twenty-five years, he created a body of work that became legendary for its scope and innovation. He was aided by his process of arranging sculptures against the mountains and sky, in the sloped fields surrounding the home and studios he had built for himself above Lake George. Motherwell, in a catalogue text for an exhibition of Smith’s work in 1950, was possibly the first writer to document the importance of place in Smith’s practice. Smith’s work became increasingly abstract in the 1950s. Unlike Motherwell, however, he did not facilitate chance effects or embrace pure automatism as image-making strategies. Smith frequently used the semi-automatist method of calligraphy as a means of channeling what he called “the life force of the artist.” Smith’s identity was deeply tied to the natural environment that surrounded him. His drawings can evoke landscapes, or flocks of birds in flight.
For Motherwell, Provincetown, on the terminal point of Cape Cod, was similarly a site of profound importance to him. In the early 1960s, Motherwell and Frankenthaler would build a three-story home and studio on the beach, which Motherwell called the Sea Barn. The light, the sea, and the coastal landscape informed many of their works. After Motherwell and Frankenthaler hosted a birthday party for Candida Smith in Provincetown in summer 1962, Smith made a horizontal, calligraphic, ink drawing that he inscribed, “For favorites Becca Dida David to Motherwells” and, on the verso, “The best resthome ever love David.” The drawing suggests the shoreline of Cape Cod, with a low sun over the Atlantic and a vertical element on the right—perhaps one of Provincetown’s three lighthouses. In this work, Smith acknowledged his friends’ hospitality but, on a more empathetic level, it appears he was acknowledging the importance of Provincetown to Motherwell’s and Frankenthaler’s artistic practices.
In Spring 1965, Motherwell purchased 1000 sheets of Japanese mulberry paper and began an ambitious series of ink drawings that he would eventually title Lyric Suite. He worked at an intensity of ten to fifteen drawings per day, letting ink from his brush bleed into the paper and determine the final compositions. He had completed over 550 of the drawings and begun to frame them, when he gifted three of them to Smith on a visit to Bolton Landing on May 14-15, 1965. Eight days later, Smith died in a car accident near Bennington, Vermont. Overcome by shock and grief, Motherwell abruptly ceased work on the series and never picked it up again. He painted The Forge (1965-68) in honor of Smith but remained unsatisfied with it as a pictorial eulogy. Years later, while making his Open series, Motherwell would associate a particularly dark and large painting with the loss of his friend and colleague, and title it Open No. 121: Bolton Landing Elegy (1969).