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A cropped view of a sketchbook shows a grid of rectangles. Each is labeled with a number and contains lines and rectangles in black, yellow, blue, or red. A cropped view of a sketchbook shows a grid of rectangles. Each is labeled with a number and contains lines and rectangles in black, yellow, blue, or red.

Siting a Multiple: Robert Motherwell’s A la pintura (1968–72)

Although best known for his paintings—especially the series of large-scale, black-and-white gestural abstract paintings known as the Elegies to the Spanish Republic, which have become icons of Abstract Expressionism—Robert Motherwell was also one of the most prolific printmakers of his generation.[1] Print has often been understood as, by definition, a medium on which conversations around site-specificity have no bearing, moving without apparent friction through domestic and institutional spaces alike. In A la pintura (1968–72; fig. 1), an edition of forty folios of twenty-one unbound intaglio prints, Robert Motherwell challenged this understanding of print by emphasizing the project’s sitedness—that is, the way in which it inheres in a set of described, implied, and more directly registered real-world locations.1

Spatial references abound in this, Motherwell’s first, longest, and most ambitious illustration project, the result of four years of work in Tatyana Grosman’s Long Island workshop, Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), during which he painstakingly proceeded from sketches to proofs with the aid of master printer Donn Steward.[2] A la pintura is based on a selection of poems from a book of the same title (which has been translated as Ode to Painting) by Spanish twentieth-century poet Rafael Alberti that addresses the main attributes of painting as a medium and its most basic pigments, in particular celebrating the material sources of color in the landscape and architecture of Spain. Many of the illustrations portray the motifs Motherwell then favored in his painting, situated within architectural spaces, both interior and exterior. Even handling the folio, which is housed in a Formica and Plexiglas cladding designed by the artist, produces an embodied sensation of the sitedness of viewing and reading. Additionally, museum display and the preservation of the project—with which Motherwell was in some cases involved—foreground the site of studio production, making the physical site of making central to the book’s imagery and significance, as well as viewers’ sitedness.2

Exploring the ways in which A la pintura is, in a sense, site-specific offers important insights not only into this work itself but also into Motherwell’s work in all media, both during and after this period. Beginning with an examination of the folio and its source text, and extending through a study of its locations of display and preservation—including its 1972 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York alongside a wide range of associated documents including sketches, proofs, and other working materials—this paper explores the sites of A la pintura—its physical location, the spaces it depicts, and the spatial metaphors in its text—and argues that understanding Motherwell’s unique and complex engagement with print as a medium, while important in its own right, can also transform our understanding of his practice as a painter.[3] In particular, exploring the remnants of Motherwell’s process in producing the work, which are preserved at the Art Institute, meticulously catalogued so as to reproduce his decision-making process, step by step, allows us to better understand the artist’s unique view of color, gesture, and medium—whether in print or painting—as essentially sited.[4] This reveals the interplay of site and multiplicity as an underappreciated dimension of Motherwell’s practice both in the 1960s and after, as he explored motifs and techniques that took him far beyond the Spanish Elegies.3

Packaging A la pintura

When engaging A la pintura, viewers encounter its distinctive housing before seeing the prints themselves: a white box with a transparent top, brass hardware, and a functioning drawer through which the stack of prints can be accessed (fig. 2). This custom-made container stages the project as available for both vertical display, with the folio functioning as a sort of customizable picture frame, and horizontal appreciation, because the prints are stored flat in a drawer. However, the housing’s sheer bulk makes this implied transition between viewing sites necessarily, and awkwardly, embodied, and solo appreciation in fact virtually impossible; to view the prints requires advance planning, more than one person, and ample table space, as the container more than doubles its depth when the drawer is fully extended (fig. 3).[5] Indeed, the work’s bulkiness slows its movement between its implied sites. As an “outsized” book, as Motherwell called A la pintura, the piece is confrontational and, in its way, as large as his paintings.[6] In other words, the sheer bulk of the work challenges the conception of print as a medium made for individual address, giving a sense of scale to pictures that still fit through domestic doorways.4

A wooden box with a drawer holds a stack of paper. The drawer is partially pulled out. The top of the box is clear, revealing the sheet of paper on top. On this sheet, a small blue rectangle sits above red handwritten text that reads: “A la pintura.”

Fig. 2

Robert Motherwell (American, 1915–1991); published by Universal Limited Art Editions (American, founded 1955). Folio box, from A la pintura, 1972. Box made of wood and Plexiglas; 71 × 110.6 × 15.3 cm (28 × 43 9/16 × 6 1/16 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, ULAE Collection acquired through a challenge grant of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Dittmer; purchased with funds provided by supporters of the Department of Prints and Drawings; Centennial Endowment; Margaret Fisher Endowment Fund, 1982.862.25. See this work’s page in the Art Institute’s online collection.

Two women carefully hold a large flat wooden box that has a clear top and contains a stack of paper. They are standing in a room with tables, chairs, and bookshelves.

Fig. 3

Museum staff members Jill Bugajski and Kate Howell handling the A la pintura folio box in the Prints and Drawings study room at the Art Institute of Chicago.

When A la pintura is presented in the museum context, however, the folio container nearly disappears, as in the 1972 presentation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see fig. 4). Here, the prints were presented on the wall behind Plexiglas, accompanied by working documents mounted in white cases much like the white Formica cabinetry itself. Positioned on a white pedestal, the box was presented simultaneously as a sculptural object and an extension of the pedestal itself, the continuity of materials making the combination into a makeshift table. As much furniture as sculpture or painting, it is simultaneously adaptable to every context and palpably out of place wherever it sits.5

A black-and-white view shows a two-story gallery space framed by columns and archways in a Classical architectural style.The upper level features sheets of paper installed along the wall while the lower level contains figurative sculptures and a hanging tapestry.

Fig. 4

Installation view of Robert Motherwell’sA la pintura’: The Genesis of a Book, October 24–December 3, 1972, Department of Drawings and Prints, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

An advertisement that ULAE placed in the September–October 1972 issue of Art in America presents A la pintura—shown in its distinctive box, which is described as a “showcase designed by the artist”—in an ambiguous space (fig. 5). The book, which recedes into the background, is photocollaged with a sheet of ULAE letterhead that seems to rest, in trompe l’oeil style, on the same surface as the magazine page itself.[7] This nearly Cubist conflation of horizontal and vertical orientations reflected Motherwell’s own description of the project’s format as presupposing both horizontal and vertical reception: “I conceived of the book both to be seen in sequence, that is, by turning the pages one by one in the proper sequence for it to be experienced in time like music, not at random, and as hung as an exhibition.”[8] This union of horizontality and verticality also had important parallels in contemporary criticism of his most recent paintings, the Open series. Slightly before he discovered Alberti’s text in spring 1967, Motherwell found the characteristic U-shaped motif that features prominently throughout A la pintura when he traced the outline of a smaller canvas onto a larger one.[9] Rosalind Krauss described the motif’s perceptual effect as an ambiguous “sliding” between the literal, flat surface of the painting and the suggestion of illusionistic space produced by the internal rectangle.[10]6

In the top half of the image, a wooden box holds a sheet of paper that is red on its right side. Below the box is a sheet of paper that describes the advertised artwork. The paper curls up at the bottom to reveal text that reads: “UNIVERSAL LIMITED ART EDITIONS.”

Fig. 5

An advertisement for Motherwell’s A la pintura in Art in America (September–October 1972): n.p.

The spatial adaptability of A la pintura’s container itself produces the sensation of sliding between vertical and horizontal axes that Motherwell was at the time also eliciting on canvas in the Open series. The ambiguity of A la pintura’s spatiality, whereby it may be conceived alternately as an extension of the picture plane and as a kind of furniture without function, also put it squarely in critical conversation with Minimalism; Michael Fried published his essay “Art and Objecthood” the same summer that Motherwell initiated the Open series.[11] As befits Motherwell’s unique position as an artist working between the historical avant-garde and new developments in contemporary art, his use of a box format is also clearly in conversation with the work of Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp—both of whom Motherwell knew well.[12] The box’s materials themselves can also be understood as located squarely between these two historical moments: the resin laminate Formica and the plastic Lucite are both modern inventions, products of the boom in innovative surface materials that took place in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but Formica and Plexiglas veneers had also been taken up by several of Motherwell’s contemporaries, including Donald Judd and Richard Artschwager.7

The Opens in Spain

Alberti’s midcentury ode to painting—a sweeping history of the art form and its techniques, staged as a virtual tour of the Museo del Prado in Madrid—was translated from the Spanish by American poet Ben Belitt and published in the 1966 English-language edition of Alberti’s Selected Poems. Alberti’s poetry was ripe for Motherwell’s discovery at a pivotal moment in his career: the years following his major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965, which received mixed reviews, left him seeking artistic validation.[13] As he continued to paint, embarking on a series that would signal a new phase of his art-making, Motherwell found in Alberti’s poems a confirmation of the deep continuity of his approach to color within the history of art at a time when many contemporary artists were casting their extension of medium categories as something entirely new. Motherwell later recalled that “every line set into motion my innermost painterly feelings.”[14] He described Alberti as a fellow “ancient in the modern world,” and their shared affinity encompassed Spain itself, which Motherwell viewed as a kind of living anachronism.[15] In interviews and writings, Motherwell conceived his own connection to Spain in spatial terms, arguing that he was familiar with the light of the Mediterranean region because of similarity of latitude. For example, he wrote, “Alberti’s text has its own magical light, based on the latitude of the Mediterranean countries. New York, Barcelona, Long Island, and Rome … are all approximately on the same latitude.”[16]8

It is unsurprising, then, that Motherwell employed Alberti’s text as a stand-in for his own views on art and expressed a perceived equivalence between their projects.[17]For example, in a working document for the title page, Motherwell associated the duration of Alberti’s writing process with the four-year gestation period of his own illustrations of Alberti’s text, changing the publication dates of both the original and his own edition from single dates—1948 and 1971, respectively—into spans of time: namely, 1945–1952 for the former (taking into account the successive editions published within these dates) and 1968–1972 for the latter.[18] He further underscored this identification by inserting a transformation of the original subtitle “poema del color y de la línea” (poem of color and line) beneath the title of his own contribution: “aquatints of color and line.”9

Motherwell encountered a truncated version of Alberti’s A la pintura in Belitt’s translation, which highlighted only one aspect of the original text: the notion that the central objective of painting is the expression of color.[19] Indeed, the abridged version to which Motherwell had access was a radically whittled-down version of a much more complex literary object—a series of poems in varied styles on artists from the thirteenth to the twentieth century, ranging from Giotto to Picasso, interspersed with traditional sonnets on the tools, materials, and technical innovations of painting (such as perspective), as well as numbered lists of aphorisms on color (see fig. 6).[20] Instead of simply translating an excerpt of Alberti’s original, Belitt crafted an abridged whole, rearranging stanzas and positioning four color poems (on black, red, blue, and white) in direct succession. He then chose from the original nineteen poems on the various tools and techniques of painting just two to introduce and conclude the poem, starting appropriately with the painter’s palette and finishing with the paintbrush. In numbered stanzas characterizing the effect of a single color as found in distinct locations, the poems define colors as concrete phenomena—something found in the world—that, through repeated use, accrue in a web of meaning to form an abstract meaning. For instance, Alberti referenced the black of ink, burial cloths, and ritual candles; the blue of the Mediterranean and Tintoretto and Manet; the red of apples, poppies, and Velázquez; and the white of lime-plaster walls, chalk, and drapery. In the poem quoted on Motherwell’s first page alone, “Black” #1–3, Alberti assembled sites immaterial and material—such as the depths of wells, the interiors of vessels, and the ink of prints—like swatches to evoke the richness of black.10

On the left, a table of contents displays titles and corresponding page numbers. The titles in order, from top to bottom, read: “A LA PINTURA / HOMAGE TO PAINTING,” “A la paleta / A Palette,” “Negro / Black, Azul / Blue,” “Rojo / Red,” “Blanco / White,” “Al pincel / A Paintbrush,” “Velázquez / Velázquez,” and “Miguel Ángel / Michelangelo.” On the right, an index displays terms and corresponding page numbers. The main text is too small to read, but the title at the top reads: “INDICE GENERAL.”

Fig. 6

Left: Part of the table of contents in Rafael Alberti, Selected Poems, trans. Ben Belitt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966). Right: Indice general in Rafael Alberti, A la pintura: poema del color y la línea (Madrid: Aguilar, 1968).

Emulating Alberti’s approach, Motherwell picked the colors (and sometimes the textures) for A la pintura from objects around him in the studio. This built on his long-standing curiosity about the material sources of colors. Previously, pondering the black pigments in his Spanish Elegies, he had wondered, “What animal’s bones (or horns) are making the furrows of my picture?”[21] Now, at ULAE, he asked his printer, Donn Steward, to purchase a “perfect orange” from the grocery store to color proof the Open composition illustrating the preface.[22] Similarly, Motherwell asked Steward to find a blue that matched the shade of the tarlatan fabric used in the print studio to wipe plates against watercolor swatches and aquatint working proofs for “Blue” #5.[23] This approach to palette recalls Motherwell’s reproduction in his collages of the particular blue of Gauloises cigarette packaging but goes further: in A la pintura, he incorporated the surfaces of art making—paper, canvas, and other studio textiles—thereby transporting found materials back to the studio. While Motherwell’s juxtaposition of this practice with Alberti’s text makes it clear that the artist considered these found colors redolent with poetic meaning, it also exploits the avant-garde invention of the readymade.11

While he grounded his color selection in stuff, Motherwell made text the realm for the artist’s creative color selection and mixing, a kind of palette in and of itself. Documents of his working process show that the illustration of Alberti’s sonnet “To the Palette” proceeded through multiple concepts before Motherwell opted for a spare composition featuring an aquatint rendering of a square black swatch of fibrous Japanese mulberry paper with the original Spanish text of each stanza of the poem printed in a different color, thus establishing language as the domain of the painter’s palette. At the time of his first sketch for “To the Palette,” Motherwell was still conceiving of the palette image literally, depicting bright daubs of color inside a thick black pastel outline rendering of the Open motif and an abstracted, circular painter’s palette. Acknowledging the conventions of printing as a medium, the artist selected colors known as the printer’s primaries—cyan, yellow, and magenta. In another sketch (fig. 7), however, Motherwell abandoned the schematic depiction of a palette in favor of positioning color as an object to be viewed in three-dimensional space. The Open motif now resembled a window in a wall, with two lines added to create the illusion of recession, and the colors are arranged as if hovering above the ground. This spatial rendering suggests the dramatic final composition, in which the colors are, notably, replaced by a soft-ground impression of a found material—a torn corner of black Japanese paper—that captures its exact dimensions and texture, including even remnant fibers from where it was torn still visible on two of its edges.[24] The notion of a painter’s palette, in this final composition, is entirely transferred to language, with the original Spanish text (which Motherwell chose to retain, alongside the English translation) rendered—after several iterations experimenting with various colors—in blue, brown, red, and orange (see fig. 8).[25] Endowing the Spanish text with the powerful ability to paint a picture, so to speak, Motherwell exchanged iconographic rendering for the readymade while reassigning the role of image-making to language, suggesting that it is poetry that gives the reader access to the rich meaning of the color black as instantiated in a scrap of paper.12

At the top of a horizontal sheet of white paper, a large rectangle is outlined in light green. A horizontal pencil line cuts across the lower portion of the sheet. Below this line are drawn, single-color abstract forms (from left to right) in brown, yellow, orange, red, blue, and green.

Fig. 7

Robert Motherwell (American, 1915–1991). A la pintura: To the Palette, 1969. Colored pastel and graphite on white wove paper, working proof; 12.9 × 30.7 cm (5 1/8 × 12 1/8 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, ULAE Collection acquired through a challenge grant of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Dittmer; purchased with funds provided by supporters of the Department of Prints and Drawings; Centennial Endowment; Margaret Fisher Endowment Fund, 1982.862f.

Motherwell had a long-standing interest in the relationship between word and image, which first found expression in the Spanish Elegies, including the earliest work in the series: an ink drawing that illustrates a poem by Harold Rosenberg (1948; Museum of Modern Art). This drawing also served as inspiration for the first Spanish Elegy painting, At Five in the Afternoon (1948–49; private collection), which quotes the refrain of a poem by Federico García Lorca. The relation between text and image in the page design of A la pintura implies the large stakes of this project, indicating that it is perhaps the key text underlying Motherwell’s thinking about color during this time, when he moved toward experiments in Color Field painting. This implies that Motherwell maintained an expansive aesthetic relationship to the historical avant-garde as he probed the formal boundaries of his previous work and sought a new style. If the work of Federico García Lorca, the poet famously murdered in the Spanish Civil War, had served as a touchstone for his black-and-white Spanish Elegies, now it was García Lorca’s friend and colleague Alberti, exiled from Spain by the war, who was shaping his thinking on color.[26] While the two poets’ styles are very different, both sought historical inspiration in their avant-garde practices. In his youth Alberti embraced (and has come to exemplify) the deliberately anachronistic style of the Spanish avant-garde alongside García Lorca and visual artists such as Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, and Oscar Domínguez. This group is known as the Generation of 1927, for their gathering that year in Seville to celebrate the tercentennial of the long out-of-fashion Baroque poet Luis de Góngora y Argote, whom they sought to rehabilitate.[27] Unlike other modernist poetic movements in early twentieth-century Spain, which opposed lyricism, the Generation of 1927 enthusiastically incorporated the rich poetic imagery and metaphor of varied folkloric, Baroque, and modern sources.13

In the realm of image, making the Open motif serve as a window on a wall brings its ambiguous space into the realm of literal depiction, invoking a more expansive history of painting that extends back to wall painting, which Motherwell very much associated with Spain, both because of its famous prehistoric caves and the white lime walls of its architecture. In addition to the illustration for “To the Palette,” in which the U motif of the Open series is legible as a window, the illustration for “White” #1–2 makes the U even more three-dimensional through the slight upward and rightward movement of the ground line. Motherwell’s rendering the spatially ambiguous three-sided rectangle of the Open format legible as so many walls, windows, and doors brought the Open series back to its architectural origins, which had been gradually erased as he came to understand the more open-ended potential of his compositional invention. First identifying the tracing as a “door,” after long consideration (perhaps coincidentally, during the same fall that he discovered Alberti’s poems) he inverted it, temporarily calling it the Window series before selecting the final title in reference to the open side of the shape.[28] In removing any explicit architectural reference from the title, Motherwell put the emphasis instead on the ineffable quality of space in this series, the hovering spatial twisting that placed the traditional notion of painting as a window in tension with the insistent materiality of the canvas.14

In this way, Motherwell did not just adapt his existing Open motif for A la pintura in relation to Alberti’s text or to the constraints of intaglio printing; instead, he resituated the motif in depicted architectural space, making it impossible to see the Opens in precisely the same way again, and offering new insights into how we might understand his painting during these years. For example, a 1976 photograph published in the New York Times of the artist in his studio, seated in an old caned rocking chair, shows the room full of completed paintings (fig. 9).[29] While this image certainly contrasts Hans Namuth’s studio images of Abstract Expressionist painters in action, it also provides a rare view of the paintings in the context of their making, displayed provisionally by the artist in a curious arrangement interspersed with other chairs of various styles, all placed facing away from the paintings. The choice of chairs is significant; any object could be used to indicate scale, but this particular item implies the presence of the human body. More specifically, the set-up imagines alternative modes of beholding, with the viewer seated rather than standing and oriented away from, rather than toward, the picture plane—simply inhabiting the same space as the work, not necessarily viewing it. The catalogue illustrations for the 1969 exhibition of the Open series at the Marlborough Gallery (significantly, Motherwell’s first solo presentation after the 1965 retrospective), also photographed in his studio, include a chair as a prop next to each panel (see, for example, fig. 10). Offering a sense of scale so often lost in the photography of abstract paintings, these chairs function similarly to the spatial context in Motherwell’s illustrations for A la pintura, underscoring the “wall” quality of the Opens and their internal “windows.”15

A yellowed newspaper clipping shows a photograph of a man sitting in a rocking chair with large paintings leaning against the walls around him. Below the photograph is an article titled “Motherwell, at 61, Puts ‘Eternal’ Quality Into Art.”

Fig. 9

Robert Motherwell in his studio, reproduced in Grace Glueck, “Motherwell, at 61, Puts ‘Eternal’ Quality into Art,” New York Times, February 3, 1976. Clipping from Dedalus Foundation Archive, New York, New York.

A room with a brown chair at bottom left and a large green abstract artwork at the right.

Fig. 10

An image of Motherwell’s studio with works from the Open series, tipped into the catalogue for the exhibition Robert Motherwell: ‘Open’ Series, 1967–1969, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York, May 13–June 7, 1969.

The Studio in Display and Preservation

The immediate display and eventual archival preservation of A la pintura incorporated extensive artifacts from the book’s production process, making the site of the studio integral to the work’s reception. Upon its completion, the book was exhibited in a presentation curated by John McKendry of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Drawings and Prints. McKendry portrayed the project as the result of a lengthy and exacting process of studio production by displaying a range of associated documents, which he argued were central to understanding it; these included sketches, proofs, plates, and other working materials.[30] His catalogue introduction refers to the “Babylonian” luxury of time spent on the production of A la pintura, which he had the opportunity to witness during frequent visits to observe the making process at the ULAE intaglio studio, documented by Michael Blackwood for the film Motherwell/Alberti.[31] While McKendry attributed the project’s lengthy production period to Grosman’s meticulous and unsparing efforts to achieve the precise intention of the artists working in her studios (“economy is a word [she] doesn’t know”), he also cited Motherwell’s “especially difficult” efforts to create a multipart work that could be perceived as a coherent whole. This was a departure from the artist’s previous practice, not only in painting but in print, where he had previously sought directness and immediacy, and this time he took advantage of the unique capacity of printmaking to generate a record of process via working and trial prints.[32] The exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum highlighted these materials; installation views (see figs. 5, 11) show that visitors to the Drawings and Prints galleries encountered a dense display of Motherwell’s activities in the studio.16

A cropped view of a sketchbook shows a grid of rectangles. Each is labeled with a number and contains lines and rectangles in black, yellow, blue, or red.

Fig. 11

Robert Motherwell (American, 1915–1991). Sketch for Robert Motherwell’sA la pintura’: The Genesis of a Book, October 24–December 3, 1972, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Exhibition file, Department of Drawings and Prints, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

By beginning the exhibition in the upper level of the patio from the Castle of Vélez Blanco, McKendry located A la pintura within an architectural icon of Spain.[33] A masterpiece of Italianate sixteenth-century Spanish architecture, the patio had become something of an informal national monument before it was sold to an American banker in the early twentieth century, who installed it in his New York mansion.[34] When it was bequeathed to the Met, the patio became what art historian Tommaso Mozzati has described as a “geo-political Cold War game piece.” This symbol of Spanish colonial heritage became the subject of political bargaining as it was considered for a diplomatic gift to Cuba, then to Puerto Rico, before the museum’s trustees elected to incorporate it into the New York building, where it remains to this day.[35]17

In the patio’s gallery, McKendry displayed the folio container of A la pintura on a pedestal alongside the finished book’s sequentially ordered sheets, which hung vertically under Plexiglas (see fig. 5). Motherwell may have played a role in selecting the location; indeed, before the exhibition he sent McKendry a sketch of how the prints would appear displayed all at once, in sequence (fig. 11). Whoever was behind the choice, it positioned the project within the long duration of Spanish art history—a history that might have seemed particularly poignant at the time, as Spain had been under dictatorship since 1936. The decision also facilitated Motherwell’s dual demand of viewers: to inspect the works both quite closely, as individual prints—because the patio’s narrow gallery left visitors little room to back up—and as a whole, from an extreme distance, on the first level.18

Most of the working materials displayed in the exhibition’s interior galleries—that is, out of the patio’s view—remained in Tatyana Grosman’s personal collection until the ULAE Collection was acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1982, a gargantuan effort made possible by a challenge grant from Frances and Thomas H. Dittmer and met by over a hundred additional donors. A further gift by Grosman of over 4,200 archival pieces—working drawings and proofs, trial proofs, and other remnants of the printing process—made the Art Institute the world’s premier location for the study of ULAE’s most significant period.[36] From this vast collection, then Prints and Drawings curator Esther Sparks identified and catalogued over three hundred pieces of preparatory material from Motherwell’s work on A la pintura, carefully revealing how he created nearly every plate, step-by-step.[37] Sparks’s notes, when read while observing the preparatory materials themselves, reveal instances where the site of the studio made its mark on the final print, as, for example, where a studio textile served as a color sample or a tool of impression.19

One print, displayed in the rear corner of the gallery at the Metropolitan Museum (see the center of fig. 12) uses a monochrome soft-ground impression of painter’s canvas, also visible on display, to illustrate the sonnet “To the Paintbrush” (fig. 13). Notably, it renders the titular subject of Alberti’s poem absent. As in the illustration for “To the Palette,” here, too, Motherwell counterintuitively dispensed with representing the painterly tool in question, or its effects, in favor of presenting a readymade texture. Documents in the Art Institute’s ULAE Collection reflect the process by which he arrived at this composition. As attested by a note Motherwell made just a few months into his work on the project, the initial concept was, quite logically, to represent a brushstroke (though in Blackwood’s documentary, in which Motherwell can be seen handling the canvas [fig. 14], he claims that the original concept had been to represent the brush itself). In a sketch working out the concept for this image, Motherwell placed three intertwined strokes of black ink within a plate impression and made a fourth brushstroke that continues beyond the plate impression. In other words, at this stage, as he explains in the documentary, he envisioned painting as competing with engraving: the fourth stroke’s transgression of the plate border makes the sketch impossible to reproduce in the sugar-lift aquatint etching technique used for the book. By contrast, the final composition equates the painter’s canvas and the printer’s plate. This has the effect of transforming soft-ground etching, a medium typically used to record the artist’s gesture, into a procedure for producing readymades and monochromes, reducing his gesture to the impression of the plate.[38] In other words, in To the Paintbrush Motherwell made a painting in a single stroke, preserving the artist’s unique gesture to which he was so committed while using reductive strategies.20

A spread of a sketchbook shows sixteen rectangles. Each rectangle contains lines, text, and rectangles in red, orange, black, yellow, or blue.

Fig. 12

Installation view of Robert Motherwell’s ‘A la pintura’: The Genesis of a Book, October 24–December 3, 1972, Department of Drawings and Prints, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A large brown rectangle with a jagged bottom edge featuring drips of color appears in the center left of the white sheet. To the right is a poem in alternating stanzas of English (black type) and Spanish (orange, green, red, blue, and brown type).

Fig. 13

Robert Motherwell (American, 1915–1991); written by Rafael Alberti (Spanish, 1902–1999); translated by Ben Belitt (American, 1911–2003); printed by Donn Steward (American, 1921–1986); typography by Juda Rosenberg and Esther Pullman; published by Universal Limited Art Editions (American, founded 1955). To the Paintbrush, from A la pintura, 1969, published 1972. Color soft ground etching with aquatint from one copper plate, with letterpress, on white wove paper; image/plate: 25.4 × 40.6 cm (10 × 16 in.); sheet: 64.7 × 96.5 cm (25 1/2 × 38 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, ULAE Collection acquired through a challenge grant of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Dittmer; purchased with funds provided by supporters of the Department of Prints and Drawings; Centennial Endowment; Margaret Fisher Endowment Fund, 1982.862.21. See this work’s page in the Art Institute’s online collection.

A man unrolls a brown canvas scroll. Only his hands and torso are visible, as he presents the open scroll toward the viewer.

Fig. 14

Still from Motherwell/Alberti (1972), dir. Michael Blackwood, 15 min., color.

In a dimly lit room with canvases of varying sizes leaning against the walls. At the center, a dark red and brown painting is propped against a larger tan painting. Some canvases lie on the ground, along with a small white pot containing paint brushes.

Fig. 15

Motherwell’s studio at 414 East 75th Street, New York, in June 1967, showing Summertime in Italy leaning against Open No. 1: In Yellow Ochre. Dedalus Foundation Archive, New York, New York.

Moreover, by printing the image in yellow ocher, he linked this procedure of imprinting with his painting practice, specifically to the origin of the Open series, whose first example had been painted in the same color (see fig. 15). In a press release he composed himself, Motherwell described his discovery of the format as the result of tracing: “The series began,” he reported, “when the artist rested a narrow, vertical stretcher against a much larger narrow, vertical canvas, whose ground was painted yellow-ochre … it occurred to him that three charcoal lines outlining the resting stretcher were sufficient.”[39] The illustration for “To the Paintbrush,” then, constituted a quintessential Open: the shape of a canvas indexically recorded on a larger surface, perhaps procedurally closer to the reproductive logic of printing than any of his previous gestural abstractions. In To the Paintbrush, Motherwell also reveals the compositional technique so fundamental to the Opens: the registration of smaller canvases against larger ones at the heart of this painterly motif is essentially comparable to the printing process, wherein a plate is impressed on a larger page; both involve the negotiation of margins.[40]21

Above all, A la pintura reveals new and complex ways of perceiving the Open motif: as sited in space; rooted in the artist’s engagement with Spain’s colors, sites, and literature; and based in a fundamentally intermedial dynamic of margins. Motherwell was still firmly indebted to the avant-garde poetics of the Generation of 1927, even after he moved into his second major painting series after his Spanish Elegies. His work during this period, whether in painting or print, cannot be fully understood without an understanding of the motifs and procedures that emerged from his interpretation of Alberti’s poetry.22

Although Motherwell is known for coining the term New York School, he resisted the reductive categorizations of its best-known proponents, such as Clement Greenberg, insisting instead on the complexity of the artist’s intention, which he believed was never reducible to singular goals such as, for example, an interest in medium specificity. At the same time, Motherwell’s works evidence targeted, critical engagement with these ideas, and indeed, it is difficult to imagine a stronger response to Greenberg’s critical values than A la pintura. As a work in print about painting that uses a text as its source, the project constitutes something of a confrontation between media because of its choice of subject, but it also radically transgresses media boundaries in other ways; it is a literary artwork—called a “book” and compared to a medieval psalter by the artist—and produced in multiples through a lengthy and complex dialogue with a team of other makers. It functioned logically as a kind of proof for Motherwell, demonstrating that he could make painting out of each of Greenberg’s “others,” and through an entirely different medium, a tactic he continued to employ as he pursued printmaking (both intaglio and lithography) in the ensuing years.23

Crucial to this expansion of the then-dominant terms of art making was A la pintura’s incorporation of the site of its production. Importantly, these spatial references invoking the present-tense of studio activity, of Spain, and of particular objects and sites, were also temporally retrospective in their citation of Alberti. [41] Looking back to a poet of the previous generation, Motherwell asked viewers to embrace models of persistence in his newest work. Without placing value on newness as such, Motherwell paradoxically found himself in step with a younger generation of artists who emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s, who extricated painting from static medium-based definitions, bringing it into and beyond the artist’s studio through a range of new practices and materials. Precisely because he has been conceived as such a traditional figure, Motherwell’s practice has been regarded as not as obviously innovative as those of these younger makers, from Bruce Nauman to Robert Morris.24

Motherwell himself reinforced this perception with his posture of strategic anachronism, whereby he embraced the identity of an artist working somewhat after his moment, casting himself as an “ancient in the modern world” and part of the “old guard,” and located himself outside the forward march of art history. Even the extended working process that generated A la pintura reinforced this use of anachronism. To maintain a coherent aesthetic over such a long period of time required, in Motherwell’s words, an “active historical imagination.”[42] He offered, in place of narratives of progressive art historical discovery, a provocative argument for the possibility of trans-historical artistic conversations: “I think events exist side by side, and that the generations are simultaneous, to some extent. In this sense, though Abstract Expressionism has been followed by other movements, it is also now, in 1965, at the height of its creative powers.”[43] A la pintura made the present tense of color—as instantiated within sites from the skin of an orange to the studio—broadly art historical, connected to more far-flung sites ranging from the Museo del Prado and the walls of ordinary Spanish buildings. Probing these ideas in print, in the context of Alberti’s ode to painting, Motherwell embraced diverse artistic traditions, at once traditional and radically confrontational.25

Banner image: Detail of fig. 11.26


  1. This essay was developed during a Chicago Object Studies Initiative (COSI) Mellon Curatorial Research Fellowship at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2014–15 and a Dedalus Foundation Visiting Scholar appointment at the Archives of American Art in 2015. In 2017 the Dedalus Foundation also supported a study day focused on the working materials for A la pintura at the Art Institute of Chicago, hosted in concert with the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago and the Department of Academic Engagement and Research at the Art Institute. I thank my co-organizers—Jill Bugajski, Katy Rogers, and Debora Wood—as well as invited guests Tim Clifford, Gregory Gilbert, and Kent Minturn. I am deeply appreciative of Kent Minturn in particular for reading this paper closely during the open peer-review process and providing invaluable feedback. Tom Baron, Kate Howell, and Mark Pascale went above and beyond the obligations of their roles at the museum in making time to support the object-based research that made this paper possible. Finally, I recognize the late Esther Sparks, a graduate of the University of Chicago and Northwestern University who worked at the Art Institute as a curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings from 1970 to 1984. Her extensive curatorial notes on the ULAE archive and her correspondence with Motherwell—only a small portion of which informed her book Universal Limited Art Editions: A History and Catalogue: The First Twenty-Five Years (Art Institute of Chicago, 1989)formed the intellectual groundwork for this project.
  2. Motherwell remembered having spent “30-odd days out there during those four years.” Robert Motherwell to Esther Sparks, November 27, 1985, XI.86-90, folder 3, Dedalus Foundation, New York. Grosman had hoped to involve Motherwell in a book-illustration projecta livre d’artiste—from the earliest days of her enterprise in 1957, and he began to work in the lithography workshop of her cottage studio in the early 1960s, like a number of his contemporaries, among them Larry Rivers, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, and Jasper Johns. Sparks, Universal Limited Art Editions, 18. Motherwell remembered Grosman’s first query to him regarding the possibility of collaboration as having taken place in 1957; see Heidi Colsman-Freyberger, “Robert Motherwell: Words and Images,” Print Collector’s Newsletter 4, no. 6 (January–February 1974), 19.
  3. John McKendry, ed., Robert Motherwell’s “A la pintura”: The Genesis of a Book (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972).
  4. This work was acquired by the Art Institute in 1982 as part of the ULAE Collection.
  5. Speaking of A la pintura’s folio container, Motherwell reflected on his appreciation of craftsmanship: “Like many artists, I had had a certain prejudice against artsy crafts. On the other hand, I had always deeply admired people who make boats or cabinetmakers or good mechanics, people who are superb craftsmen in relation to ends that are rooted in the means. In making prints, one’s full depth of appreciation for the marvelousness of craftsmanship is enormously reinforced.” Motherwell quoted in Colsman-Freyberger, “Robert Motherwell,” 129.
  6. Motherwell told Colsman-Freyberger that he had planned a smaller book project with Grosman for the future because “that book physically is awkward to handle.” Although he did think of the book as “outsized” at the time of its making, it later came to seem “more really a book in the normal sense of the word,” a shift in scale that he argued “simply parallels the development of modern American painting.” He also forcefully criticized easel painting for its small scale, calling it “domestic” and “for tourists—souvenirs.” Colsman-Freyberger, “Robert Motherwell,” 127. See also Max Kozloff, “An Interview with Robert Motherwell,” Artforum 4, no. 1 (September 1965): 37; and Robert Motherwell, Robert Motherwell (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1965), 54, 67.
  7. See Art in America (September–October 1972), n.p.
  8. Colsman-Freyberger, “Robert Motherwell,” 126.
  9. Motherwell discovered the format in March 1967, and displayed it for the first time in 1968, sending a painting to the United States embassy in Mexico City. He began his work with Steward at ULAE the following May, and by the time he was finishing A la pintura in 1972, he had made more than two hundred Open paintings. On the development of the Open motif, see Jack Flam, “Paintings, 1967–1974: Opens and Signs,” in Robert Motherwell: Paintings and Collages, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941–1991, ed. Jack Flam, Katy Rogers, and Tim Clifford (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 123–43.
  10. Rosalind Krauss, “Robert Motherwell’s New Paintings,” Artforum 7, no. 9 (May 1969): 26–28. The Opens have also prompted interpretations that attribute poetic, psychological, or philosophical significance to the motif’s formal structure. See, for example, Jonathan Fineberg, “Death and Maternal Love: Psychological Speculations on Robert Motherwell’s Art,” Artforum 17, no. 1 (September 1978): 52–57. See also Kent Minturn’s exploration of Motherwell’s ongoing relationship with Meyer Schapiro at the moment when the latter was developing his essay “Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art: Field and Vehicle in Image-Signs” (1972): Kent Minturn, “Meyer Schapiro and Robert Motherwell,” Symposium on Robert Motherwell, Archives of American Art, Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, Washington, DC, December 4, 2015, video, 28 min. 46 sec.
  11. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” (1967), in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). Motherwell himself maintained his distance from Minimalism, writing on his Open series that, “despite their simplicity of iconography, for the artist, these paintings are filled with humanistic feeling … In short, they have nothing to do with minimal art.” Motherwell, in Robert Motherwell: ‘Open’ Series, 1967–1969 (New York: Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, 1969), n.p.
  12. In his important anthology The Dada Painters and Poets (1951), Motherwell took up Duchamp’s legacy, embracing him as an artistic forefather in ways that anticipated the contributions of the next generation of makers, even as they were significantly out of step with his Abstract Expressionist peers. Joseph Cornell gave Motherwell a box and Motherwell wrote the preface for Cornell’s 1953 exhibition at the Walker Art Center. See IX.A.06, “Preface to a Joseph Cornell Exhibition” (1953), Dedalus Foundation Archive. Later, Motherwell wrote to Paul Hammond that he hadn’t spoken with Cornell for many years, reporting “I knew Cornell in a milieu that has evaporated, so that I don’t even know who sees him now.” Robert Motherwell to Paul Hammond, July 12, 1968, I.A.26, Jan–May 1968 Correspondence, Dedalus Foundation Archive.
  13. In his Artforum review critical of the artist’s 1965 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, Sidney Tillim called both artist and museum “the conservatives, not the conservators, of the avant-garde.” He wrote that the exhibition “comes too late to be topical, too soon to be historical. As it turns out, the same might be said in other terms of Motherwell’s achievement as a whole.” Sidney Tillim, “Motherwell: The Echo of Protest,” Artforum 4, no. 4 (December 1965): 13.
  14. Robert Motherwell, “The Book’s Beginnings,” in McKendry, ed., Robert Motherwell’s “A la pintura,” n.p.
  15. Colsman-Freyberger, “Robert Motherwell,” 19.
  16. Motherwell, “The Book’s Beginnings,” n.p.
  17. Tatyana Grosman and Motherwell discussed what text to use for the artist’s prospective book project over a period of several years, and Motherwell had the impression that she had originally asked him to illustrate his own writing. It is documented that she had initially asked him to collaborate with Larry Rivers; see Sparks, Universal Limited Art Editions, 18. Motherwell reached out to Grosman about his discovery of Alberti’s poem in early 1968. Barbara Cohen to Tatyana Grosman, February 16, 1968, ULAE curatorial research file, Department of Prints and Drawings, Art Institute of Chicago.
  18. An early version of A la pintura was published in 1945, during Alberti’s exile in Argentina, where he was continuing to write his memoirs and other poetry, such as his Returns of the Vital, Distant Past (1952), which—as one translator puts it—looked “backward to Spain” in a “nostalgic mode.” The book was significantly expanded and republished in 1948 with forty-nine poems, and rearranged and republished again in 1953, both times with a subtitle that reflected the increasing duration of his work on the poem. Rafael Alberti, A la pintura: cantata de la línea y del color (Buenos Aires: Imprenta López, 1945); Rafael Alberti, A la pintura: poema del color y la línea (1945–1948) (Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1948); and Rafael Alberti, A la pintura: poema del color y la línea (1945–1952) (Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1953).
  19. Motherwell, accomplished humanist and art historian that he was, could not have missed the coincidence that this prioritization upended the hierarchy proposed by the Renaissance art historian Leon Battista Alberti in his famous treatise De Pictura (On Painting; 1435), which made color subordinate to other elements of the artist’s skill. However, it is far from clear that Rafael Alberti himself set out to reorient this precedent with his poem, which engages every aspect of painting far more comprehensively than it appears to in Belitt’s abridged translation.
  20. Rafael Alberti, Selected Poems, trans. Ben Belitt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966). For an analysis of the formal structure of the poem, see the translator’s introduction to Rafael Alberti, To Painting: Poems, trans. Carolyn L. Tipton (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1997).
  21. Robert Motherwell, “Black or White (1950),” in The Writings of Robert Motherwell, ed. Dore Ashton and Joan Banach (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). A ULAE press release for A la pintura emphasized the “hand-ground” quality of the inks. ULAE curatorial research file, Department of Prints and Drawings, Art Institute of Chicago.
  22. Motherwell, quoted in McKendry, ed., Robert Motherwell’s “A la pintura,” n.p.
  23. Motherwell also used blue tarlatan in his decision-making process for “Blue” #5 and chambray for “White” #10–13.
  24. Soft-ground etchings are made by applying a waxy medium to a copper plate; traditionally, it has been favored for the ease with which it registers the artist’s gesture.
  25. Motherwell experimented with various colors for the text in his illustration of the section “To the Palette” numerous times before deciding on the final color scheme. The 1972 exhibition catalogue casts this decision as an entirely composition-driven move to add “additional weight” to the print after a set of intermediary proofs where the color daubs had been entirely removed. “In this particular case, feeling that the print needed additional weight, he placed on it a small corner cut from a piece of black Japan paper.” McKendry, ed., Robert Motherwell’s “A la pintura,” n.p.
  26. For a discussion of Motherwell’s deep involvement with Lorca’s poetics, see Robert C. Hobbs, “Robert Motherwell’s Spanish Elegies,” in Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique, ed. Ellen G. Landau (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 326–30. See also Tipton, introduction to Alberti, To Painting, xiii–xxix.
  27. Motherwell told Heidi Colsman-Freyberger, “I am not attracted to everything Spanish. It so happens I am particularly attracted to the poetry of Garcia Lorca’s generation of which Alberti is part, the generation of men who could have been my father.” Colsman-Freyberger, “Robert Motherwell: Words and Images,” 19. Motherwell famously linked Spanish Elegies to the poetry of García Lorca through the title he gave the first work in this series, At Five in the Afternoon (1948–49), a reference to the poem “Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías” (Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías).
  28. The title Opens also responded to the effect of “openness” that Clement Greenberg had recently attributed to works by Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman. Greenberg argued that the way in which these artists asserted the “primacy of color” while insisting on the continued role of line resulted in an effect of “openness.” Clement Greenberg, “After Abstract Expressionism” (1962), in The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 129.
  29. Grace Glueck, “Motherwell, at 61, Puts ‘Eternal’ Quality into Art,” New York Times, February 3, 1976, 33.
  30. The book, either in whole or part, was also exhibited at the Marlborough Gallery (New York), University of Iowa (Iowa City), Fendrick Gallery (Washington, DC), Washington University (Saint Louis), Dayton’s Gallery 12 (Dayton, OH), and Cleveland Museum of Art. Esther Sparks, handwritten list, ULAE curatorial research file, Department of Prints and Drawings, Art Institute of Chicago.
  31. McKendry, introduction to Robert Motherwell’s “A la pintura,” n.p.; Elizabeth Hager and Nancy Rosen, Blackwood Films: The Art of This Century; An Ongoing Series of Films about Contemporary Art and Artists (New York: Blackwood Films, 1979), 31.
  32. McKendry, introduction to Robert Motherwell’s “A la pintura,” n.p. See also Siri Engberg and Joan Banach, eds., Robert Motherwell: The Complete Prints 19401991: Catalogue Raisonné (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2003); Stephanie Terenzio with Dorothy C. Belknap, The Painter and the Printer: Robert Motherwell’s Graphics, 1943–1980 (New York: American Federation of Arts, 1980); and Sparks, Universal Limited Art Editions.
  33. For images of the patio, see “Patio from the Castle of Vélez Blanco,” The Met Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art,
  34. For an exploration of the politics of the museum’s accession and installation of this piece, see Tommaso Mozzati, “The Vélez Blanco Patio and United States–Cuba Relationships in the 1950s,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 56 (2021): 53–54.
  35. Ibid., 56–63.
  36. James N. Wood, foreword to Sparks, Universal Limited Art Editions, n.p.
  37. Curatorial object file, Department of Prints and Drawings, Art Institute of Chicago.
  38. In describing his general distaste for the surface texture left by intaglio etching techniques, Motherwell explained, “it is the embossing that I dislike, except for the imprint of the plate—I like that.” Colsman-Freyberger, “Robert Motherwell,” 127.
  39. Robert Motherwell, press release, Dedalus Foundation Archives, quoted in Flam, “Paintings, 1967–1974,” 136.
  40. In A la pintura, the margins were a crucial consideration, as becomes clear when the pages are viewed together from a distance. Diane Kelder has argued that the importance of “placement and scale” in the series is evident in Motherwell’s decision to hand-tear the edition’s paper to very slightly reduce its original size. Diane Kelder, “Motherwell’s ‘a La Pintura,’” Art in America 60, no. 5 (September–October 1972): 100. Motherwell confirmed this assessment: “Certainly as much time was spent on placing the plate on the page in relation to the type and the margins, on determining the dimensions of the page, as in actually making the plate.” Colsman-Freyberger, “Robert Motherwell,” 126.
  41. In the early 1980s, Motherwell again illustrated a poem by Rafael Alberti, this time one written in his honor, “Negro Motherwell” (1980), collaborating with Tyler Graphics Ltd. and using lithography.
  42. “It’s really dragged on a little too long … And there was a moment where it was sort of in the center of exactly the center of what I was in. Now, I am moving away from it into something else and it remains there … so that requires almost an active historical imagination to do it.” Transcript of a conversation between Motherwell and Steward, n.d., exhibition file, Robert Motherwell’s ‘A la pintura’: The Genesis of a Book, October 24, 1972–December 3, 1972, Department of Drawings and Prints, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
  43. Motherwell, quoted in Max Kozloff, “An Interview with Robert Motherwell,” Artforum 4, no. 1 (September 1965): 37. Along these lines, Motherwell compared himself to Pierre Bonnard as a holdout against novel artistic inventions: “Sometimes I feel like Bonnard in that he, in the midst of Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Mondrian and all the rest, was holding to a certain concept that in many respects could seem to have been obsolete.” Motherwell, quoted in Vivien Raynor, “A Talk with Robert Motherwell,” ARTnews 73, no. 4 (April 1974): 51.

How to Cite

Jennifer R. Cohen, “Siting a Multiple: Robert Motherwell’s A la pintura (1968–72),” in Perspectives on Place, ed. Elizabeth McGoey and Jeanne Marie Teutonico (Art Institute of Chicago, 2023).

This contribution has been reviewed through an open-review process.

© 2023 by The Art Institute of Chicago. This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license:

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