Fig. 1 A la pintura
Packaging A la pintura
The Opens in Spain
The Studio in Display and Preservation
- 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.
- 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 project—a 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.
- John McKendry, ed., Robert Motherwell’s “A la pintura”: The Genesis of a Book (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972).
- This work was acquired by the Art Institute in 1982 as part of the ULAE Collection.
- 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.
- 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.
- See Art in America (September–October 1972), n.p.
- Colsman-Freyberger, “Robert Motherwell,” 126.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Robert Motherwell, “The Book’s Beginnings,” in McKendry, ed., Robert Motherwell’s “A la pintura,” n.p.
- Colsman-Freyberger, “Robert Motherwell,” 19.
- Motherwell, “The Book’s Beginnings,” n.p.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- Motherwell, quoted in McKendry, ed., Robert Motherwell’s “A la pintura,” n.p.
- Motherwell also used blue tarlatan in his decision-making process for “Blue” #5 and chambray for “White” #10–13.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- Grace Glueck, “Motherwell, at 61, Puts ‘Eternal’ Quality into Art,” New York Times, February 3, 1976, 33.
- 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.
- 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.
- McKendry, introduction to Robert Motherwell’s “A la pintura,” n.p. See also Siri Engberg and Joan Banach, eds., Robert Motherwell: The Complete Prints 1940–1991: 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.
- For images of the patio, see “Patio from the Castle of Vélez Blanco,” The Met Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/199003?sortBy=Relevance&ft=Spanish%2c+Almer%c3%ada&offset=0&rpp=40&pos=1.
- 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.
- Ibid., 56–63.
- James N. Wood, foreword to Sparks, Universal Limited Art Editions, n.p.
- Curatorial object file, Department of Prints and Drawings, Art Institute of Chicago.
- 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.
- Robert Motherwell, press release, Dedalus Foundation Archives, quoted in Flam, “Paintings, 1967–1974,” 136.
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.
- 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: creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/