Local Arts

Charlotte gallery celebrates a giant of abstract expressionism

The “Lyric Suite,” 600+ ink drawings on rice paper, are named for the Alban Berg string quartet that played in the studio as Motherwell worked on them. Twelve are on view here.
The “Lyric Suite,” 600+ ink drawings on rice paper, are named for the Alban Berg string quartet that played in the studio as Motherwell worked on them. Twelve are on view here. © copyright Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, NY

The centenary of Robert Motherwell, one of the most important artists of the second half of the 20th century, is being marked by exhibitions in New York, London and ... Charlotte.

The city is enjoying its own Motherwell moment with an exhibition featuring works on paper at Jerald Melberg Gallery.

Motherwell was a member of the New York School, a group of abstract expressionists that included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and others. This show’s strength is the tender and the small.

According to Melberg, about half of Motherwell’s work was on paper; he also points out that Motherwell regarded his prints as being equal to his other work, which includes large paintings on canvas.

Educated at Harvard, Stanford and Columbia universities and influenced by the Surrealists, Motherwell (1915-1991) brought both spontaneity and a scholar’s rigor to his work.

The youngest member of the New York School, the groundbreaking group of abstract expressionists, “He was also the most intellectual,” says Melberg. “He was their writer, spokesman, apologist.”

A scholar of Joyce

Perhaps the most accessible work in the exhibition, which is free, is the “Ulysses Suite.”

Motherwell had a lifelong to devotion to James Joyce, whose works inspired many of his titles and themes.

Motherwell completed 40 etchings for this version of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which was published in 1988 by Arion Press in an edition of 150. Displayed opened, in a plexi case, it is similar in dimension to an unabridged dictionary, communicating weight and authority.

Motherwell and the publisher completed a separate portfolio of the book’s 22 color prints. Melberg has an intact suite, displayed on the wall next to the book. These tiny works feature calligraphic marks on bright backgrounds; some have recognizable elements – faces, houses, text – while others are more purely abstract.

Somber music, poetic drawings

The “Lyric Suite,” 600-plus ink drawings on rice paper, is named for the Alban Berg string quartet that played in the studio as Motherwell worked on them. Twelve are on view here.

Berg’s “Lyric Suite” is a moody, sometimes disturbing composition, in contrast to Motherwell’s Zen-like, spontaneous drawings.

Motherwell purchased the Japanese paper at a stationery store and executed the drawings using American inks. As expected, the inks spread across the porous paper; but in addition, the oils in the inks leached out, creating eerie orange-brown halos around the fields of dense black. With bulbous forms that invite interpretation, these drawing have a Rorschach-like quality.

Elegies

Over the course of almost two decades Motherwell, moved by horrors of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, completed numerous works on canvas and paper collectively titled “Elegies to the Spanish Republic.” Many are large paintings exceeding 6-by-10 feet; at Melberg are several large prints and one drawing.

This vast body of work is Motherwell’s most recognizable. With its characteristic black ovals and bands, it is stark and sad.

North Carolina connection

Motherwell can be challenging or off-putting to a general audience. This is the sort of work that might provoke a “my kid could do that” reaction. (FYI – No, your kid can’t.)

But this show is worth your while and worth approaching with an open mind and heart. It is presented in a viewer-friendly manner, with text panels providing ample background and context.

There is also a North Carolina connection – like many other important artists of the mid-20th century, Motherwell taught at the legendary Black Mountain College. After this show closes in Charlotte, it will to travel to the Black Mountain Museum + Art Center in Asheville, where it will be on view Sept 4-Dec 31.

Robert Motherwell exhibition in Charlotte

“Robert Motherwell: A Centenary Exhibition,” Jerald Melberg Gallery, 625 South Sharon Amity Road; jeraldmelberg.com; 704-365-3000. The free exhibition runs through Aug 29. Gallery hours: 10-6 Monday-Saturday, and by appointment.

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