Fairweather publisher Alexandra Fairweather sat down with renowned curator and art critic Phyllis Tuchman just before the opening of the exhibition Motherwell: the East Hampton Years, 1944-52 at Guild Hall.
“I always knew I wanted to be a curator, because you touch the art and it is the closest you get to being the artist without being the artist” explained Phyllis Tuchman as we sat across from one another in the offices of Guild Hall, where Motherwell: The East Hampton Years, 1944–52 was held August 9–October 13. Despite the celebrated art curator and critic’s previous impressive accomplishments, this exhibition in particular was very special to her as it involved “rethinking the artist, rethinking the work.”
NEARLY FORGOTTEN WORKS
The beautiful exhibition included works that brought Robert Motherwell recognition and accolades in the mid-20th century, but until recently had nearly been forgotten. Tuchman said with a slight laugh, “He was the Julian Schnabel of his day,” in order to illustrate the fame that Motherwell experienced during the 1950s relative to his peers. Tuchman continued, “He was in Dorothy Miller’s 14 Americans six years before Pollock, Rothko, or Still got tapped to be in one of those shows.”
“I am totally in love with the St. Louis painting,” she said, pointing to an image of the work in her notes. “I love the idea that Motherwell talks about these colors being the sand and sky of winter out here and today we would just look at it as an abstract picture with grey and I love that this is just packed with all of this information that we don’t have access to except from the catalogue raisonné and now with my essay.”
In many respects these works were for- gotten because Motherwell often kept tight control over the selection of works for his retrospectives. Tuchman explained, “In the retrospectives of other artists, you saw the early work, but because Motherwell had such a strong control over which paintings got selected, this work was ignored.” Tuchman joked, “It was his fault.”
MADE IN EAST HAMPTON
Determined to bring these works to light and restore them to their rightful place in art history, Tuchman began to work on Motherwell:The East Hampton Years, showcasing works that Motherwell created when living and working out on the East End in East Hampton. She was touched when she discovered that Motherwell viewed his life out east as a “romantic enterprise,” and that moreover, he believed that he “did some of the best work of [his] life there.” Upon her investigation into Motherwell’s time out on the East End, she reflected, “It was just this great story and I was familiar with the photograph of him playing chess with Max Ernst in Amagansett.” His East Hampton years were fundamental, not only for his own accomplishments, but for the establishment of the abstract expressionist community in the Hamptons.
A PHILOSOPHICAL POINT OF VIEW
Motherwell’s work is very philosophical in many respects, exploring consciousness and also the unconscious; this exploration appears to draw roots from his academics. “He was a philosophy major at Stanford and I think he really wanted to prove to people that the glass was half empty and half full, since everyone always says, ‘Are you the kind of person that sees the glass half empty or half full?’ He saw it both ways.”
About Motherwell’s surrealist influence, Tuchman explained, “Like a young artist, he wanted to reconcile two things that couldn’t be reconciled, a surrealist technique with a cubist aesthetic and it is a kind of a crazy ambition.”
“I was very close with Helen Frankenthaler for many years and she was in many respects like a mother to me, and even though they were divorced, Helen still very deeply loved Bob’s work and the invitation art is a work that she owned; it’s still in the foundation and it is a very important Motherwell, and I knew that well, and during the first few years of our friendship, The Homely Protestant was just in their living room.” I wondered if Tuchman considered a career as an artist herself. “I’m one of the few people that ever saw unpainted, wet works by Helen Frankenthaler on her floor and I spent a lot of time with her and no, I’m not an artist, I know what it takes.”
AN ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONIST COMMUNITY
“When I was in Kansas City, as soon as I saw de Kooning’s Women IV, I understood every- thing about the painting on our cover [of the Guild Hall Catalogue]. He was thinking about de Kooning and then you realized this whole period is bookended by Pollock and de Kooning. When Motherwell goes to teach at Black Mountain the first summer, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner live in his house and then in the summer of 1953, de Kooning is using the studio and painting women. I don’t think Motherwell has ever been given credit for bringing all of the Ab Ex people out here.“
Tuchman also discovered that Motherwell had taught Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. “He led the pack and then influenced the artists of the next generation.”
“He loved poetry; he belonged to a generation that loved poetry. Motherwell belonged to such a different generation. In my mind, I’ve always seen Robert Motherwell as spanning the Pony Express to man walking on the moon; it is just a different way of looking at the world and poetry said it all for him.”