How Robert Motherwell Lost His DADA Cred

http://www.guggenheim.org/images/content/New_York/press_room/photo_service/Motherwell/motherwell_9thstreetexhibition_490.jpg

Robert Motherwell, “Jeune Fille,” 1944 Oil, ink, gouache, and pasted Kraft drawing paper, colored paper, Japanese paper, German decorative paper, and fabric on canvas board.

That headline needs some ‘splainin’, as Ricky Ricardo used to say.    First,  Dada—————-the more radical offshoot of Surrealism.   Dada was thought up after World War I by a bunch of punk writers and artists in Europe.  Okay, they didn’t use the word “punk.” But they were rebels. They flirted with nihilism. They wanted to shock.

Kurt Schwitters, “doremifasolasido,” c.1930

The Dada artists liked collage———especially Kurt Schwitters. He wrote a manifesto in 1920 called “Merz”  (no relation to I Love Lucy–Schwitters invented the word to describe his style).

Dada used everyday materials as art.   When they used them “as is”———-Marcel DuChamp exhibited  a Paris urinal that way——–it was called a “readymade.”    As for Dada writers, they used words “as is,” relying on chance and the irrational to create their poetry.

Figure with Blots, 1943, Oil, ink, crayon, and pasted paper and Japanese paper on paperboard. David and Audrey Mirvish, Toronto © Dedalus Foundation, Inc/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Robert Motherwell, “Figure with Blots,” 1943, Oil, ink, crayon, and pasted paper and Japanese paper on paperboard.

Fast-forward to New York City after the Second World War.  Neo-Dada was the new art movement.  Robert Rauschenberg  exhibited a stuffed goat with a tire around it, perhaps one-upping DuChamp’s readymades. The influence took root in the fifties, along with a new interest in collage.

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) was at the center of Neo-Dada.  He made his first collages on request——-Peggy Guggenheim was holding a collage show in 1943 and gave him a deadline.  Collage soon became his primary art form.  “It was here…” he said later, “…I found my identity.”   Motherwell’s early collages are the subject of a current show at the Guggenheim  (till  January 4, 2014 in NY).

Robert Motherwell, “Je T’aime #11, 1955

One of the unusual features of these collages was Motherwell’s use of words. Although Picasso had done it, American painters of the era didn’t put words in paintings.  Were Motherwell’s words like notes from his diary?  Probably not. His later “Je t’aime” series is an example.

“People used to think I must have fallen in love and that’s why I was painting these.  It was the exact opposite; it was really a cry that I would like to love…”  It must have worked.  At the end of the four years during which he made this series, he married the painter Helen Frankenthaler.

Collage in Yellow and White, with Torn Elements, 1949, Casein, watercolor, graphite, pasted Kraft papers, Japanese paper, glassine tissue, drawing papers, and wood veneer on board. Collection Mr. and Mrs. Eugene F. Williams III, © Dedalus Foundation, Inc/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Robert Motherwell, “Collage in Yellow and White, with Torn Elements,” 1949, Casein, watercolor, graphite, pasted Kraft papers, Japanese paper, glassine tissue, drawing papers, and wood veneer on board.

In  1951, Motherwell published The Dada Painters and Poets, a collection of Dada texts translated into English.  It had a big impact on New York painters of the fifties.  In spite of his key role in Neo-Dada, Motherwell lost cred with the “High Priest of Surrealism,” Andre Breton, who had come to New York from France in the early 1940′s.

Breton fired Motherwell from a surrealist publication. Why? The American had sent hand-etched Christmas cards!  Too, too bourgeois!  As if in agreement with Breton, Architectural Digest featured Motherwell paintings as decor in a 2007 issue.

Breton never got very American.   He went back to Paris and always upheld his  1924 Manifesto of Surrealism.  Breton defined surrealism as: “Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.”

Untitled, 1943, Ink, gouache, watercolor, pastel, and pasted colored papers and printed paper on Japanese paper, mounted on paperboard Galerie Jeanne-Bucher, Paris © Dedalus Foundation, Inc/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Untitled, 1943, Ink, gouache, watercolor, pastel, and pasted colored papers and printed paper on Japanese paper, mounted on paperboard

That was the premise behind the Exquisite Corpse game, a Dada invention.  Even after being dissed by Breton,  Motherwell would host weekly parties to play the game.  Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, William Baziotes, and Roberto Matta were among the guests.

The artists pulled words and/or images out of a paper bag and used them in the order they came out. Called “chance aesthetics,”  it was a kind of artistic creation by the unconscious.   Try it yourself with the instructions below from Tristan Tzara, a Swiss Dadaist.

Motherwell_BluewithChinaInk copy

Robert Motherwell, “Blue with China Ink (Homage to John Cage),” 1946

EXQUISITE CORPSE INSTRUCTIONS (1920)

TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem
will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

View from a High Tower, 1944–45, Tempera, oil, ink, pastel, and pasted wood veneer, drawing papers, Japanese paper, and printed paper on paperboard, Private collection, © Dedalus Foundation, Inc/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Robert Motherwell, “View from a High Tower,” 1944–45.

My Collage Version:

I put a heap of collage papers, painted and found, in a plastic bag.  I pick one at a time blindly out of the bag and glue it onto the paper.

I’ll post my Exquisite Corpse collage in a later post.

If you try it, send me the results: info@collagevolupte.com

Then you can be an infinitely original artist of enchanting sensibility, even though your collage doesn’t go viral on Twitter.

IMAGE CREDITS:

1) Jeune Fille

2) Schwitters

3) Figure with Blots

4) Je t’aime

5) Collage in Yellow and White

6) Architectural Digest photo

7) Untitled

8) Blue with China Ink

9) View from a High Tower

One thought on “How Robert Motherwell Lost His DADA Cred

  1. Pingback: Robert Motherwell and Contemporary Collage | Art of Collage

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