Art Review, Robert Motherwell, At Five in the Afternoon

11 Feb

Robert Motherwell’s painting At Five in the Afternoon makes me argue with myself.  The Motherwall black lines and blotches are iconic, and there is considerable detail here–when you look closely you see the blotches and lines have a wooden texture, and that in the background is an open window.  The window in the background is important, because it tells us we’re not looking at true non-representation, but an abstraction of something.  Are we looking through a fence?  Through the eyes of a digital clock that we can hardly read?   Are we looking up?

And here’s where I think the painting loses me just a little bit, rather than having everything we need to see right in the painting, the title makes us run over and read a poem by Lorca.  Now I love poetry, but having to understand a painting by knowing some obscure poem takes a point away from it for me, because it takes away from the experience of the art in front of us in making connections.  Part of what I want art to do is to express something with images that words can’t do, however, what we have here is an artistic representation of a poem which is itself a representation of grief.  So that takes us two steps away from any actual experience, which might be why I find this painting to be a little academic.

That being said, the style and the artistry here is in full evidence.  Get close to the black and you see that it contains all sorts of colors.  The window looks blocked, something high up that we cannot reach.  Also with paint, Motherwell gives a hand hewed impression, everyshape looks like it was cut out of something, the surfaces even look scratched up.  And yes, there’s the relation to grief–the blacks and whites, starkness, but also shapelessness.  A world where everything is just a little too sharp and hard.  Even the lack of any personal element could connect to grieving, because that sort of loss makes the world look pretty empty.  The hint of perspective gives us only enough to not look at this image like a flat object, but it’s really hard to find the ground in it, again, pointing towards grief.

However, I’m not so sure I would have gotten to those conclusions on my own.  Most people thinking about Five in the Afternoon aren’t going to think about someone’s death, but of things like getting off work, rush hour, the end of the day, dinnertime.  I could just see some of them making connections to the images that mean that.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that I think that it’s clear that Motherwell had a specific emotion he was going for, and the resulting image is so abstracted that the emotion gets lost.  This painting could just as easily be showcased in a bank or a corporate penthouse, and I think that any true painting about grief would be totally inappropriate in those places.   The painting is simply not that evocative, and while I don’t think all art is required to be evocative, I find it to be a big failing in a painting about grief.

So do we read the poem and get drawn into the story or not read the poem and see a dream image obscured by abstraction?  Could this be the sort of painting someone would make to be different, but also be able to sell it to someone who needed a different painting to match their Jasper Johns?  I don’t know.  It could just as easily be a painting by a sort of man who isn’t that emotionally expressive trying to use an emotionally expressive medium.  Because the painting is about emptiness, it’s really difficult to tell whether this painting is expressing emotional emptiness, or really contains nothing at all.

Because this painting brings me to this level of discussion, and because it’s impeccably designed, I think it’s a worthwhile project. I just find it a bit cold.


2 Responses to “Art Review, Robert Motherwell, At Five in the Afternoon”

  1. Johnny West September 26, 2013 at 5:24 am #

    There are times when confronted with abstract expressionists’ work that I find myself wondering what the “big deal” is, even though I’m pretty well-read in art history of that era and know where they started, what caused the change in the mid-40s, why they do what they do, etc. And I am a big fan of AbEx! But it doesn’t change what’s on the canvas for me in some instances, so in that regard, I end up in the same place you describe in your post.

    It’s probably best to remember that what they were doing (and when they were doing it) and the fact that the way they worked was (at the time) brand new and shockingly different. It caused a stir. And then getting the work into galleries, the notoriety, the shock, the blessings/curses of the critics, getting on the cover of Time as the “irascibles” and all… well, they were there first.

    But at some point, it almost didn’t matter what was on the canvas during that period. The names started carrying more weight than the work. Since they were already anointed, now they could do “whatever” and get away with it and sell it for thousands.

    Like you, I demand more from art and want it to move me on it’s own, not because it’s connected to a poem or something else. It must stand on it’s own. And, for me, many of Motherwell’s works are simply not that great. In fact, many of them are copying Kline and Gottlieb and other artists from the period. Not original, not good composition, not good color choices… and yet he’ll remain as one of the more famous abstract expressionists and his work will continue to re-sell for fortunes due to his name-fame while I remain in total obscurity.

    Ironic, no?

    • pewterbreath September 27, 2013 at 7:19 pm #

      Thanks for the well thought response! You reminded me of another thought—that very often the things that capture the zeitgeist of the moment don’t have legs over the long term. And while Motherwell might be known because he’s already known, eventually his works will have to stand on their own two feet, and I’m not so sure they will endure. Art and commerce interact so strangely, that you never know, but I just don’t see this as an image that resonates. However, my tastes go towards art that transports–images that make you feel as Emily Dickinson says “makes you feel like the top of your head had been blown off.”

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