The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 13-JAN 14

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DEC 13-JAN 14 Issue

Poems for Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell: Early Collages
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
September 27, 2013 – January 5, 2014

On View
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
September 27, 2013 – January 5, 2014
New York

Robert Motherwell, “Mallarmé’s Swan,” 1943 – 44.
© The Dedalus Foundation, Inc., licensed by VAGA, New York.


One of the first art books I bought as an art student was H.H. Arnason’s handsome volume on Robert Motherwell. (I’ve always admired Motherwell’s keen graphic sensibility synthesized with his particular painterly eloquence, as well as his life as an intellectual/artist who simultaneously embraced the co-existence of solitude and cosmopolitanism.) The following is a selection of works that reaffirmed my memory, with on-the-spot thoughts written as an homage to the artist.


The Structure of Space, 1941

Three forms float independently in an identified environment:
One has the key to Picasso’s Montmartre atelier,
The other opens Miro’s estudio in Mont-roig.
The last is the entrance to his future studio on West 8th Street in NYC.


The Displaced Table, 1943

All the objects that belong to the cubist’s still life
Have been taken away from the tabletop
And sold to a near-by pawnshop.

It was his turn to clean the top up,
Make it fit to work.

His exercise of verbs of a pre-structuralist idiom:
To cut, to tear, to pour, to press,
To lift, to bleed, to blot, to scrape, etc. etc.

At last, it’s his abstract still life on the displaced table.


Figure with Blots, 1943

The layers of accepted fragments of torn, cut paper and boards
Have allowed you to express your discontent.

There’s too much uncomfortable silence in the room;
We both can’t breathe until the window is open.

Here on the tabletop
A bottle of black ink has fallen:
The bleeding has just begun.

Time is a temporal condition.


Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive, 1943

Robert Motherwell, “Joy of Living,” 1951. © The Dedalus Foundation, Inc., licensed by VAGA, New York.

Pasted German decorative paper
Colored paper
Japanese paper
Wood veneer on paperboard
Museum of Modern Art
New York purchase


Viva, 1943 – 44

Viva Italia. Lascia vivere l’Italia.


Mallarmé’s Swan, 1943 – 44

She is an exquisite beauty.
She is glowingly light.
Pourtant fermement ancrée au sol.
She is an enigma.
She is a majestic presence.
She is the benevolent queen.
Qui préfère son fauteuil plutôt que son trône.
She is a seductress.
She is everything to the contemplating moon.


The Painter, 1944

Would it be possible to explore the dual power of my feminine and masculine sides, which has already existed inside of myself? The question is: “Yes, my most esteemed sir,” says the acrobatic negotiator. “In fact, there is no need to even think about it.”


View From a High Tower, 1944 – 45

11th Infantry Woods
Greenwood Hill
Boise De Malaumont
Naple Hill
Houston Hill
Where are you?


Collage in Beige and Black, 1944

It’s her again.
This time she is dressed to kill.
Her blouse is thin enough
To reveal nearly all her upper-half,
Which is at once assertive,
Frontal, and delicate.
On her left hand she holds her hat.
On the right her Venetian umbrella.
Perhaps it’s raining outside.


Blue with China Ink
(Homage to John Cage), 1946

Ochre has many shades of density.
With incidental distributions of weight
Balancing of my knowledge of gravity and suspension,
From the East to the West.
Thank you for your existence.


Robert Motherwell, “The Poet,” 1947. © The Dedalus Foundation, Inc., licensed by VAGA, New York.

The Pink Mirror, 1946

“A book is a mirror: if an ass peers into it
You can’t expect an apostle to peer out.”
 Georg Litchenberg


In Grey and Tan, 1948

This time he is dressed for the evening.


The Poet, 1947

He is you, me, he, she,
Them, us.
Long live poetry.


In Ashes with Collage, 1949

Abstract Surrealism is my courteous farewell to Matta.
Let’s welcome allover space everywhere in New York City
Before I call it the New York School.


Joy of Living, 1951

Can we survive our bleakest moment?
Everything is under a threat of disaster.
Yours and my vulnerability
Is our potential joy?
What is happiness?
It could be anything, unspecific.

You are only interested in specific fulfillment.
Here is the map.
Show me how to get there.

—Phong Bui


Robert Motherwell, “The Painter,” 1944. © The Dedalus Foundation, Inc., licensed by VAGA, New York.


It’s just hello Robert


Stepping in to your space ship
watching worlds pass away
Blanking to just a speck

To speak The words with with to brighten

Or try at past to pull the seems
Stepping in to your space ship
Arrived at point of no reference

All in a half dream waits on winning street or ages unknown
With soft type in pregnant pads of everything

and white

Robert Motherwell, “The Poet,” 1947. © The Dedalus Foundation, Inc., licensed by VAGA, New York.

Puddles small enough to sip from
Mounds able to penetrate
Tackle lines every sight
Piles masses


Bells on again to remind us of gold
Or the same ballast of cobble stones
empty berth and hull
To Carry us goods of color

Feather out
turn push for return
Ink rain play
Opposite minus opposite same thing

A sample crush
Testy siren blotters the night
On lines all angles

Weave thick no strands of nothing.
Somethings to base it on?

We all get a chance at silence!

—Ben Keating


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 13-JAN 14

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