Robert Motherwell's abstract painting oscillates between two grandly contrasting poles. One is represented by the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, the other by the Opens series. The former is boldly black and white, sometimes with bits of color thrown in, as though leavening the gloom with blood. They are expressionistic masterpieces, politically angry and passionately gestural. The latter is a kind of minimalist field painting, conveying Motherwell's concern with the flat plane, de rigueur in modernist painting, as Clement Greenberg argued, more particularly "the stark beauty of dividing a flat solid plane," as Motherwell said.(1) More or less straight lines, some seemingly spontaneously made, others looking more calculated, forming a kind of window-like structure, a sort of inner frame within the outer frame of the canvas. They are supposedly indebted to Matisse's paintings of interior space, usually with a window on the outside world. But Motherwell's space is entirely interior and abstractly constructed rather than observed. There are no domestic objects in it, and no view to the outside, only the empty space of the white canvas, sometimes animated by sky-blue, sometimes by murky shadow, into which the structure is dropped, the space visible through and around it. Paradoxically, the Opens were partially inspired by the metaphor of the closed cave in Plato's Republic, as in Plato's Cave No. 1, 1972 indicates. The Elegies look like raw wounds, the Opens are meditative and refined in comparison. The dramatic Elegies are confrontational and violent—so many brutal punches in your face—while the philosophical Opens keep you at a reflective distance, inviting detached contemplation rather than emotional engagement. However visually exciting, they seem peculiarly thoughtful.

The large format of the Elegies is dominated by a heroic "phallic configuration"(2)—the phallus as a grand personage, defiant if morbid. Quasi-automatist and faux calligraphic, it is an emblematic symbol—implicitly a self-symbol. The equally large format of the Opens is dominated by the geometrical form, also heroically grand, and oddly elegiac by reason of its incompleteness, perhaps giving it an ironical touch. It is usually a rectangle--although squares also appear--whose one open edge is nominally closed by the canvas's edge, magically completing it. If it is a transparent window, it is open to infinity. Sometimes the simple geometrical form is centered in the field—abandoned or thrown into emptiness, as it were, like the phallic form--and left incomplete, ambiguously a broken ruin and utopian structure, a mirage of unrealized perfection. Both the phallic symbol—the penis as a symbol of power—and the geometrical symbol—a representation of the Platonic idea—have a dream-like quality, making them peculiarly uncanny. The Elegies make the death instinct memorable, the Opens seem to promise eternal life: the geometrical figure looks transfigured, the phallic figure is transfigured by its disfiguration. We are the victims of the murderous Spanish Civil War in the Elegies, resurrected through contemplation of the pure if flawed absolute form in the Opens—alive in our minds however dead in our bodies.

Both the simple geometry and the phallus, with its more complex organic and assertive geometry, exist in the empty field of the canvas's seemingly infinite space. They appear like revelations in the desert of its flatness. In the psychoanalytically inspired Elegies and the philosophically inspired Opens(3) Motherwell epitomized what Alfred Barr called the non-geometrical and geometrical extremes of modernist painting. Motherwell welcomed the large format—the "big picture"--because, "at one blow, [it] changed the century-long tendency of the French to domesticate modern painting, to make it intimate."(4) He Americanized it—America is big, and less intimate, he unwittingly implies, and if bigger is better, intimacy, cherished in France, is not particularly good—in the hope of making a painting that was like "a modern Stonehenge," conveying "a sense of the sublime and the tragic that had not existed since Goya and Turner." This begs the question whether America is sublime and tragic—notions that are not exactly part of the materialistic American Dream. Note that Goya and Turner were European, suggesting that sublimity and tragedy are un-American—Old World hangovers that have no place in the brave New World of America the Big. In a single emphatic "gesture" meant to be equivalent to a "grand vision," fusing ethical public concern and private aesthetic feeling in acknowledgement of their inseparability, Motherwell ambitiously attempted to create "general metaphors of the contrast between life and death, and their interaction."(5) Does he succeed?

Alfred North Whitehead, the philosopher Motherwell most admired, wrote that "Even the dim apprehension of some great principle is apt to clothe itself with tremendous emotional force."(6) Do Motherwell's abstract paintings afford an apprehension of the contrast between life and death, and their interaction, thus generating tremendous emotional force? Whitehead, in his theory of feeling, which influenced Motherwell's idea of abstraction—Motherwell described it, quoting Whitehead, as "a process of emphasis, and emphasis vivifies life," "a stripping bare…in order to intensify"(7)—regarded feeling as having the "double significance of subjective form and of the apprehension of an object." Feeling is prior to the bifurcation of experience that abstraction signals.(8) Did Motherwell avoid making "conventionalized abstractions"—either all objective (geometrical) or all subjective (expressionist)—by blending both in a new unity of feeling? Do his abstractions convey the "ancient and 'simple' feeling of already being at one with the world"—the "mysticism"—he desired?(9) Does he give "aesthetic experience"—in Whitehead's words, "feeling arising out of the realization of contrast under identity"—mystical "consequence?"(10)

Not exactly. I think Motherwell aestheticized his sense of being castrated by giving it abstract form. The tragic phallic forms in the Elegies are castrated genitals on mournful display. In the Opens the dead genitals have become hollow men, geometrical ghosts idealized in the oblivion of emptiness defensively regarded as sublime. If the Elegies show a horror vacui, in the Opens the vacuum has become the horror, suggesting the nihilism implicit in both series. The Elegies may convey what Kant called the dynamic sublime, the Opens the mathematical sublime, but the "source" of the sublime is terror, as Edmund Burke argues, "the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because…the ideas of pain are more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure."(11) Terror is an excruciatingly painful emotion, a sign of panic, which disintegrates the self. The Elegies and Opens deal with the terror of castration, causing creative panic, explicitly in the former, implicitly in the latter. The castration vividly pictured in the Elegies becomes the impotent intellectuality pictured in the Opens. Abstraction lends itself well to terror, for it is a kind of castrated representation. For Motherwell, "the drama of creativity is that one's resources, no matter how unusual, are inadequate."(12) The artist's realization that his resources are never equal to his creative ambition takes the terrifying form of castration anxiety. The sublime brings with it a feeling of danger, as Burke wrote, a terrifying feeling of helplessness and powerlessness that threatens self-preservation, he adds. In the Elegies Motherwell faces his castration anxiety, and in the Opens castration is a fait accompli, the geometrical form a phallus stripped of its creative power.

Taken together, they can be fancifully interpreted as an abstract version of Dürer's representation of Melencolia I, 1514, the artist's melancholy, as Erwin Panofsky argued, with Motherwell's phallic forms grotesque enlargements of Dürer's devilish bat, and his one-dimensional geometrical form a reductive mockery of Dürer's complicated three-dimensional geometrical forms. Perhaps more to the point, Dürer's work is intimate and European, Motherwell's paintings like delusions of American grandeur in comparison. Castration anxiety has become a stagey spectacle in Motherwell's painting; the Emperor-artist playacts his agony, as though parading his creative suffering proves his genius. But the emotional nakedness of his forms shows his creative limits, for they are all peculiarly malformed. In Dürer castration anxiety, inducing melancholy, remains a secret fear of creative failure. His robed artist broods upon its possibility, as his pensive demeanor suggests. He may be grounded, but he has wings that show he can still fly, suggesting that his melancholy is a temporary condition. Melancholy, since the Renaissance "the prerequisite for intellectual achievement,"(13) suggests that Dürer's angelic artist is an intellectual, pondering and analyzing his state of mind, as though to rise above it by understanding and thus mastering it, or as the psychoanalysts say, of working it through, releasing the psychic energy locked up in it, like a genii in a prison, for creative use.

It is worth noting that he is not in the Platonic cave, where Motherwell's wingless phalluses—not exactly Cupids--perform, but in the open air. Rays of light, ambiguously from the sun or a comet, with a rainbow for a halo, mark the sky, suggesting that Dürer's angelic artist is enlightened, if also in the shadow of melancholy. His half shadowy, half illuminated robe, and one shadowy and one luminously white wing, suggest as much. He is in a normal self-doubting uncertain state of mind, while Motherwell's phallic forms are black blots on the mind, cancers of consciousness that destroy the body. Motherwell's castration anxiety is a sign of his uncertain masculinity, and of his sense of himself as fundamentally damaged, for the body is the first or basic ego, as Freud said, and the penis "proof" of masculinity, and a symbol of power when it is inflated and erect rather than flat and deflated, as Motherwell's powerless phallic forms are. They look like animal skins spread on a wall like trophies of past sexual triumphs, now memento mori. For Motherwell art is a way of fetishizing emotional failure, rather than of working it through, as Dürer's more successful art does.


(1)Quoted in H. H. Arnason and Marla F. Prather, History of Modern Art (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1998; 4th ed.), 466

(2)Barbara Rose, American Art Since 1900: A Critical History (New York: Praeger, 1967), 180. As Rose notes, the monstrous genitals in the Elegies are surreal enlargements of the "dead genitals" on the body of Motherwell's painting of Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive, 1943. They have also been understood as the genitals of Republican Spain, the bull slaughtered and castrated by victorious Fascism in the Spanish Civil War. For Motherwell the bullring, in which a human being and an animal fight to the death, is a symbol of the war between the civilized Republic and beastly Fascism. But if the genitals belong to the heroic Spanish Republic, why are they in the black of Fascist uniforms? Motherwell may be stating that power is barbaric, whatever cause it serves.

The Elegies are Motherwell's abstract response to Picasso's imagistic Guernica, 1937, which also has a dream-like surreal quality, and is also painted in black and white. Motherwell's bull genitals, like Picasso's bull, is a self-symbol. But Picasso's minotaur-like bull—the terrorized victims of the bombing are all women, in effect sacrificed to him—is not castrated, but triumphant and all-powerful, while Motherwell's genitals are powerless, mere shadows of power however seemingly glorious.

(3)Motherwell majored in philosophy at Stanford University, writing an undergraduate thesis on the psychoanalytic underpinnings of Eugene O'Neill's plays. Psychoanalysis remained a life-long interest for him, as he acknowledged, along with philosophy, which he began to study as a graduate student at Harvard University in 1937. He studied aesthetics with Arthur O. Lovejoy and David W. Prall, both important theorists, but, as he said, he was most "affected by Alfred North Whitehead's presence" and ideas. But he wanted to be an artist, which is why he wrote his master's thesis on Delacroix's journals. Frank O'Hara, Robert Motherwell (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1965; exhibition catalogue), 73.

(4)Quoted in Ibid., 54


(6)Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, in Alfred North Whitehead: An Anthology (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 854

(7)Quoted in O'Hara, 45

(8)Whitehead, 852

(9)Quoted in O'Hara, 45

(10)Whitehead, Religion in the Making, Ibid., 510

(11)Quoted in E. F. Carritt, ed., Philosophies of Beauty (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1947), 88

(12)Quoted in O'Hara, 58

(13)Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, Salvatore Settis, eds., The Classical Tradition (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2013), 580