Force of Nature: Robert Motherwell's Final Provincetown Works Drew Their Power From the Sea
“Robert Motherwell: Beside the Sea” can be seen from the curving sidewalks of Commercial Street, luring visitors inside the galleries of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. The show simultaneously celebrates the 70th anniversary of the AbEx great's arrival on the outer-Cape town, and surveys the work created by the artist on the 50th anniversary of his “Beside the Sea” series – for which he explored the physical manifestations of his Cape Cod surroundings through painting.
Motherwell’s fascination with Provincetown (the tiny haven for artists and loners at the tail-end of Cape Cod) began when he moved his family into the seaside studio affectionately named “Sea Barn” in 1962, though he visited the shores during the summer regularly starting in 1953. Belonging to the postwar Abstract Expressionist school, his work is known for its heavy ties to symbolism. His creative solace on the secluded New England seashore was also shared with a number of other artists of the time, like Roberto Matta, who lived down the road in the neighboring town of Wellfleet.
The oil-and-acrylic paintings in “Robert Motherwell: Beside the Sea” were inspired by the force of crashing waves against the “Sea Barn,” and the shapes they produced spraying over the bulkheads. Pieces like “Beside the Sea No.33” and “Besides the Sea No.27,” comprised of just a few bold splattered markings, are physically charged representations of Motherwell’s studio experiments as he tried to create the same movements with his brush.
Motherwell said in his collected writings from 1978, included here as wall text, “I began with the sea spray…I quickly discovered that I could not imitate the spray satisfactorily – as Arp says, ‘I like nature, but not its substitutes.’ It occurred to me to use nature’s own process.” He explained in detail, “So with the dripping brush, I hit the drawing paper with all my force. There was indeed painted spray, but the physical force with which it was produced split the rag paper wide open.”
His “Beside the Sea with Fish and Chips” (1977) is decidedly more playful, incorporating literal representations of his surroundings in the eclectic fishing town (like the torn newspaper wrapping from a meal of fish and chips) infusing the compositions with subtly suggestive color choices that point to the omnipresent ocean landscape.
Lise Motherwell, the artist’s daughter and co-curator of the exhibition said in the show’s catalog essay and wall text, “He used these colors as symbols rather than as concrete representations of sky or sand, but, as he wrote, ‘the associations are unavoidable.’” She adds, “It is significant that this place he called home only a small part of the year is where he painted a substantial portion of his work.”
Motherwell’s late body of work is an important testament to his growth as an artist over the course of his career. John Yau, cultural critic and the author of the catalog’s introductory essay, calls attention to his ability to transition from focusing mostly on literary sources to shifting his gaze towards the natural inspiration of Cape Cod, without completely divorcing himself from his older work. He writes, “In ‘Beside the Sea,’ through his openness to immediate experiences, Motherwell learned how to broaden the range of his subject matter while staying true to his symbolist roots.”
To see paintings from the exhibition click the slide show.