East Coast abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko have long served as the watermark of courage and inventiveness in modern painting. The New York School, as it's called, ushered in the Modernist era in the U.S., taking admirable risks on paper and canvas within an often baffled and dismissive postwar climate.
Yet a sometimes-overshadowed member of their pantheon, Robert Motherwell, infused his work with a level of thought and particularity that was arguably unequaled among his peers.
The painter, currently featured in Robert Motherwell: Lost in Form, Found in Line, at the Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts, is well regarded as a theorist as well as an artist. He initially studied philosophy at Stanford and Harvard and, later, art history with Meyer Shapiro at Columbia. His intellectual breadth laid the groundwork for decades of creativity in the vanguard of abstract painting.
Though the works shown at the Hoyt are print pieces, many involve collage, another technique avidly pursued by the artist. They represent his work from the '60s to shortly before his death in 1991, at the age of 76.
Motherwell was particularly given to experimentation, his impulsive-looking black swatches concealing an intensely deliberate and cerebral methodology. That intellectual rigor and aesthetic distillation are evident here. As the viewer travels the exhibition space, the compositions, which are not always immediately intelligible, take on a precise logic and an impressive aesthetic harmony.
One of the show's most interesting sections, partly because it lacks much of the iconic baggage of the rest, is a series of six etching illustrations for a new edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, completed by Motherwell in 1988. In the pieces, each about 10 by 11 inches, the bulk of broad swatches is eschewed in favor of gestural line-work. Moreover, most approach some degree of figuration, reluctantly forming the hints of buildings and walking humans.
Yet their mystique, and Motherwell's mastery, still lies in the merging of formal clarity with a breadth of possible interpretations and a resistance to easy resolution. Sketched rectangles and ovoids make up "Cyclops," where a cluster of marks in the middle of one scraggly box could, perhaps, be an eye. Or not. The pieces in the series are printed over textured ground that ranges in color from bright red to a mossy earth-tone, a departure from the unyielding black and white (what Motherwell calls "those two sublime colors") of the earlier prints. Though more saturated colors appear more frequently in many of the artist's late prints, their use in this series is particularly liberal.
To build an exhibition of three decades of work by one of the forefathers of modern painting is no simple task. But the Dedalus Foundation, which curated the show, and the Hoyt present the work in a way that demonstrates Motherwell's advancement through different modes of image-making, and still operates well as a cohesive display. Even so, when set beside the spacious stone hearths and sun-strewn alcoves of the stately Hoyt Institute, the artist's dark markings seem outlandish and bestial, even almost 50 years after they were made.
Of course, the formulas and thought processes at work assert themselves upon greater observation. While the forms may appear radical, Motherwell's robust intellect is never far beneath the surface. The erudite thinker of the New York School, who might ponder endlessly a quarter-inch mark on the painted surface, is ultimately plain to see.
Robert Motherwell: Lost in Form, Found in Line continues through May 1. Hoyt Institute of Fine Art, 124 E. Leasure Ave., New Wilmington, Pa. 724.652.2882 or visit www.hoytartcenter.org.