Art and design projects. With stories about the people, places and experiences that have shaped my

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Robert Motherwell in Provincetown, MA and Greenwich, CT

In 1977 I spent the late spring, summer and early fall working for Robert Motherwell in Provincetown, MA. I would work for him all day, then fish for striped bass and blues all night. You have to be 27 years old to keep that sort of schedule up. We worked hard, created a lot of art and had a lot of fun doing it. The late art historian Sam Hunter once told me that working for Bob, "... was better than going to any graduate school." That was probably true. He died in 1991 when my son Jackson was an infant. There was a big memorial service on the beach with hundreds of people. I still miss the guy very much.

Me holding 'Reconciliation Elegy' up vertically for the first
time at the National Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Photo: Bob Bigelow

His main studio was in Greenwich, CT, where we created the painting 'Reconciliation Elegy,' shown below, in 1978:
RM in foreground working the edges in black. The canvas is 31 feet by 10 feet.
Motherwell (foreground in black shirt) with me standing behind him. On the back wall is an intermediary line shot (blow-up) of the original maquette. I removed the wood handles on Bob's favorite brushes. Then I made and installed new ones that were one meter long. That's what he is holding in this photo. He is applying black acrylic paint to re-work edges. Bob Bigelow and I filled in the large sections. He did not follow our chalk lines faithfully, which was a little vexing. He worked somewhat like a jazz musician; using the chalk lines loosely; more as a jumping off point. (Anyone who studies the maquette and the big painting will see lots of changes from the original). And he liked the way the red chalk mixed into the paint and became a pink highlight.

Bob Bigelow (at left) and I are making the full-size cartoon.

Bob Bigelow (left in striped shirt) and I are shown 'pouncing' chalk through a big piece of paper (the cartoon) on to the canvas below. The paper was perforated with thousands of tiny holes. In the end you got an image of a thin, red dotted line on the canvas. This canvas was so big - 31 feet long - that it was impossible to tell where you were (where the image was going to be) when walking on it. You needed the chalk lines for guidance.

This painting is now on permanent display at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Skira-Rizzoli published a book about how we made it:

For years afterward Hilton Kramer often felt compelled to tell me that he hated the picture. But that was his problem. Bottom line for me now that I am a lot older but perhaps only a little wiser: At the time, in 1978, I thought that we could have done it better; should have been more faithful to the original maquette etc. Now, in 2015, I think it's amazing that the picture came out as well as it did; has held up so well. We did it the boss's way. And he was right! 

Fishing from the boat, Provincetown 1977.
Photo: Jeannie Motherwell
In the Greenwich Studio, '70s.
Still carrying the torch for: The structure of modernism, abstraction, truth to materials, automatism, expression of a block of values, authenticity, poetic quality, western tradition, innovation, depth of feeling - for over forty years.


In the '70s master lithographer Bob Bigelow and I tried to bring our boss up to speed with regard to acid-free materials etc. We got a lot of professional conservation products - glues, rice-paper hinges, silicone release papers - from a place called Talas in lower Manhattan. But our technical sophistication then has, by now, been eclipsed several times over. We were at cave-man level 'tech-wise' compared to what's out there now.

Last year, in 2014, I found out that Motherwell made a very large collage with a ripped Talas shipping label in it; addressed to me. That's really nice. It's titled 'Talas.' He would have been 100 this year. The above photo detail is from Jack Flam's excellent Catalog Raisonne on Bob's life and work.
Taking my shoes off to walk on the painting. 
The air hose and regulator hanging on the wall to my left were for spraying a final clear-coat of acrylic varnish on Reconciliation Elegy. He wanted it really matte, " a watercolor." And that's what we gave him. I'm shown sitting on a narrow 'ledge' made for getting pictures in progress up off of the floor.

Here's one example of how we got things done without a lot of meetings or fuss: Bob M wanted me to build the ledge out of a fine, furniture-grade wood. I did not like that idea. So, when he was out of town for a couple of days I built the more basic design shown above instead; about 75 linear feet of it covering both sides of the room. It's metal base is made out of a British angle-iron product I liked called Dexion. The foot-deep plywood top surface was then painted the same color as the floor. Visually it thus became almost invisible; not a distraction. Bob returned home from his trip and said nothing. We started using it immediately. 

These are publications on Motherwell in which I am either an author, contributor or mentioned:

Robert Motherwell: In The Studio Paperback – 2015

My own illustrated book on Motherwell describes the three years I worked for him and other stories. 

Excerpts from Robert Motherwell: In the Studio:

"Abstract Expressionism has been called an exploration of the sub-conscious. And Ab-Ex subject matter has been described as an essence, a distillation of the artist’s personal identity. In my view Motherwell’s ‘explorer identity’ ruled everything. Discover a new subject. Approach an old subject in a new way. Use a new color. Use a new combination of colors. Every picture held the possibility of being the best; saying the most. On good days this excitement was infectious to the rest of us who had art training; me, Cathy Mousley, Bob Bigelow, Betty Fiske. It was like we were on some sort of artistic Lewis and Clark expedition. A corps of aesthetic and emotional discovery. The contiguous studios often felt like a ship of many rooms on a voyage."

"Was every day with Bob filled with rapturous poetic revelation; literary connection; powerful atavistic conviction? No. There could be combat too. Some star-struck visitors walked around the studios looking like they were floating between different movies – a fantasy. Say, ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’ meets ‘Roman Holiday.’ Reality was more like the angst and storm of ‘Pollock’ meets the live fire of ‘Twelve O’clock High.’ We had plenty of difficulties within and without; both artistic and what are now called ‘people problems.’ Bob had enemies. Today, writing this account forty years after the fact, I’m inclined to want to use the Photoshop erasure brush on a lot of it. Or at least one of those fuzzy watercolor app iPhone filters. Jeannie Motherwell calls those days, “…when you worked for Dad.” When I read those words it makes me feel a great sadness and nostalgia for a wonderful time that has come and gone. I still think of Jeannie and her sister Lise with tremendous affection. Well, before getting too weepy I’d better continue telling this story."

By hugh davies on 30 Oct. 2015
Verified Purchase
This is a fascinating first hand account of life in the studio of Abstract Expressionist master, Robert Motherwell. Scofield's recollection of everything from studio practice and the artist's reading habits to the frequent visits of art world celebrities is a lively and personally evocative history of one of our greatest artists. A must read for scholars and art lovers alike.
Hugh Davies, Director, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
Verified Purchase
The Seventies come to life in this fine book full of art, intellectual conversation, road trips and male bonding. Scofield's relationship with Motherwell was a rare thing, an apprenticeship to a good man who understood him. Scofield writes with affection and honesty. An engaging, well-told story.
Verified Purchase
Poignant and tender, Scofield's memoir is not simply about his time as Robert Motherwell's assistant -- interesting as that is. It is an homage to a time when the art world was evolving -- and to a relationship that shaped and influenced a young man. Well told and evocative, it leaves you wanting more.

This is the copy that Skira sent me from Geneva.

Reconciliation Elegy

Robert Motherwell, E.A. Carmean Jr., Robert Bigelow and John E. Scofield

Skira & Rizzoli, 1980. A record of the collaboration between Motherwell and his studio assistants to create a massive commission for the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
This book is long out of print but may be available on Amazon, Abebooks and other used book web sites.


There is a new, exhaustive three volume, 1,700 page Catalog Raisonne on Motherwell by Jack Flam. It took twenty years to compile and publish. The books come in a very handsome slipcase and the entire business weighs an absolute ton. Jack did a beautiful job on it:

Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991

2015 is the centennial of Bob Motherwell's birth. The Provincetown Art Association and Museum is observing it with exhibitions and talks from May 15 - 31:


Current and Past Important Motherwell Exhibitions:

Beginning November 4, 2015, Dominique Lévy in New York will present Robert Motherwell: Elegy to the Spanish Republic, the first gallery exhibition in over twenty years to offer a fresh survey of the monumental series that marked a pivotal moment in the history of modern art. Begun in 1948, Motherwell’s Elegies were intended as public laments, deeply political in their condemnation of the violence of the Spanish Civil War and the isolationist fascism of General Francisco Franco. The artist also described them as “general metaphors of the contrast between life and death, and their interrelation.”

NEW YORK, NY 10021

Another handsome 2015 RM exhibition was at Andrea Rosen in Chelsea. 'Robert Motherwell: Opens'

May 1 – June 20, 2015, 
  • 525 W 24th Street, New York, NY 10011
  • T (212) 627-6000
  • On a delightful spring day Bernard Jacobson and I were gallery hopping in Chelsea and stopped in to see this show. We were met by the Rosen Gallery media and press specialist Laila Pedro. Here we all are in the photo below standing in front of Motherwell's 1968 painting, 'Open #22 in Charcoal with White.' It was a very happy afternoon. 

    Bernard's gallery in London has perhaps the largest inventory of RM paintings in the World. He passionately believes that Motherwell was the greatest of all the first-generation Abstract Expressionists. And he outlines his case with unusual zest, depth and intelligence in this just-released book: 

    Robert Motherwell - The Making of an American Giant 
    by Bernard Jacobson, 2015 
    21 publishing Ltd.
    28 Duke Street St. James, London
    020 7734 3431

    To my mind the most important passage in it is this one on page 57: 

    "...automatism was not a style, in the sense of an imitation of European styles, but an original unifying principle..." 

    Few in the general public ever consider distinctions like this. It's been an insider's issue.

    L-R: John Scofield, Laila Pedro, Bernard Jacobson. 
    Laila is now the editor of The Brooklyn Rail, a serious, critical arts periodical.


    A previous 2012 Exhibition in Provincetown was:

    Robert Motherwell:
    'Beside the Sea' On view: July 20-September 30, 2012
    Opening reception: Friday, July 20, 8-10pm

    Robert Motherwell: Beside the Sea, curated by Lise Motherwell and Dan Ranalli, will present rare work created by the artist in his Provincetown studio during the summer of 1962 until his death in 1991.

    2012 is a milestone year as it marks the 70th anniversary of the artist’s first visit to Provincetown, Massachusetts and the 50th anniversary of the creation of his Beside the Sea series, based on his experiences living in the small outer Cape Cod town. This is the first major exhibition of Motherwell’s work on Cape Cod and provides a never before-seen look at many pieces held in private collections.

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