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

Friday, July 31, 2015

My New Book: 'Robert Motherwell, In the Studio'

By John E. Scofield

Published by Bernard Jacobson Gallery

In 1975, in the midst of a series of European retrospectives, Robert Motherwell (1915–91) hired a young man named John E. Scofield to be his first full-time studio assistant. Now, in honor of Motherwell’s centenary, Scofield—an artist and designer himself—has written a poignant and tender memoir which conveys the life and thought of a leader of the Abstract Expressionist school a generation ago. Intensely personal, the narrative brings the 1970s to life: Scofield writes of art, intellectual conversation, road trips and male bonding with affection and honesty. Robert Motherwell: In the Studio discusses the booze they preferred, the cars he drove, the artists he admired and the New York art scene that swirled around him. Well told and evocative, this page-turner offers a unique insight into a pivotal figure of American painting.

Notices and events: 

In the Studio is now available in the USA Through the New York art book publisher D.A.P.

~ Television anchorwoman Ann Nyberg recently included this book in an interview with me on 'News8' WTNH in New Haven, CT:

~ Kent, CT: Saturday, 21 November 2015 book talk and signing accompanied by a slide show at the Kent Memorial Library, Kent, CT.
32 North Main Street, PO Box 127 Kent, CT 06757
Hours: M-F 10-5:30, Sat 10-4

'Robert Motherwell, In the Studio' by John E. Scofield, 2015, front and rear of jacket.
I started writing Robert Motherwell In the Studio in 1995 as an essay on crafts and art. Since then it has slowly developed into a story about my years with the late Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell. Just published by the Bernard Jacobson Gallery in London, it is now available on Amazon UK. Below are edited excerpts from the book. You might call it a love story - but without the fights...

On New Year's Eve, in December of 1972,  Bob Motherwell and I met for the first time over drinks in the apartment above his Connecticut studio. We talked about a lot of things including the not terribly clear relationship between the crafted functional object and fine art. He was 57. I was 22.

As Motherwell patiently listened to my story of the craft troubles, he was also reading the messenger like a book - with a very good understanding of the way a young student carries a burning issue around him like a weight. I finally produced a few color slides of my own student work. After a very brief look he put them down and it seemed like it was time to pay more attention to his family.

To sum up his feelings on all the issues I had presented he said to me, "Due to functional limitations, the crafted object can never express the human condition, through metaphor, as well as high art can."

This started a friendship and working relationship that lasted until his death in 1991. I ended up working full-time for him from 1975 to '78. The wrap-around jacket photo above shows us painting 'Reconciliation Elegy,' a 31 foot long and ten foot high commission for the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

'Colored Chair,' 1971, carved and painted wood, shown in a corner of the 2nd floor library.
Some months after our first meeting he purchased my sculptural, “Colored Chair,” For the chair's back I had carved a big chunk of wood from an enormous Bucks County cherry tree. The base was poplar wood stained dark green and flocked in a bright orange color. He said, “You know, it looks like a Miro sculpture.” I was so naïve that I had to pretend I knew who Miro was! 
But the next day I made it my business to find out. This was the beginning of keeping up to speed with the boss; reading, seeing, thinking and doing. You had to be quick on the uptake or you were dead. That's a Matisse collage sitting on the floor in the lower right of the photo. Motherwell did not own a lot of works by other artists. He had an Arp relief, a Cornell box, a Max Ernst sculpture and a few other nice things that were special to him.

Motherwell's painting for Chateau Mouton Rothschild's 1974 label.
One day Baron Philippe de Rothschild called to tell Motherwell that the Baron's wife had just died. Beside her deathbed, on a table, was the small painting maquette we had made for the label. He said that it had been of great consolation to her during her last hours on Earth. Considering the strain he was under, it's remarkable that he was so polite when I, the studio assistant, answered his call. Few callers were so courteous.

In the summers Motherwell normally worked without assistants up in the third floor of ‘Sea Barn,’ his Provincetown house. But in the spring and summer of 1977 he brought me to P’town to help with some special projects. After work and on weekends I often went fishing for bluefish and striped bass.

Late afternoon fishing from the boat with Jeannie on Cape Cod Bay, 1977. I caught a flounder by accident using this deep-diving lure. If we caught blues at night, then I would fillet them; leave some wrapped in newspaper on the front step of Sea Barn as a morning present. I would normally work all day then fish at night. Thermos of espresso on the dash, running lights on, prop churning up green phosphorescence. Come back in before dawn. When keeping this sort of schedule up it helps to be twenty seven…     Photo: Jeannie Motherwell

The following fall and winter were largely devoted to preparing and executing 'Reconciliation Elegy.

Applying gesso to the raw canvas for ‘Reconciliation Elegy.’ Motherwell is shown here standing in front of his downstairs library in the big painting studio. He always recommended books that had been important to him; encouraged us to borrow them. L-R: Scofield, Bigelow, Motherwell.
Photo: Renate Ponsold Motherwell

Here are some additional photos that are not in the book:

My 'chest of drawer' / table with a Joseph Cornell 'box' sitting on top. This was in the 2nd floor
dining / sitting alcove. That room had beautiful light in the sunny late afternoon.

The chest / table is mahogany and carved pear-wood.
My 'Colored Chair' in the apartment sitting area. It got moved around from time to time but
usually sat in the little library by the stairs - where it remained for the better part of 17 years. 
One night we sat on that leather couch watching TV as Jimmy Carter got elected - while
eating Bob's roast chicken with herbs. 

Noted filmmaker Stephan Chodorov recently wrote this brief review of the book:

How often do we read "inside" scoops on the behavior and misbehavior of the successful and celebrated which serve only to boast that the insider had their confidence. So how refreshing it is to have a book like this which reports in an unpretentious way the life and thought of a leader of the Abstract Expressionist school a generation ago. I should say "lives and thoughts" because the writer himself is in the picture throughout, first as an aspiring student with barely two nickels to rub together, and eventually as Robert Motherwell's indispensable assistant. The booze they preferred, the cars they drove, the painters they admired, and the history that swirled around them -- it's all in this neat little book with fascinating photographs. It's to Scofield's credit that he knew how much space to put between himself and the master, and that he knew, as he says, "when it was time to go." Motherwell went on to participate in the rise and fall (and rise again?) of Abstract art...Scofield went on to study sculpture, painting and furniture design (one of his pieces is in the Museum of Modern Art collection).

And Tony Scholl had this to say:

"Scofield's years with Motherwell... a boldly intellectual yet friendly look at a fascinating time and relationship."

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.

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.

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

My book can be purchased through these links:

Another new, very engaging book on Motherwell and his fellow Ab-Ex artists is the one Bernard Jacobson has spent the last two years writing. It is titled, Robert Motherwell: The Making of an American Giant. Bernard put his heart and soul into this. We both did...!

All photos and text on this blog site are 'Copyright John E. Scofield 2015.'

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Spring Sculptures, Cheongsam and a Cherry Wood Bench

Carved Cherry Bench with large dovetails.

Cherry wood bench with V shaped leg stained black.

New Sculptures, winter 2014 through spring 2015. L-R: 
'Gold Head' 2015; 'Head' 2014; '3 Stripe Head' 2015; 
'Mallard' 2015; 'Relief Head' (in oak) 2015; 'Cheongsam' 2015.
This is a temporary display created for a party in my studio. 
Tools are stored above and below.


These are carved and painted wood sculptures that I have made in the last few months. 'Mallard' and 'Cheongsam' are in honor of my friends Anita Tsang and Cathy Hau who are from Hong Kong and Shanghai respectively. They recently flew to NYC to attend the opening of 'China: Through the Looking Glass' at the Metropolitan Museum. Anita and Cathy wore very elegant and authentic Chinese 'Cheongsam' style dresses.

Laura Jacobs, in her 26 May 2015 Wall Street Journal review of the exhibition, describes Cheongsam as:

"...Cheongsam or (in Mandarin) Qipao, a high-collared, cap-sleeved, figure-skimming sheath that emerged in the 1920s, a sophisticated nod to the flapper’s chemise. These sheaths are placed in murmuring dialogue with Western reinventions of the shape."

I like that description. Here are pictures of Anita and Cathy in-costume at the Met. Earlier in the day they visited MoMA to see my Folding Music Stand in the current design show there, 'Making Music Modern.'

L-R: Anita and Cathy wearing Cheongsam dresses by the Temple of Dendur pool.

Anita, at left, in a striking black, red and white Cheongsam couture dress made for her in Hong Kong. She and Cathy are posing in front of my Folding Music Stand. It is in the permanent Design Collection at the Museum of Modern Art. That's a model of the Oslo Opera House to the right of Cathy! #MakingMusicModern

L-R: 'Mallard, 'Cheongsam.' Both are painted wood.


The other four sculptures in the very top photo represent figurative heads or busts. These are perhaps the most the most difficult subject matter of all for artists. This assertion is, of course, open to debate. The poet W.H. Auden said that, "...all sculpture should be confined to busts of famous chefs..." 

The next two sculptures below were too tall to fit into the tool rack studio display.

L-R: 'Turkey Head,' 'The Hour - in Colonial Red.' 

'The Hour - in Colonial Red,' carved and painted wood. I found a mahogany rudder for a small sailboat at our local 'Swap Shop.' After cleaning it up I band-sawed this head shape out of the rudder and rounded the edges. Then paint. The bottom band is colonial red. Yes, the USA was once a British Colony...

Detail of hot-forged iron 'Turkey Head' in our living room mirror.

Cherry Bench / Workshop Views

Here is a carved cherry-wood bench I recently completed. It is 17 1/2 inches tall, 78 1/2" long and 14" deep. My wife, Bartley Johnstone, likes it because she says that the long, curved bottom of the bench looks like a boat.

Cherry Bench

A friend said that she thinks it looks more like a whale underneath. Perhaps it does! The six inch thick cherry wood for this project has been air-drying for over ten years. The black leg at the far end is solid cherry that has been stained and hand-rubbed with fine steel wool to give it an almost-matte sheen. Here is a detail of the leg in the foreground:

Large 'dovetail' joints fasten the leg to the bench.
Only the right hand leg is stained black. The top of the leg has been carefully scribed and carved to fit tightly against the curved lower bench surface.

Two more benches: 'Nazlini Bench' and 'Reclining Woman Bench' are shown in the I.M. Pei designed gallery at Choate School in Wallingford, CT.

From left: '3 Sided Glass Top Table with 4 Legs,' 'Nazlini Bench'
The framed painting on paper, far left, is a study for the table.
The 'Nazlini Bench' is made of carved and painted poplar wood
with forged iron details.

'Reclining Woman Bench' Length: 83 inches.
Carved and oiled cherry wood back, painted base.

Availability: In addition to providing design and fabrication services, many of the furniture pieces, sculptures and paintings shown on these posts are for sale. For additional information and prices please contact me at:
John E. Scofield
PO Box 761
Sharon, CT 06069
cell: 860-671-0153

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Monday, February 9, 2015

Paintings with Photographs

During the week of the 2011 Milan Furniture Fair I took this photo of the window display at Prada; within the elegant Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Painting on photo, 19" x 13", 2015.

'Pergamon II' painting on photo, 19" x 13", 2015
The 'Pergamon' paintings, shown above and below, include fragments of the stunning 2nd century BC 'Pergamon Alter.' This immense frieze is now housed within the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. When I took these photos - on the 4th of July 1982 - the museum was then called the Berlin State Museum and was located in East Berlin. The Wall was still up. It was torn down seven years later in 1989. 

On that day in '82 we had to cross the underground border at 'Checkpoint Charlie' in order to enter East Berlin. Border guards detained us for half an hour in the grim, under-lit subway station. They emptied all of our pockets and even unwrapped a balled-up chewing gum wrapper to see if it had secrets written on it. They pointedly harassed my friend and German scholar Daisey Davidson until she was in tears. They saw a notation in invisible ink on her passport. 

Her crime was bringing over cans of vegetables and toilet paper to a family she knew on a previous trip. After Daisey burst into tears, the guards were satisfied that they had done their manly work. We were allowed to cross. Emerging out of the station into the sunlight we saw buildings in almost-deserted streets still pockmarked by shrapnel from WWII. 

I'm not even sure if taking photos at the museum was permitted. But there were no guards and no other visitors, so I just went ahead and did it. This is the first time that prints have been made from the negatives. The negatives have been stored in a box for the last 33 years.

Pergamon I

As many readers who follow this blog know, for years I have been making abstract paintings on paper in a very small-sized format, about 15 by 11 inches. But in 2014 I began to combine photographs with paintings. These are a little bigger; 19" x 13". This began with what some of my friends have referred to as the 'Africa Series.' (See the earlier post here called, 'Sierra Leone, West Africa, 1974). They employ mostly black and white negatives that I printed 'full-frame.' That means no editing of the overall image or change in proportion. I also endeavored to interfere minimally with the condition of the negatives or slides. If one had a really bad scratch, as 'City Hotel' in Freetown did, well, it just got left in as part of the work.

City Hotel, Freetown, Sierra Leone
In the newer ones shown here, I've partially abandoned photographic principles formerly held dear. Now they are sometimes not full-frame, color is wantonly employed, sizes are random and they are routinely Photo-shopped at-will to repair gross imperfections. Since all standards seem to have become negotiable, even the most sacred - that they were all taken solely by me during the past 40-plus years - is also history. In this respect I am referring to the image below titled 'Northern Light / Gleam.' This handsome shot of the pre-war, 12 Meter sloops Northern Light (blue hull) and Gleam (foreground) was taken by my friend Lane duPont in the waters off of Newport, RI. (Both sailboats were found sunk. They were raised and restored by my late childhood friend, Bob Tiedemann. In 1977 Bob took showers at my South Stamford sculpture studio when he was otherwise living in his van on City Island while restoring Gleam).

The principle that has not changed is the one central to them all - that every painting remains faithful to its subject.


Northern Light / Gleam

Scott, AR

Attica '71

Waiting by the harbor, Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1974. Painting on Arches paper.

Köln I

Köln II

A brief note on paintings titled Köln I and Köln II:

In 1982 I was having dinner in Cologne (Köln), Germany with the late, noted architect OM Ungers and his family. He took us to a very traditional local restaurant for dinner. The place was so local that one item on the dessert menu was called, "Cologne Caviar." In fact, it was actually a plate of blutwurst - their beloved blood sausage! 

Over coffee I asked Mr. Ungers if he could think of any architectural treasures that must be seen before leaving town. He immediately began to draw a sketch on a coaster. He talked enthusiastically while he sketched one of the Roman-influenced columns at St Mary's Chapel in the Old Town. These are the columns shown in the above paintings. He especially loved the transition from round to square at the top; the elegance and simplicity. On the following day I found the Chapel and took this photo. OM was right. They are lovely.


A personal note regarding today, 9 February 2015:

Since the creation of this art / design blog in 2012, I have had 9,999 'page views' to date from dozens of countries all over the World. Perhaps as I am typing this it will go to 10,000. To me it is nothing short of a miracle that this is possible - that people not just in the USA but also in the Philippines, Ukraine, Turkey, Hong Kong, France, Vietnam and elsewhere can read what a guy at his desk in Sharon, CT is saying and displaying; what he thinks is important 

My grandmother, Bernice Rockwell Peck, was born in 1898 in Olean, NY. Her father had a small, somewhat primitive one-man farm. She left home to study watercolor and painting at Pratt in New York City during WWI. Her first job after finishing school was teaching art at the Port Chester, NY high school between the world wars. If she were alive today I wonder what she would make of what her grandson does and of the 'cyber' communications world that we all now routinely take for granted.