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 na├»ve 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.'