A lit cigarette dangling from his mouth, Robert Motherwell hunched over a massive white canvas and scratched black paint onto its surface, all the while talking to a visitor about his famous Elegyseries. The year was 1971, and the series of odd ovals, splashes, and columns — already two decades old — had firmly established Motherwell as one of America's most prominent abstract painters.
"A small one was the first one," Motherwell said in a studio interview that year withfilmmaker Michael Blackwood. As he worked on a new Elegycanvas, he explained his motivation for continuing the series, which by then had surpassed 100 pieces: "It's like a lifelong relationship with a person whom you really love — there are different moods and different nuances."
Motherwell's "lifelong relationship"was initially with a country, not a person. Spain descended into civil war and dictatorship during the years preceding Elegy,and Motherwell wanted to capture the feelings of loss and suffering that resulted from that nation's dramatic tilt toward fascism.What Motherwell landed on were his dark totems — rough oblongs like caped apparitions, and adjoining beams of blackness that accentuated the splintered mood of eachElegywork.
Coinciding with the centennial of his birth, Motherwell is getting the retrospective treatment at the de Young Museum."Between Life and Death: Motherwell's Elegies in Bay Area Collections" is a monumental exhibit — not in the volume of space (it occupies a single ground-floor gallery) or in the volume of art (just 13Elegyworks) but in the concentratedperspective it offers. We get Motherwell in all dimensions, including his smallest: Spanish Elegy is a 9-by-12-inch piece from 1959 that's about the size of a laptop screen and also of the original 1948 inkedElegy(shown here in reproduction). We also get Motherwell at his most expansive: A 12-foot-wide work from 1971,Elegy to the Spanish Republic (with Lemon-Yellow Panel), which introduces color into the horizon.
In the 1971 film,Motherwell said, "As I introduce more colors, the tone will change — it will be less stark and less somber." And it's true — the yellow acts like a stream of sunshine on an otherwise hardscrabble horizon. But the lasting appeal of Motherwell's 200-plusElegyseriesis exactly thatstarkness and somberness. The world can be cruel, Motherwell seems to be saying, and in that state is a mystery that is altogether transfixing.
The Motherwell work that the de Young displays in its permanent collection,1950's At Five in the Afternoon, takes its title from a well-known 1934 poem byFederico García Lorca, Lament forIgnacio Sanchez Mejías, which mourns a Spanish bullfighter who was fatally gored in the ring. Lorca's poem centers around the hour of five p.m., when — as Mejías lies dying — the wind is jutting through the air, a white sheet is placed on his body, and an ambulance takes him away.At Five in the Afternoonis the kind of abstract painting that prompts art-goersto stand before it and stare for minutes — to figure out why the work has such a visceral pull.
In the museum's usual manner, the de Young surroundsAt Five in the Afternoonwith like-minded pieces from the same art period, including Jay DeFeo's 1955 work,Mountain No. 2, whose thick, bulbous brush strokes and swirls of charcoal and gray hinted at DeFeo's greatest work to come:The Rose, a gargantuan canvas of so many layers that it was more sculpture than painting. Made between 1958 and 1966,The Rosesegued into a three-year period where DeFeo withdrew entirely from artistic production. In "Jay DeFeo: Alter Ego," Hosfelt Gallery surveys DeFeo's post-Roseperiod by emphasizing the artist's pattern of making "yin and yang" works.
The Rose, which was concave with muted colors, had its counterpart in the colorful convex painting from 1959 calledThe Jewel. Working on both simultaneously, DeFeo once told an interviewer, "helped me objectify both concepts. Two things that were similar, but not identical, in spirit." At Hosfelt Gallery, every painting, drawing, photograph,and collage comes with at least one shadow piece. There is nothing like The Rose here — nothing close to being sculptural. In fact, DeFeo embraced more austere forms after The Rose, though she continued to channel ideas from nature — as in Instantaneous Teardrop (Tripod series), a 1975 graphite and acrylic drawing of a single flower. Accompanying the work at Hosfelt is a similar flower that DeFeo created by tearing black photographic paper. Mounted on mat board, the tears expose white edges that are bent outward. DeFeo's untitled flower is one of the exhibit's standout works — a piece of beautiful simplicity that defies expectations of DeFeo's artistic output.
Much like Elegy with Motherwell, The Rose has come to define DeFeo's career, even as past exhibits have dutifully examined the breadth of her work. The 2012 SFMOMA show, "Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective," featured scores of distinctive jewelry that DeFeo made in the 1950s, collages from the 1970s, and drawings on paper from the 1980s – but the crowds at SFMOMA were drawn mostly to the The Rose and The Jewel, which were making their Bay Area reappearance. (The Whitney Museum of American Art owns The Rose, while The Jewel belongs to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.)
Of the 55 works in "Jay DeFeo: Alter Ego," 46 have never been exhibited before, making the Hosfelt Gallery show comprehensive in a way the SFMOMA retrospective was not. Hosfelt Gallery juxtaposes works that reflect DeFeo's ability to create art across multiple forms, and to twin works that could be years apart. A small photo from 1975, just four-by-four inches, has its counterpoint in a four-foot painting from 1986 that's also centered around an expanding dark surface with two outward fingers. What do the two abstract works represent? The painting was part of DeFeo's Impressions of Africa series, based on her interest in the continent. In 1987, DeFeo traveled to Kenya, going on safari and climbing Mount Kenya. Some of her Africa paintings featured what looked like triangulated mountains or pyramids, and rock formations. DeFeo would cover the black surface with thin white lines, which let her play with shades of black and white, and with shadows and light that subtly merge together. Even after getting diagnosed with lung cancer in 1988, DeFeo forged ahead. She didn't push her feelings about illness onto her art. It never got morose. Then again, The Rose was DeFeo's crucible — a work with a crucifix underpinning that was made during the breakdown of her marriage — and she didn't want to return to such complicated emotions.
Motherwell, who studied philosophy at Stanford and lived for a time in the Bay Area, stuck with what worked best for him. The Elegies, he said, were originally meant as the equivalent of "a funeral song for something one cared about." In 1948, he began the series in earnest when his wife left him, he began drinking heavily, and he even contemplated suicide. Before Motherwell passed away in 1991, the series became brighter and lighter (especially after Spain returned to democratic rule), and we see these later Elegies at the de Young. In the end, they were elegies to Motherwell's life — but more affirmations than laments. Motherwell's and DeFeo's simultaneous exhibits are affirmations that, a generation after their passings, their art and the artistic risks they took are as resonant as ever.