Effort and Effortlessness in Motherwell’s Reconciliation Elegy

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I had already loved Robert Motherwell’s painting Reconciliation Elegy (1978)—had already claimed it as my favorite painting—for years before I tried to account for that love, to support that claim. On a recent trip to Washington D.C., I brought my partner to the modern wing of the National Gallery, where the painting hangs, and as he looked at the vast canvas high on a far marble wall, he asked me, as if—of course, no problem—I’d know the answer to his question, “What do you like about it?”

I didn’t know what to say. If I answered his question at all, I can’t remember how. And honestly, whatever I said then doesn’t matter to me now, because now I want to know—I want to really figure out—what it is about Reconciliation Elegy that keeps it alive and bright and beautiful for me year after year. Why can’t I forget it and why won’t I stop visiting it, dragging my beloveds to behold it with me?

Reconciliation Elegy canvasWhat first arrested me, I think, was the monumental scale of the painting. It was commissioned for the 1978 opening of the National Gallery’s East Building along with six other large scale works by artists such as Jean Arp, Alexander Calder, and Joan Miró, but Reconciliation Elegy was one of only two works not “technically enlarged and fabricated in factories.”* (The other: National Gallery Ledge Piece (1978), Anthony Caro.) Motherwell made the piece, the only painting of the seven works, on a 12 x 40 foot canvas in his Greenwich, Connecticut studio.

What continues to enthrall me, though, isn’t the object’s scale but what it manages to evoke in spite of its scale: delicacy, intimacy, shadows, a whisper. Yes, Reconciliation Elegy is large and assertive—see the bold swaths of black that spill across the canvas like giant brushstrokes or inkblots. But it’s quiet too. Hushed gray and pink smudges, soft as breath on glass, gently mar the matte white background.

Motherwell writes, “Problem: in the midst of architectural grandeur to strike a personal note, the note of the human presence… of a twentieth-century solitary individual, that terrible burden…and somehow make it public, too….” This problem—the coexistence of these conflicting characteristics in a single piece—imbues Reconciliation Elegy with complexity of tone and with gradients of emotion. For Motherwell, this balance between the intimate and the monumental was no accident.

In fact, the artist left nothing to chance. And though he wanted the painting to read as spontaneous, to be “open and freely made, like an enormous sketch,” he achieved this effect by employing its opposite: meticulousness, precision, and exacting technique. He had already learned this lesson the hard way:

I had tried about fifteen years earlier a large spontaneous wall painting (at the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston…). I painted it on the “logical” premise (which turned out false) that the way one gains spontaneity is simply to paint spontaneously, as in sketching, regardless of physical size….Having failed to satisfy myself with the Kennedy mural in retrospect, I thought I must proceed otherwise…to use every technical resource at my command to give spontaneity, that is, the illusion that the work was both conceived (which it was) and executed (which it nearly was) with total immediacy in one energetic day.

Motherwell in studioWhere the Kennedy mural fails, Reconciliation Elegy succeeds—neither overwrought nor understated, the painting instead suggests verve and effortlessness, a quick and organic execution on “one energetic day,” though, in truth, the work took years of planning and preparation to realize. Motherwell explains, “The actual painting didn’t take long…less than two weeks, all told…But nine months from the original sketch through all the various stages… (And three years to conceive the original sketch).” Those “various stages” include commissioning an untreated canvas large enough for the project at hand, inventing a contraption to stretch the (unanticipated) creases out of the canvas, treating the canvas by hand with three layers of liquid gesso to ensure a matte finish on the final product (Motherwell’s studio assistant notes that, instead of using rollers, they “had to jam the bristles in between the threads of the virgin canvas”), special ordering a photographic enlargement (approximately 4 x 8 feet) of the original model sketch, fitting the artist’s preferred bristles on his preferred brush handles, adapting an Italian Renaissance technique—specifically, spolvero—in order to enlarge and transfer the image from the photograph to the canvas, and finding and hiring a varnish specialist to treat the finished piece.

Motherwell seatedThe rigid and idiosyncratic logic that guided Motherwell through these processes—that dictated the finish must be matte at all costs, the border must be redrawn more sensitively, that too much color would be all wrong, etc.—is belied by the apparent effortlessness of the final piece. Or maybe, paradoxically, this effect of effortlessness actually reveals the care of the maker, Motherwell’s virtuosity, and the cryptic but exacting logic necessitated by abstract art.

Have you ever visited a museum with someone who said, upon encountering a Jackson Pollock or Barnett Newman, “I could do that,” or “A child could do that”? I have, and I used to think that these questions were terribly beside the point. Now, though, I think these questions are the point: they speak to flawless performances of effortlessness. I’m drawn to these kinds of performances in other art forms, too: dance, music, and writing. I love, for example, the simplicity and easy tone of Trisha Brown’s Spanish Dance; I’m impressed by Derek Bailey’s casual humor and playful prodding at convention; Suzanne Buffam’s unadorned forthrightness moves and excites me.

I’m a poet, and works like these, works like Reconciliation Elegy, comfort me when I feel bound and devoted to a choice I’ve made in a poem I can’t fully explain, when the only thing that matters is the weird and demanding logic of the piece at hand, when I’m deep in the murky space of writing. These performances comfort me when I’m unsure that my endless tinkering, endless worrying will enrich my little poem, with its short lines, simple syntax, and low diction. These pieces assure me it will.

 

*All quotations are from A Journal of Collaboration Presented by E.A. Carmean, Jr.: Reconciliation Elegy, by Robert Motherwell with Robert Bigelow and John E. Scofield, and can be found here.

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