JEANNIE MOTHERWELL essay by Ann Landi for solo exhibition IMPACT


To experience one of Jeannie Motherwell’s paintings firsthand can be somewhat like getting knocked down by a wave, sucked underand exposed headlong and at high velocity to some of the many mysteries of the deep.

There is a watery aspect—sometimes hot and tropical, sometimes as chilly and forbidding as the sea in winter—that is probably no accident. Motherwell firstested her mettle as a painter after graduating from Bard in the mid-1970sspending a couple of winters by herself in Provincetown, MA, long a fabled retreat for artists and writers but usually a summer colony. Provincetown lies athe very tip of Cape Cod, with the bay on one side and the ocean on the otherand a lifetime of proximity has made her intimately familiar with the changes in weather, skies, and ocean. She’s also enamored of the mysteries of the universeas seen through the Hubble telescope. When in 2009, her brother-in-law, foundeof the British-based magazine Astronomy Now, gave her a copy of his newly published 25th Anniversary edition of Hubble Reborn—The Story of the Space Telescope, she says she “was mesmerized by the images of planets, galaxies, and nebulae—in such amazing clarity and detail.”

But the associations and metaphors stretch only so far. These are, after allabstractions, and it is with the language of color and shape independent oreal things in the world that Motherwell has been involved most of her mature career. She grew up in a family and a milieu conducive, though sometimes also intimidating, toward creative development, and by the time she was a senior aBard College, she had moved to SoHo, then still a hotbed of artistic ferment.

The materials Motherwell uses are integral to both process and final image. Both large and small paintings are usually acrylic (sometimes with the addition of ink) on clay board Panels, which have a smooth surface made from very fine porcelain that allows for rich bleeds of high-keyed color. Motherwell’s technique harks back to her father, Robert Motherwell, and her stepmother, Helen Frankenthaler, who worked on the floor, moving around the canvas, tossing and dripping paint from a brush or a can. Motherwell, too, starts on the floor, but when the paint is dry enough she will look at the work on an easel or on the wall and sometimes make amendments or move back to the floor to add more layers. She describes it as a “back-and-forth process” but one that nonetheless gives an impression of great spontaneity, as if the paintings were realized in one protracted and energetic session. The results can vary hugely, from a sullen, dominant sweep of black, as in the work Pursuit of an Idea (2018), to lyrical explosions in big paintings like Gulf & The Ghost (2019). Her works from this year (The Devil Wears Prada and Sweetly Broken, for example), are moving to a different tempo, less brooding and coloristically symphonic and more infused with individual grace notes, passages that break out of the whole to assert their own individual drama.

When Motherwell works on Yupo paper, which offers a slicker surface with no absorbency at all, she seems to be thinking more in terms of drawing, giving more priority to line than to color. There’s a greater sense of the wrist at work, while still delighting in accident and exploiting the possibilities of a limited palette.

It may seem as if the artist’s earlier adventures in collage have no bearing on her fully mature work, but I think she learned from that experience how to “mix it up”—how important it is to juxtapose shape and line, how a clearly defined edge or unexpected injections of color (check out the small ruby and bright blue bursts to the left of Respite from last year) can keep the whole pictorial field from becoming too complacent.

Jeannie Motherwell’s paintings are gorgeous feasts for the eye, as opulent and deeply satisfying as the rich brocades and furs that were part and parcel of portraits by masters as divergent as Rembrandt and Ingres. We live in an age when galleries and museums are looking for works that make some kind of statement—about the environment, about politics, about the whole sorry state of human affairs that affect our lives day in and day out. Though her careful study of the skies and sea reflects a passion for the world around us, Motherwell reminds us that visual art is meant first and foremost to seduce us into the act of pure looking: look and look again and just enjoy the painter’s considerable skill. That and the medium are the only messages you need.

Contributing Editor, ARTnews
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