Jeannie Motherwell: Painting Again

Jeannie Motherwell: Painting Again

By Dan Cooper
P'Town Women Magazine

Jeannie Motherwell has resumed her career, creating intimate collages that speak to all of us.

The name, of course, is familiar: she is the daughter of the late, great Abstract Expressionist artist, Robert Motherwell, and her stepmother for 12 years was Helen Frankenthaler. But that is a mixed blessing:

On the one hand it meant winters in New York's Upper East Side and summers in Provincetown. It also meant having your own loft and studio in SoHo.

On the other hand, starting your own career while living amidst the leaders of abstraction was, well, difficult. After a promising beginning, painting large abstractions of her own, Jeannie Motherwell simply stopped painting—for ten years.

Starting some three years ago, Jeannie Motherwell began painting again: small collages that speak of her life, of the new path that she and her daughter are now on. These are intimate works, so it was appropriate that they surrounded us as we spoke during her recent show at Cambridge's O'Neil Library:

DC: What got you started painting again?

JM: I have an artist friend who had re-started his own career. In conversation, he said, "When are yougoing to start painting again?" And I said, "I'm never going to paint again; it's just too much work!" And he said, "Why 'work'? Why don't you have fun with it instead?"

And so I did. I started making these collage-like little cards and began sending them to people—like postcards. And then, like a good friend, he kept after me, saying, "Now when are you going to start painting—really painting?" And I did. I started putting the collages on canvas.

And then as I did more, I started incorporating bits of text that had come to me via e-mail that fit in with things I was trying to say in my painting. I've always loved writing and poetry.

DC: The text came after the pictures, fitting into what was on your mind?

JM: Originally, the text came after the painting, but more and more I saw the two as coming together, in a collage sort of way. It wasn't even intentional. It just happened, and I really enjoyed it's effect.

It became a controversial issue for a lot of people, who said, "If you have a painting, why have something that says what it is about?" But for me it wasn't that way. My collages are about life experiences I've had, and for me the bits of text were a wonderful way of enhancing what I was trying to say.

In this one ("Eyes Look Take a Look"), those are my daughter's eyes and that is a Titian breast. My daughter was in the midst of starting her dating career and all that goes with that. I was doing the same thing, after my divorce. So we were doing the same thing, she and I, colliding and connecting on a certain level.

DC: Your daughter's eyes don't seem to be the eyes of a 16-year-old; they're much younger.

JM: Oh, yes. That was when she was six. It was taken by one of her teachers at Rudelle Falkenburg's summer art camp in North Truro.

When I cut the eyes out of the picture, my daughter was mortified. She said, "How could you cut up my face like that?" And I suddenly had nasty visions of Picasso and his depiction of women, so I said, "No, no, no, you don't understand what it does to the face in the picture, etc."

She got over it, and now she very much enjoys the fact that she's the star in the painting.

I don't use things on a personal level, although they ultimately become personal. I wasn't thinking, "I'm cutting my daughter's face up." I was thinking, "These eyes are stunning, and will look good in this picture."

DC: Her fear of cutting up the picture is interesting, because, at some subconscious level, there is a fear of infanticide in all of us. A friend wrote a book, So the Witch Won't Eat Me, that deals with that.

JM: That was also after the divorce and having moved. Like having part of her childhood ripped up. I think that's probably what she meant, and it was such a strong reaction—to my surprise—that I almost wish it hadn't been her eyes, so she wouldn't have had to deal with it.

DC: Tell me about "Labels Are Unfair." It certainly grabbed me.

JM: It's about having a famous father and stepmother, Helen Frankenthaler [they were married when Jeannie was five years old], who is a famous painter in her own right. That was one of the reasons I gave up painting. This sort-of signified my coming out from behind all that and not being so afraid. It may not be the best collage here, but symbolically it means a lot to me.

It expresses my feeling that I was finally moving away from that. When I got married, I took my husband's name, because I wanted to lose the association with the name Motherwell. But later I realized that was silly. You can't ever give up who you are. And that was a way of moving forward for me. Still, you probably noticed that I sign my paintings "JMoth" (my e-mail screen name).

DC: Tell me more about how you sought to express that in this particular piece.

JM: I don't think I did it intentionally. It's just that things started coming out, and I started seeing different elements. And then this poem came in, via e-mail, with this line in it about "Labels Are Unfair." And I realized that's what this piece is about.

I incorporated the D'Arches brand name. That is a fine paper my father used to use, and after he died, my stepmother, the photographer Renate Ponsold, gave it to me. So I asked myself, "Does it really matter what paper you use? Couldn't a cheaper paper do as well?" And, of course, it does matter; a fine paper does do better.

So, it's a kind of pun or metaphor for names and associations and what they really mean. I felt for many years that it was a blessing—but it wasn't always a blessing—to have the name, Motherwell.

DC: There's a lot of black in both those paintings. You've said that black is your favorite color; isn't that a color?

JM: For me, it has always been a color, and for my father, it was always a color. He used to say to me, earlier on, when I was painting, "You really do understand black!" It's like you ask someone, 'What's your favorite color?' and they say 'Blue.' Well, for me, black is my favorite color, because I see it as a tool for representing many different colors.

DC: But you also use other in the piece with your daughter's eyes.

JM: They are therapeutic for me. I remember, when I was making this piece, feeling, "This feels very good, this feels very right, this feels very honest." When I was painting years ago and painting very abstractly, I never felt really good, never felt this is really my statement. It may have been my father's or my stepmother's, but it wasn't really mine.

So the whole thing of incorporating realism and also text as bits with the abstract—those contrasting images are what I want to transcend.

It has different meanings for every viewer, depending on what they read into it.

DC: But you give us a hint by titling the painting.

JM: when abstract painting was at its peak, it was debatable whether paintings should have titles, for that gave clues as to what the painting was about. And my feeling is that it's very important to entitle my paintings. For me, it gives them an identity. When I talk about "Eyes Look Take a Look," I know what I'm referring to.

DC: I so like that title, because for me, eye contact is important, and when people wear dark glasses, we lose that. Is that why they're called "shades?"

The modest size of these collages, 9 x 12 inches, many of them, requires getting rather close. And the small font used for the text adds to that.

JM: I thought about that. The text is a way to draw you in to see more of the detail. And, frankly, I don't know if it is always going to remain that way. On the one hand I don't particularly love the font but I don't want to get into things like changing fonts, because then it becomes a design issue. I don't want to make the text pretty, I want it to be functional. I think design serves better in other places than on my canvases.

DC: Well, they certainly do have the powerful effect of drawing you in and establish something like an intimate conversation.

JM: "Stop and Listen," is a more serious work and also more recent.

DC: How recent is it?

JM: Last winter. My daughter was unexpectedly hospitalized. I was supposed to be visiting a friend then, and we had to put our plans on hold because of her hospitalization. That was the source of this piece. It's truly my tribute to her.

DC: Talk some more about her and this collage.

JM: Well first, this is a view out the window of our place in Provincetown—our summer residence. It's a home she and I have known our entire lives. It's very much a part of our blood. This photograph was actually taken during a hurricane and rainwater covered the window, which is why it's blurry. This is my coffee table from our home in Cambridge, so it's the combination of our homes and our connections that intrigued me. I wanted to go on the trip, but I couldn't because of her hospitalization. It's that kind of a metaphor.

DC: You had to be a mother...and the text...?

JM: It was an e-mail from the friend I was supposed to be visiting, about what we should do, and the text was his way of responding.

DC: Let's get a bit chronological. Outline your painting career for me.

JM: I was born in New York. My parents were divorced when I was four, so I spent a lot of time with my mother in the Washington, DC, area, while summering with my father and Helen [Frankenthaler] in Provincetown. I went to Bard College in upstate New York, and about three years into it, I got a loft in SoHo. I was still attending Bard College two days a week, but spending the rest of the time in SoHo. There were only two restaurants down there then. It was quite livable for artists, and that was the theme. 420 West Broadway was one of the few gallery buildings, it was more artists than anything else. I began painting when I lived in SoHo and had a loft there for 14 years. There were shows, openings and parties every weekend...very different from the commercial way it is now.

But then my father, who had moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, to have a quieter life and a larger studio, became quite ill, and my husband, my daughter and I upped and moved to Greenwich.

I really wanted to be closer to my father. I had a difficult relationship with him. No, not difficult...complicated. I don't think, for whatever reasons, that it was in his nature to be a perfect father. But I accepted him as a friend and comrade, and we were very, very close. It was important for me to have my daughter know her grandfather. He was a public figure, but very private inside. And so the moments I spent with him and she spent with him were very special. My husband got along with him very well too; so it was an easy move.

My father died in 1991 from a heart attack brought on by a stroke. I think he would have taken his own life if he couldn't have painted every day until the day he died.

I lived in Greenwich for 9 or 10 years, eventually got divorced, and waited for my daughter to graduate from her school before moving to Cambridge. Since we always summered on the Cape, and since my sister Lise has a home in Cambridge, it seemed wise to move closer to Boston than to New York.

I did stop painting for over 10 years; that was a big thing for me. Living in Greenwich, I felt culturally deprived...starved. But I was saved by the Bruce Museum in Greenwich. I served as a consultant and a teacher there, developing children's programming, which was all very satisfying.

DC: As an artist, you have a good sense of space.

JM: My father and my two stepmothers all had incredible eyes for design, and it showed everywhere in their homes. Everywhere you looked there was an objet d'art. My father might get up during the night and rearrange paintings, and it was amazing how much everything changed from his fresh approach to our space wherever we lived.

I think that's part of where I got that collage desire. Moving things around...different patterns and different things, what works and what doesn't, and how you can rearrange space and fool the eye by bringing things forward or pushing them back.

It's also why I don't always need color, why black is a color for me, why I can do so much using just black and white. At least when I'm successful at it!

DC: It's wonderful how articulate you are about the process going on inside your head, and it's a reminder of what those of you gifted in the arts can do for the rest of us.

Do these collages include any "found" objects, or do you generate all the elements from scratch?

JM: The photographs themselves are not taken for the collages. I have a basket filled with things I have saved: photographs, pieces of paper, things that interest me. Most are usually photographs. In fact, if someone sends me a photograph or postcard or particular interest to me, it will most often end up in my painting.

I'll be working, and I just see something and I'll stick it on the canvas and it starts to look like something to me and I just go with it. I don't think that a lot of the photographs, the way they're cut up, are meant to be seen as photographs. It's just a shape and a color and a hue or a tone, and they are supposed to mix and blend in and contrast in terms of spacial relationships. Some of them are clearly symbolic, like the view from my house in Provincetown. Others are not. It doesn't even matter what it is. If it seems to work in the picture, I use it. Then, later, when I'm looking at it all come together, I see "Ah, this is what it's all about." And that's when the text comes in to help crystallize the vision.

DC: I'm hearing you say that, at that earlier stage, you're really engaged in a kind of abstract painting, so it's a return, in a completely modified way, to the things your father was doing.

JM: The abstraction is a kind of drawing that loosens me and opens me up without getting it too contrived and too tight. I notice that these collages are getting more complicated than they used to be, and I notice also that these are not like large paintings that you look at from a distance and say, "Oh, that's a...." You really have to get engaged, they're hard to look at, and you need time to look at them.

That was part of my concern while hanging this show: how much work should I show so I don't overwhelm my audience. I like the idea that it's broken up into two rooms, so you can take a breather and look at some other work.

DC: Underneath your surface cheerfulness is there a more somber person?

JM: Well, these pictures are very much about who I am, which is a person on a path. I'm underway, hopefully growing continually, through my pains, and hurts, and happiness, and the whole gamut of emotions that everybody goes through. A lot of the underlying themes in my work are really universal: experiencing things like loss, and pain, and love and anger, all the kinds of things most of us experience. I've certainly had my share of those things, but the work ultimately is about having a positive point of view, because I don't think I'm cynical, and I wouldn't want to convey that.

So they're serious, but they're not somber or depressing to me. I know that people look at paintings with black or predominantly black in them and think, "She must be awfully depressed." And I'm sure there are people who come in and look at my paintings and think, "I would never hang something like that on my wall!" But I don't paint them to be pretty, and I don't paint to have other people hang it on their walls. I really paint for myself.

DC: These seem to me to be metaphors for the very intimate conversations you see women having, and men often envy them for having.

JM: Much of the text I get comes from writings by men. Although men and women think very differently, I think that both men and women have the full range of emotions. The sources may be different, but they end up with the same emotions. I learned, when I got divorced, how very different men and women are. It was like a light bulb going off for me. I had no idea.

DC: That leads to another technical question: You have a photograph, a portion of which you want to use. Do you cut up the original or reproduce it, or...?

JM: It doesn't matter to me. I usually get a number of sets made. I've recently been scanning some of the things and then trying to adhere them to the painting. I don't particularly like doing that because the paper isn't "moveable" then. I have been experimenting with different glues, and recently found one that works well enough; it's rubbery so you can actually take it off and then put it back on. But with paper that's harder to do. Part of the thing with collage is to be able to move pieces around and change it, rather than having to paint over it, as people who paint in oil do. I like the immediacy of that. That's what attracts people who work in oil; it remains wet so they can constantly change it. And that seems to work for me, because I'm a fast painter, not that I'll finish a painting in a day—it actually can take me a long, long time—but I'm fast in that it happens right away and then I'll go back to it. Collages work very well for my temperament.

DC: Is there other work you're doing in acrylic?

JM: All these collage paintings begin with acrylic on canvas, and then the photographs or whatever are adhered to it.

DC: So it's not like you're doing other things that are larger in size and reducing them.

JM: I used to paint very large, and it was all relatively abstract: abstracted fishing boats like the fishing boats in Provincetown. In the late '70s I spent two winters there. One of the fishing boats, whose crew I knew, sank and all were drowned. I was so moved by that incident that I did a whole series of paintings about it.

But despite many people saying to me that they would like to see my collages bigger, what I like about their size is the intimacy. Also, I can literally pick them up and take them with me, the way a writer totes a pad of paper. So, I don't have a problem with their being small. And the text—I'm not yet convinced that I need or want to see the text enlarged. So I think about such things, but I haven't really made a commitment to going larger.

Dan Cooper is an M.I.T.-trained nuclear physicist who usually writes scientific articles. He is a former publisher and the owner of "Eyes Look Take A Look" by Jeannie Motherwell.