Oral history interview with Robert Motherwell, 1971 Nov. 24-1974 May 1
From Archives of American Art
Interview with Robert Motherwell
Conducted by Paul Cummings
At the Artist's home in Greenwich, Connecticut
November 24, 1971
The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Robert Motherwell on November 24, 1971. The interview took place in Greenwich, Connecticut, and was conducted by Paul Cummings for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
PAUL CUMMINGS: It's November 24, 1971 - Paul Cummings talking to Robert Motherwell in his studio in Greenwich, Connecticut. Could we just start with some kind of commentary about the family background, and brothers and sister and everything like that. You were born in Aberdeen, Washington, right?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes, in 1915. I'm trying to think how to say it simply.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Just something general about the family background and things.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: My father was born in the Middle West, in Ohio, When he was a very young man his aspiration, for whatever reason, was to be a banker and to live in California. He was as determined about that as later I was to become a painter. Through a series of events he ended up as a very young man working in a bank in Aberdeen, Washington. And my mother who was very young - I think she was twenty when they met -- was the daughter of one of the two local lawyers. And they got married. Ultimately my father succeeded in his dream and became president of Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco. How he did all that I don't know. He had no connections, no anything. Which also gave rise to the legend that I must be very rich. But the fact is that he was ruined in the Depression and died before he could really recover financially. He died of cancer at a relatively young age. So that in one sense I grew up in and I always went back to Aberdeen in summers. We had a barn on the seashore. I'm sure it's one of the reasons why I go to Provincetown now, where I have a barn on the seashore. It's very much the same kind of life.
PAUL CUMMINGS: And it's something like this building.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. Very much like this building. So that in one sense I grew up with all the sense of great expectations, went to great universities, had convertibles in college, and so on. And yet in another sense it was all absolutely taken away. So that what people don't realize is that I lived in New York, married, trying to become a painter, having my first show there; I lived there for ten years on fifty dollars a week. And it's been a continual annoyance to me that because of my personal extravagance partly as compensation for all of that that everybody thinks that somehow there are stacks of money around; though actually my success that way has really meant a much greater capacity to borrow money when I was younger.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, isn't that often what happens? You know, you can always borrow more money.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: But there is one beautiful thing in it. My father couldn't understand my wanting to be a painter. Of course, this was during the Depression. So there was one beautiful thing about it. In the same way that his fantasy was to become a banker in California, and he succeeded, he believed it was possible to do what one wanted to do and he said, "If you want to be a painter and New York is the place to be a painter and originally in Paris then go to New York and be a painter." And even though he couldn't have liked less my being a painter, he could understand very well one's having a north star that one wanted to follow and in an indirect way there was a tremendous moral support.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Your family was in San Francisco when you were very young really.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: The summers in Aberdeen what was Aberdeen, Washington like in those days and what interested you about the place?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Well, it was in the 1920's. You see, I was born in 1915 so from 1920 to 1930 I would have been from five to fifteen. Aberdeen was the greatest lumber port in the world. It was a town of about twenty thousand people surrounded by virgin forest and with a magnificent harbor. And all my childhood in this relatively small town there would be a hundred or a hundred and fifty lumber ships from Japan, Finland, Russia, Greece, France, from everywhere loading up with lumber to take all over the world. So though in one sense it was a small town, it was a highly active, internationalized well, in the way that, say, Provincetown is a very small town but a very sophisticated one. Aberdeen was too. Actually our summer barn was on the seacoast about fifteen miles from Aberdeen in a small place called Westport. You see, everything was Scandinavian there on account of all the lumberjacks, and everything was built in Scandinavian wooded style. And there had been a small inn that my mother had gone to as a child with her sisters. It had been abandoned and the local doctor's wife had bought it. Around it were half a dozen houses. My grandfather had one, my father had one. A man named Lance Hart had one. He was the local artist, he was a professor of art at the University of Oregon, he had studied in Stockholm, he had been a childhood boyfriend of my mother's. He was the first artist I had ever met and was one of the loveliest men I ever met. Then several other families had houses. And they all had girls. I was the only boy in all of these houses. So it was ravishing from every standpoint. There were all these girls around and these fantastic beaches, isolation, this marvelous artist to talk to and who taught me how to play poker, and taught me how to make glug, which is a Scandinavian hot drink. So it was a kind of real beautiful holiday from the world. Then the real world was growing up in California, going to prep school when I was young, going to Stanford University.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What was it like in San Francisco? That's really where you grew up until you went to college, wasn't it?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Well, yes and no. At first my father was in Southern California with the Federal Reserve Bank. Then maybe when I was ten we moved to Northern California. When I was twelve I developed horrible asthma, like Proust. It was really ghastly. They thought I was going to die from it. So when I was fifteen I was sent to a prep school in the desert in California. From the prep school I went to Stanford. From Stanford I went to Harvard. From Harvard I went to Paris. So that though my family lived in San Francisco actually I myself was there very little. And never liked it because it was stiff and reactionary like Boston or Philadelphia; and, too, the fog was just literally death on me. So that what I remember is all the time being cold and damp and struggling for air.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Was the family interested in literature or music or the arts or activities like that?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: My mother was very literary. Also she had one of the greatest collections in America of eighteenth-century French Provincial furniture. She used to haunt auction houses for this and as a boy I often used to go with her. And there was a time when I could date any piece of French furniture within two years. I think it was a marvelous training of the eye because, you know, in the end the difference is the exact undulation of the curve, the materials, and so on and all the rest of it. All my life I've used earth colors a lot, especially yellow ochre and raw umber and so on; and I wouldn't be surprised that a lot of it comes from constantly looking at waxed fruitwood furniture. She didn't like the chichi town kind, you know, with gilt and all that, but the beautiful waxed fruitwood country furniture. Where that comes from I don't know. And my grandfather, her father, my Irish grandfather was an intellectual.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What was his name?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Sean Hogan. He was a lawyer. His library was filled with the complete works of Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Darwin. As a child he used to tell me stories all the time. I realize now that he was telling me Paradise Lost or a Greek trilogy, or stories from the Bible; but he would tell them to me as though they were stories.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did you read a great deal? Were you interested in literature?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Always. All the time. In Aberdeen there was a little bookstore run by a Russian Jewish woman. Her name was Anna Blume. When I was ten I started going there and using my allowance to buy books. She seemed to me to be an old woman then when I was ten. Several years ago, maybe in 1967 or something, I received a letter from her saying that she had known Chagall in Russia, and was I the same little boy who had become the famous artist, and if I was could she buy a lithograph for her grandson. I sent her one signed. So she's ninety or something now. I used to spend long afternoons in there and we'd have Russian tea and talk about all the books. Actually I was buying ridiculous books like Sabatini and Dumas and so on.
PAUL CUMMINGS: But did you read others? I mean were there -- ?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: For twenty years I read a book a day, from the time I was seven until I was twenty-seven. Now I don't have time to. I learned to sight read.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How did you learn that?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: In school. There was course in it and I took it.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Which school was that?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: In the public school
PAUL CUMMINGS: That's extraordinary for that time.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. You learned to read scanning the whole page instead of reading word by word by word. It's terrible for poetry but it's marvelous for long things because you get a sense of the whole.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What about the other schools you went to, the prep school, for example? What kind of atmosphere?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: You see, California in those days was really very Western and much more democratic than the East and nobody went to a prep school unless they were in trouble. so that all the other guys in prep school were either delinquents, or their parents were divorced, or in some cases -because California has a pipeline to the Orient - their families would be working in China or Japan. I mean everybody was sort of dumped there rather than going there, as they do in the East as preparation for Harvard, Princeton, or whatever. I was there because of my asthma. And they did a terrible thing to me: they used to post all the grades. My average would be ninety-six point five or something. And the next highest in the school would be sixty-one. The general average would be fifty--most of the guys were either emotionally or mentally upset in one way or another. So all the other guys tormented me on account of this. So in self-defense I became a football player and the best tennis player and all the rest of it. It was not pleasant but it did make going to college much easier.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Were there any teachers or instructors that you remember or who made some impression on you?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: There was a teacher of English, I've forgotten his name. There were two of them, both homosexuals, who were highly intelligent. I used to talk about literature with one of them. The other was an Irishman named Kiernan. He had a passion for opera. He wanted to be an opera singer really. This was in the midst of the Depression and you found all kinds of people teaching in schools who might not have otherwise but just had to get a job. He was crazy about Mozart and from him I learned what is still a passion for me, the operas of Mozart. I remember my mother saying once that he had written her saying though I was only sixteen I had the mind of somebody of forty and to let me develop in the way I wanted to. But she typically said, "Of course I didn't believe him."
PAUL CUMMINGS: How did your parents like your progress in school? Were they involved with it, or disinterested?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, God, I don't known. In many ways they were quite brutal to me. My mother was a hysteric and used to beat me terribly as a child until the blood ran out of my head. And my father would on occasion, too. So that I grew up terrible nervous and anxiety-ridden and suffocating. You know, I got asthma; what's asthma but not being able to breathe? I couldn't breathe at home. And so, again, everybody knows I went to Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, Grenoble and they think: Oh, God, this civilized, marvelous education. But actually I grew up like somebody in a high-class waterfront, you know, going from school to school and rooming house to rooming house and making my own life.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did they have interest in your moves and changing from school to school? Did you do this on your own?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: My father used to say to me, "There are only two things I ask of you, that you pass your grades and that you don;t get your name in the papers, because that might hurt me." My mother used to call me her Spartan child and she used to say to me from the time I was four, "Come home on your shield or carrying it." You know, really it was an appalling thing to say, as if to say: Come home dead, or make it.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You know, it's interesting - that's not really a Western American --
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: No. Well, she was highly literate. I can remember at the dinner table reading Knut Kamsun's Hunger, you know, while we were having roast squab or something and weeping over this scene. -- You know it's Irish blarney. But it's vivid.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Yes. And it's interesting this whole contrast of your world and their world and the things you were interested in and the things you were told to be interested in ...
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. And what was very clear to me was the grown-up world -- what to me was the grown-up world -- which nowadays would be called the WASP world was a bunch of crap. That was very clear to me by the time I was seven. And I wanted to have nothing to do with it.
PAUL CUMMINGS: In what way? How id you see that?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: It was all externally directed, status derived, puritanical, materialistic; that everybody was forced to become a fraud, that everybody was playing a role, and that they were getting no enjoyment out of the role. In face, I think I became a
permanently-arrested adolescent for years because I didn't want to grow up if that's what being grown up was.
PAUL CUMMINGS: For example, you went to the Los Angles Art Institute. Did you have a reason for going there?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I won a scholarship. We were then living in Beverly Hills and the Los Angeles public school system awarded a scholarship to a boy and a girl from all the public schools every year. I won it as a boy. But my father had a very negative reaction, and my mother used to have to drive me in a car, you know, miles. Finally they made it so disagreeable that I have it up. I was about -- I don't know how old -- ten, eleven, twelve, something like that. and I wanted to paint the nudes. They wouldn't let me in the nude class. They made me paint still lifes. I didn't want to do that. So I finally gave up, too.
PAUL CUMMINGS: When did you get interested in drawing and painting?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: When I was three, in kindergarten. You see, I'm tone-deaf; I can't carry a tune or recognize one. And in kindergarten a lot of it is dancing and singing and all of that, and I couldn't do it. so they would leave me in a corner with the coloring books or with paper and paints. They had a beautiful blackboard, I still have a feeling, a real slate one and every day at eleven o'clock the teacher would make sort of Miróesque diagrams of what the weather was that day; if it was sunny with an orange oval; if it was raining, with blue lines and green grass. And I can still remember at age three suddenly grasping that forms are symbolic, that it didn't have to look like rain but that blue lines for rain were even more beautiful than an actual photograph of the rain, and so on. And so I determined on the spot that somehow I would learn how to do that. Then in public school in about the second grade they taught me a schema like Raggedy Ann for drawing figures in an abstract way. I also think that there must be psychologically some revulsion against realism, I mean I must have found reality realistically rendered unbearable.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Because it was -- what? -- too much like real life?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: And I found real life horrible.
PAUL CUMMINGS: I've often wondered why there's so little early figurative
work of yours.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: There isn't any. I started as an abstract artist. But, you see, also at Harvard and at Stanford I studied philosophy and logic. In those days it was at the height of the development of mathematical logic on the one side from Whitehead and Russell, and on the other side from Witgenstein. And it became very clear to me that what structure is the relations among the elements and that elements related are meaningful. Which is to say that abstract structures can be meaningful. And for most artists without such an intellectual background in those days they were very dubious about making abstractions just for fear that they really didn't mean anything. But I knew metaphysically that by nature they meant something, so that I never had the inhibition about. I mean where most artists of my generation are older it was a moral crisis to move from figure drawing and all the things that one had started into abstraction. But I took to it like a duck to water.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You've mentioned before something about visiting the Stein collection and how that happened in Palo Alto. Had you seen many paintings before that in going to museums out there?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I used to collect books, little Italian books of all the old masters. I really learned to draw copying Michelangelo and Rembrandt and Rubens' Baroque paintings. But I didn't know modern art existed except from some Cézannes that I had come across in the Encyclopedia Britannica, which I also copied. You see, I was only seventeen when I saw the Matissess and they were literally the first twentieth-century pictures I ever saw. And I fell for them at first glance, and to this day au fond Matisse moves me more than any other twentieth-century painter. But I also think there are families of painting minds quite apart from history; that there are about -- I don't know -- five or six basic psychological types; and that whatever the type is that Matisse is, I think that is the family that I naturally belong to.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How would you describe those? What is an example of a family?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: For example, Vermeer is the family I feel the most alien to. Several years ago in a very learned article in the College of Art Bulletin I was very pleased to discover that he used a machine -- the camera obscura. And I would say that, say Norman Rockwell, and Wyeth, and all kinds of people belong to that objective eye who love to work with photographs or machines and look at everything in a very retinal lens-like way. There's another family like the Caravaggios and the Spaniards -- Murillo and so on, and one aspect of Rembrandt that loves dramatic contrasts of light and dark and blackness and so. And there's certainly a linear type like the ancient Greeks and the Siennese and the Florentines. And there's another kind that's very sensual, that if you look at the picture from a distance it's very beautiful in its way and if you look at the surface very closely, you know, your eye just two or three inches away and just looking at a square inch or two it's intrinsically beautiful just as a painted surface, the way when you's having a beautiful meal if you look at the food, you know, you're sitting at the table and you're looking at the plate there's something marvelous about all the textures and colors and so on. And I think Matisses are par excellence that kind. And it's that kind I like. and Rembrandt has it. Titian has it. Most classical twentieth-century painting has it. The Impressionist had it, although the Impressionists are less clear-cut in their shapes than I like.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Going back to the university, was there a reason why you went to Stanford? Or was it there and you went there?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. In those days everybody in California went either to Berkeley or to Stanford. I really wanted to go to Berkeley but Berkeley had subject requirements as well as grades. Stanford cared only about grades. I had very high grades, but because I had gone to a very small prep school with a limited faculty I didn't have all the courses that Berkeley insisted on. So I had to go to Stanford. I don't know, maybe in many ways I was better off. I didn't like Stanford; it was smaller. I think I might have been quite lost at Berkeley.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Were there any people at Stanford that you found interesting among the academic world or even among the students?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. There were several professors who I learned a lot from. There was a professor of Romance languages named Frederick Anderson from who I took a year-long course in Dante's Divine Comedy which made an indelible impression on me. There was a Frenchman named Albert Guerrard who gave a year-long seminar for graduate students in Art for Art's Sake. He ultimately published lectures as a poet. As a sophomore I forced myself on him. He said, "You's not eligible." And like a bulldog I'd say, "I'm going to come anyway." He couldn't believe it. Finally out of a kind of stupefaction he said, "You're not qualified; if you come after a few weeks I'm going to have to show you you're not qualified." I said, "All right, then show me." And I came and actually I got an A in the course. I wrote on Somerset Maugham. There was somebody else I also took a course from on André Gide. But the main thing probably was my roommate during the last couple of years. He was Henry Aiken. He had transferred from Reed College in Oregon. We studied philosophy together and went to the school of philosophy at Harvard. He stayed at Harvard and for many years was head of the department at Harvard. Lately he has moved to Brandeis. We taught each other. Each term we's take a subject like -- oh, I don't know --Joyce's Ulyssess, or Regel's Theory of Tragedy, or T.S. Eliot's [The] Waste Land, or Russell's Theory of Knowledge. We'd both read all the books and argue for ten weeks about whatever the subject was. It was a fabulous education.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How do you think you selected philosophy as a major?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Because the painting departments were impossible, the English literature was Victorian literature, the psychology at Stanford was behaviorism, and I was already very interested in psychoanalysis. And in those days the philosophy department was very small, very intelligent, and you discovered that in a way philosophy included everything, so that it was a way of transforming a big university into a small tutorial college. Which is what I like best as a teaching situation. When I myself teach, I teach the same way. And also I learned very early in college that it was much less important what subject you were taking than who was teaching it. It so happened that Stanford when I was there had a brilliant philosophy department, small as it was. Just as harvard did when I went there.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Do you think that that led to your interest in psychoanalysis? Or did that come before philosophy?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: It came before.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Was that, again, a quest for a solution to life problems that you seemed to have been having?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. And ultimately I did get analyzed. Which I think saved my life, saved my sanity. You know, most of my generation are dead through self-destruction directly or indirectly. And I had many of the same characteristics. I was just as wild, just as drunken, just as alienated, just as everything. You know, this is something I normally don't talk about, but I have a feeling that if Rothko or David Smith or some of the others had been properly analyzed they would not be dead now.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Why do you think it seems to be that people who go into the creative world tend to have so many of these problems, that sometimes they work out and sometimes don't? Or is it just that they tend to be aware of them more than people who are in other activities?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I think the second is true. You see, I think most people are held together by necessity, by daily routine; and if you're self-employed, so to speak, there's not that external routine discipline, etcetera. of having to relate to your co-workers, etcetera. And so if one has the same degree of neurosis as somebody who has a nine-to-five job but is self-employed it's apt to become much more visible, much more something to be contended with, plus the fact that in the end the only thing that really does an artist any good is an expression against very high standards, against standards of permanence really. And that it itself is such a beastly problem that only very few people in a generation are able to contend with it. So that even if one were perfectly (in quotes) "normal" one is still dealing with a kind of problem that brings hundreds of thousands of people every year to their knees, and one has that as a lifelong preoccupation: to make a statement that is so true, so exact, so exactly a reflection of both one's self and the world that its authenticity is indisputable. That's a problem.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You mentioned before about the life in San Francisco and how it kind of got you interested in French culture in a way because of the atmosphere and the countryside and all that sort of thing. Did that start in school?, or before -- the whole interest in kind of French...
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I don't know -- the main interest in French culture in one sense had nothing to do with France. It had to do with that I used to wonder all the time, as every modern artist has to , about what is art. You know, before modern art, art was always tribal; it always belonged to social context. In a way everybody in the society knew what art was. Starting with the Romantic Period it became something highly individual, not collective, not tribal. And if you were going to make art, in many ways it's tribal. And if you were going to make art, in many ways it's a big puzzle what is art at any given moment. And what I discovered in trying to find out about what art is --because the philosophers didn't know (they simply interested in the eternal nature of it) -- american artists to me were mainly corny, European artists either hadn't talked much or hadn't been published much or I couldn't read it. But I discovered the French poets from Baudelaire on: Rimbaud, Mallarme, Verlaine, Paul Valery, André Breton, Apollinaire. All of them all the time were talking about what is the nature of art in its broadest sense in modern times. And that was my interest in France, in France as the embodiment of modern culture.
PAUL CUMMINGS: It's interesting that you list the poets who all grew out of the Symbolist movement.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. Well, I think modern art is the Symbolist movement. And in that sense it was started by an American -- Edgar Allan Poe.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Right. I often think how many people realize the influence he's had the long way around...
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: They don't, because he's held in very low repute in the English-speaking world. But in France he's a hero, the way Walt Whitman is in Germany. And, you see, my historical role was really to be so convinced that modern art is, so to speak, the Symbolist movement, and with the greatest passion and enthusiasm to insist on it when I finally got to New York among all of those guys, browbeaten, low, depressed, on the WPA. And I think that as much as anything was the catalyst that led to abstract expressionism. Which was the first sustained American effort in painting to make a symbolic art in the sense of French Symbolism. It came out differently from French Symbolism because Americans are not Frenchmen. But that was the whole thing. And I think I was right. I mean I think it changed the history of art. And I don't mean it egotistically: I just mean it as an objective insight that hundreds of people could have had, should have had, and for some reason didn't have, or only half had.
PAUL CUMMINGS: To go back to our chronology for a second here, what about your first trip to Europe which was in 1935 when you were twenty?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: That mainly had to do with my father. After years of struggle finally he was in an established position. He had never himself been to Europe. He was a very classical, traditional Scotsman. He thought it would be a very nice idea to make the grand tour of Europe every five years. He planned it for my mother, my sister and myself. My mother decided that she didn't want to go, that she would rather take her share of the money for the trip and partly remodel our barn in Westport. So my father and my sister and I went. We made the grand tour of Europe starting in Paris and going all the way to Amalfi, all the way up Italy and Switzerland, Germany, the Low Countries, London and ended in Motherwell, Scotland. Then came home again. Then, of course, 1940 would have been the next trip but the war had begun. And by 1943 my father was dead.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What did you do during this trip? Did you go to museums?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. My father planned the trip very carefully. We were gone -- I don't know -- two months. We would stay three days in each city. And he did something very intelligent. The first day a car and a driver and a guide would meet us at the hotel and take us all around the city in the morning. Then we would stop and have lunch. The car would pick us up again and either take us to more places or take us back to something that we wanted to see more of. And having done that in one day you had a terrific sense of the whole place, and then at leisure the next couple of days would do what you wanted to do. And, of course, my father was stunned at my knowledge of art. For some reason traveling is mainly looking at art, though most people hate art. But I really liked it and knew about. Often I knew better than the guides what we were looking at. They's make terrible mistakes. But not speaking any of the languages I couldn't explain to them very well. I couldn't even pronounce some the of the names. So for me it was a feast of the eye and a sense that I still have of Europe of its being much more pleasurable, agreeable, comfortable, and food and wine. My father was a great gourmet, and there's where we really met. He was looking at it from an entirely different standpoint -- he was very interest in agriculture, in the manufacturing, in all modern techniques of doing things, he was also very aware that the war was coming and, as an international banker, he was very concerned about it. So he was looking at Europe all the time economically. I was looking at it all the time aesthetically and humanistically. So that he liked Germany, Switzerland and England, that he didn't get any fake money, and that the bathrooms were clean, that people were well-organized. I liked France and Italy, I mean the food was much better, where the art was much better, and the people were much juicier, the climate was much sunnier, and so on. It was very naive really; it was the Innocents Abroad. But a real revelation.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Then, of course, you came back and were at Stanford again. Was there a particular reason why you then went on to Harvard? Was it to pursue philosophy?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. When I graduated from Stanford my father, to my shock, said, "Now you're going to be a lawyer or a doctor or a banker or whatever professional man you want to me; and what do you want to be, and where do you want to study it?" I said, "I won't and I can't." And it was literally true. I couldn't have. He said, "You're very well-educated, you're very well-dressed, you speak very well, you get along with people very well, you could have a marvelous career." I said, "I don't want it." He said, "What do you want to do?" I said, "I want to be a painter." He said, "That's impossible," etcetera. And finally after months of really a cold war he made a very generous agreement with me which was -- and you have to remember all the time that this is in the context of the depths of the Depression -- he made an agreement with me that if I would get a Ph.D. so that I would be equipped to teach in a college as an economic insurance, he would give me fifty dollars a week for the rest of my life to do whatever I wanted to do on the assumption that with fifty dollars I could not starve but it would be no inducement to last. So with that agreed on Harvard then -- it was actually the last year--Harvard still had the best philosophy school in the world. And since I had taken my degree at Stanford in philosophy, and since he didn't care what the Ph.D. was in, I went on to Harvard.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Who did you study with at Harvard?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: With Arthur Lovejoy from Johns Hopkins who happened to be the visiting professor that year; with a great aesthetician named David White Prall; with C.I. Louis, who was an expert on Kant and ethics; and with somebody else. But probably the main influence was Whitehead who had just retired, but was still lecturing at --What's the girls' college next to Harvard? -- not Radcliffe but ten miles away? Wellesley. Where I heard some of the lectures and who was around Harvard all the time; and many of the graduate assistants, etcetera, were filled with him, and I knew him. So that even though he wasn't literally teaching, his influence was everywhere there. Then the next year I went to Paris for the year to work on Delacroix which I started under Lovejoy and Prall. Then Whitehead left. Prall dropped dead of a heart attack. And suddenly this place that had been a citadel for fifty years of humanistic philosophy became pure mathematical logic. So I decided not to go back because that was my least philosophical interest. In Paris I had met an American composer named Arthur Berger who was studying with Nadia Boulanger. We were talking one day. He knew of my agreement with my father. He said, "Well, actually you're more interested in art, and your father doesn't care what your Ph.D. is in, and in New York at Columbia there's a guy named Meyer Schapiro who knows all the things that you're really interested in. If you're not going back to harvard" -- where Berger had been, too, with the same people as I was -- Leonard Bernstein and Harry Devin, a lot of brilliant guys -- "why don't you going to Columbia and study with Meyer Schapiro?" And so I did. And that's how I got to New York.
PAUL CUMMINGS: A long, roundabout way.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. And that was the end of my youth.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How was life at Harvard though? How as it compared with, say, Stanford?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, I was miserable there really. I mean it was my first encounter with the East, with the snobbism, the anti-Semitism, the Yankee Puritanism, the hierarchies, the formalities. To me it was unendurable. Actually the year after when I went to Paris, though I didn't know a work of French -- which was one of the reasons I went to Paris -- Paris seemed much more familiar to me than Cambridge and Boston did. I mean I immediately understood the people better, why they were doing what they were doing. At harvard I used to go out with Radcliffe girls. I remember if you were at a party, say, with twelve or fifteen people you could immediately tell the people who were not from the East. You know, when they came in and shook hands they's smile and say "How are you?" or "I'm delighted to meet you." And the Easterners never did. They shook hands and looked at you. Now I feel differently but now I's a powerful person so that if I enter Cambridge they smile at me. Which they didn't do to a student.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You went to the University of Grenoble at one point, too. Was that for summer school?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. To learn French and stay in a pension. It wa the year of the Munich crisis. A very dramatic summer. And then after summer of learning schoolboy French I went to Paris and lived for year until the war began.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You were at Oxford in England. And where else?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I visited at Oxford. I sailed back to America on the last voyage of the Queen Mary. In Grenoble at the pension where I stayed there were four Oxford Fellows. We all knew that the war was going to start and that they would be in it. In fact all four of them were killed int he first year. It was between terms at Oxford and they invited me to come and spend two weeks before I sailed back to America. It was a very strange, tense, melancholy, beautiful time those two weeks with those four guys.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What kind of things happened? Or what was the milieu that caused that?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Looking at it now, and knowing what happened, it was a little bit as though I had spent two weeks in a very luxurious prison with four guys who were under a death sentence, and you talk and behave in an entirely different way from normal human discourse in a circumstance like that. So it was very intense, very real, and very unreal, too. I mean one of the guys wanted to be a jazz musician and thought he might be dead in a year; and was. One was a South African who wanted to be a barrister. It was -- I don't know -- how do you describe things like that? Maybe it was then that I began to get some of the tragic sense that I have that was rare in America then. Or in Grenoble I went out with a Czech Jewish girl. She received a notice from the Czech government just before the Munich crisis ordering her home. I remember putting her on the train and her weeping. She was a beautiful girl from a great family. I knew I would never see her again, that maybe she'd be dead. And I'm sure she never did survive the war. It was a very funny way to grow up. I mean when the kids now talk about the bomb and so on as though nobody ever lived under the threat of death before... Actually in the late thirties young people in Europe much more inevitable lived under the treat of death than anybody does here.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Everything was more real and closer. The bomb is a very abstract thing.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes, sure.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Somebody pushes a button somewhere and it happens. You went out to teach at the University of Oregon after that?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. That was when I really didn't know what to do and there my friend Lance Hart from Westport was a professor at Oregon and there was a teaching assistant, or probably an instructor, who was on leave of absence and they needed somebody. He realized that I didn't know how to move from he academic world into the art world, which was what I really wanted. And he proposed --and it would only be possible in a small friendly university like that -- he proposed to them that they give me the job even though I wasn't ostensibly equipped. And they did. And it was there that I really began to paint all the time, and taught courses in art. I did know the history of modern art. I gave a course in aesthetics which knew, philosophical aesthetics which I knew; and so on. It was then that I really began to paint all the time.
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PAUL CUMMINGS: What kinds of things were you painting on a fairly regular basis that you hadn't done before very much?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: We.., I had painted some in Paris. In fact, I had a small show in Paris of sort of silly work. You see, then I was very ingrained with what nowadays would be called French intimate painting. I liked very much Matisse, Bonnard, Vuillard, Utrillo, Braque, certain aspects of Picasso. Which was a very powerful influence in the world. Everything changes, but one has no idea how dominant in terms of international communication that particular aspect of modern art was -and Matisse above all. I mean to many people it seemed to be modern art with surrealism and abstract art and German Expressionism and sort of maverick fringes of this central core. So I began to work that way. I mean very much in my own way, very beautifully. Unfortunately, none of the work exists. You know, I'd leave it at home and when the family would move they'd give it away or burn it, or whatever. I spent a year learning, let's say, French intimate painting very well. I did some of it from post cards of France. I did some of it from nature in Oregon. But it was hard to do in Oregon because Oregon is very foresty and Scandinavian; and all that French thing is based on everything being parks and mannered and manicured and transformed by man. To this day I prefer that. I mean it's not accidental that I chose a place like this that has a park, instead of a farm where everything is just sort of at random.
PAUL CUMMINGS: While you were painting and teaching you kept on reading? - you said you read a book a day for so long. What did you read? I mean anything and everything? Did you have particular areas of interest that you followed?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. I've always been very thorough. For example, if I decided to read Greek tragedy I would read all the thirty-seven, or whatever it is, known Greek tragedies. Or if I decided to read André Gide I would read his complete works. Or Freud. Or Elizabethan drama. I don't know - I think I've really ready everything at on time or another. I don't mean that vainly. It really was a kind of madness. But very thoroughly. I was a very good scholar. You know, I knew how to make a bibliography and how to footnote everything. It was very funny - what are we talking about? - at least thirty years ago, thirty-five years ago - there wasn't so much to read in one sense. Well, for example, at Harvard I took a yearlong seminar in the Idea of Romanticism with Lovejoy. My particular topic was Delacroix's Journal; somebody else had the Schlegel brothers; somebody else had Schiller; somebody else had Wordsworth; somebody else had Berlioz; and so on. The topic of the seminar was: What is Romanticism? So I read every book there was on the subject of What is Romanticism. And if you read them all it's amazing how few ideas there are how everybody is stealing from everybody else. So that if you really go about it thoroughly - which people very rarely do - in those days most humanistic subjects you could really master in several months.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Do you think just because of the proliferation of books there's a proliferation of ideas now? I mean do you think there are that many more new books with content on, say, that particular topic?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, yes. For example, I've been reading about Romanticism again this year in relation to an article I'm writing about Picasso, and there are several books written since then that are so infinitely superior in intelligence, research, everything, that it makes what I was able to read then, what existed, absolutely primitive, I mean rudimentary, childish almost. And I think in most fields - when Aiden and studied the Theory of Tragedy, say , in the winter of 1935-36 or whenever it was, there were maybe twelve books. There may be two hundred books now and, again, some of them are more brilliant than anything we could read except the classic like Hegel and Aristotle and A.C. Bradley and so on. No, there;s a definite qualitative difference. In the same way that in those days there were maybe five good painters in America and there are probably two hundred good painters in America now.
PAUL CUMMINGS: I want to talk about Matisse for a second because he keeps popping up over and over and over. What were the qualities in his work that appealed to you?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, God, I don't know any more than anybody else. You see, being an intellectual everybody would assume that I look at everything analytically. And it's really the exact opposite. I look at it - there is a total impression, there remains a kind of warm afterimage in my mind. Gorky, for example, used to very carefully analyze how a Kandinsky or Miró or Matta would technically do something. I never looked at that. I always looked at just the total over-all effect. And apart from the obvious sensuality and color and ally that there's something in Matisse that is as remorselessly, relentlessly adjusted in terms of internal relations as somebody like Piero della Francesca. Most people don't that in him. But it's just as much there. That's why all painters really love him - well, not the only reason, but a reason. He's as Strong as Piero. and it was that double aspect that I liked- the sensuality, and the color and the so-and-so plus this thing that is almost - well, Georges Duthuit wrote sometime that "Matisse is as strong as the mosaics of Ravenna" - I've never seem them -and whatever he's trying to say by that in my own way I also saw. And if that is a kind of classicism, that structural sense, then I have a classical side as well as a sort of modern immediacy and so on; though I guess in relation to 1971 I'm purely classical. I don't know.
PAUL CUMMINGS: To go back to the University of Oregon, how did you like the teaching experience?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I did. But you see, I'd been a student since I was fifteen and to this day in many ways the student situation is the most normal social situation to me. I mean I'm living with fellow students now. I give lectures four or five times a year. I'm a Distinguished Professor at Hunter. I get along with students like a house afire because we're all openended. I have no difficulty with them because I do my own thing so that, you know, I'm not giving them a lot of information; I'm, like them, analyzing what life and art are all about, not from an authoritarian position but openended. What is it all about? And that's what they're interested in too. And I was always that way as a teacher and as a student.
PAUL CUMMINGS: But you like the idea of teaching?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. But I don't do it very much because it takes the same energy as painting. In fact, I only did it this year because for the first time in thirty years I'm living in the country, and for the first time in thirty years I'm a bachelor and, given those two big changes in my life, I thought that it might be very good for me to have a regular contact with New York that took me in all the time. It turns out that although I enjoy it I don't need it at all. If I'm suffering from anything it's from too full a life.
PAUL CUMMINGS: When you came back to New York after a summer in Aberdeen you sailed around through the Panama Canal. Was there a reason for that?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. Everything at home was so awful that I had to get away and Columbia wasn't open yet so it was really a way of spending some time. I mean it got me out of California two weeks earlier. That was all.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You only have one sister, right?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did she every have any art interest at all?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: No. None.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Anyway, you came to New York and that fall you started at Columbia with Meyer Schapiro?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes, right.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What did you do with him? What did you study? And what was that like?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I took a course in the history of modern art with him, which was mainly about Picasso; and a course in Romanesque manuscripts at the Morgan Library. But I lived near him by chance, not on purpose. And being so innocent about how busy people are in New York I used to paint all the time and I'd go around to his house around ten o'clock at night once a week and show him my pictures. He was very nice to me. But finally in a very exasperated way - really as I would now if somebody were doing the same thing - he said to me, "Look, what you want to know painters could tell much more quickly, and all you're dying to do is hang around painters, so I'm going to introduce you to some." He introduced me to the parisian Surrealists and set up for me to study with Kurt Seligmann whom he chose because he spoke English well, and was a highly cultivated man, and was willing to do it, and led a regular life. so he set u that ostensibly I was studying with Seligmann. I 'd study engraving with him. I think I paid him fifteen dollars and afternoon or something. But actually the Surrealists were real comrades. a real gang, the only real gang of artists I've ever know. And so if you knew one pretty soon, you'd know them all. Two or three times a week. they'd all have lunch together, they wandered the streets together and edited magazines together. So that within four months I knew them all. I was especially friendly with Matta who was the only other young artist around who was as enthusiastic as I was, and who also spoke English very well, and was more or less my age. Then that spring Matta and I and Bernard Reis's daughter and Matta's wife went to Mexico together for the summer. And it was there that I really seriously started painting. And wrote my father that I was going to quit school and paint. But that time he was beginning to feel that everything might turn out all right, though he would die in the next year. So he said "fine, if that's what you want to do, do it and I'll give you your fifty dollars a week."
PAUL CUMMINGS: Was there anybody in Meyer Schapiro's classes that you got interested in or involved with?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: There were several students who talked a lot together: Milton Gunde who has written the Italian letter for Art News all these years; and a couple of scholars. But you see they were all training to be art historians. and it's impossible to realize now how remote from most people lives, including art historians, modern art was then. It was as remote as say, the drug culture was ten years ago from most peoples' lives. I mean you knew it existed but you didn't know anybody involved in it. It was a remote thing. So I was very alone really. And the first two years in New York were hell.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Where id you live when you first came here, what part of New York?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: The first year in a thing called the Rinelander Gardens which were beautiful old iron-balconied buildings on Eleventh Street. I had a big room and a balcony and the garden in front. And then in Mexico I fell in love with a Mexican actress and she came back with me. We took a little apartment on Perry Street for a year, then moved to an apartment on Eighth Street facing MacDougal Street and lived there for several years. Then I moved to East Hampton and built a house with a French architect out of a tiny inheritance my father had left me. I lived in East Hampton for four or five years. Then she and I were divorced and I moved back to New York. I became a professor at Hunter College so then I moved to the upper East side and lived there until just a couple of months ago.
PAUL CUMMINGS: There's one thing you said about the Surrealists being a gang, the only real gang of artists you've ever know. That never happened with American artists, I mean even with The Club or the Cedar Bar on Tenth Street and any kind of vague group like that was never really closely knit - I don't think - as the Surrealists. Was it because they were all Europeans in New York?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I think it was that and lots of other obvious things. But I think the main thing was that hey had a collective ideology and that primarily it was a literary movement. So that there was an ideology to hold everybody together the way the young Communists might be a gang, or young Freudian analysts, or people who had a common field of interest that would have overcome all the individual differences. The Americans never had that. I think abstract expressionism as an ideology was only in my mind and in everybody else was their various ways of painting, so that it was much less clear that there was something in common. I imagine the Cubists had it for a moment; it was wrecked by the First World War. I imagine the de stijl people had it for a bit; and maybe the Russian Constructivists. I do think the war, the displacement from Europe probably made the Surrealist thing last longer. Because usually these movements or these gangs exist when you're young and trying to find yourself and need moral and physical support from other people; and then as you become married and settled and find your way they tend to split apart. But the Surrealists were so displaced that it went on well into middle age. And plus the personality of Breton. I mean it's the only movement I've ever heard of where everybody acknowledged that there was a leader. And Breton was the leader. You know, it's inconceivable that, let's say, Rothko would - as Max Ernst, for would say: - yes, there is an intellectual leader that I believe in.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Do you think because Americans have always been more independent? Or just never culturally had the possibility of thinking that way?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I don't know - I think it's because Surrealism was very complex intellectual ideology having to do with politics, psychology, poetry, painting, chance, magic, cards, that it was a whole vision of life. Where as the other movements are much more technical and just painting technique is not enough to hold people together very long. That's what I think.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Do you think someone could develop as a theoretician like that in this country?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I think English-speaking artists are basically anti-intellectual. So I don't see it. I think they're wrong to be anti-intellectual.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Why do you think they are though?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: The English tradition in general is anti-intellectual. You know, English philosophy has always been very empirical and matter-of-fact. The English tradition is to bumble through and to be very distrustful of somebody who is exceptionally brilliant or exceptionally fanatical or exceptionally ideological. And there's a certain wisdom in that, too. I don't know - I know I've suffered from it all my life.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Don't you find there's also that kind of quality particularly in American life where even if one is intelligent you kind of find the hard way to do things? You don't do things easily, you don't do things simply; there's got to be an obvious or imposed real struggle. Maybe it has to do with frontier thinking.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: It could be. And also there's a certain American impatience. The American reaction is: don't give me all the bull shit; I like orange - that's enough.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Right. I want it now.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: I don wonder though about the whole development because, you know, there are younger painters who seem to be interested in different kinds of writing today.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes, I do think it has changed a lot. I mean a guy like Robert Morris is a real intellectual. Probably Oldenburg is. I'm sure there are a dozen of them that are. In my day that was inconceivable. And, of course, I was a freak on account of my peculiar background. And if I hadn't been gifted for painting it wouldn't have happened for another twenty years probably.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, what about coming to New York? You were not involved with the WPA or any of those government projects but many of the people that you met had been involved with. Also that whole kind of "American scene" painting that was going on.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: No, I was not involved with the WPA. Well, for example, I used to go and look at the Whitney Annuals. Which were representative, as they still are, of what's going on, for better or worse. And I used to look at them appalled; you know, looked at Curry, Paul Cadmus, Guy Pene du Bois, John Carroll, Fletcher Martin, All the people who were the reigning stars of American art. And they used to look to me so parochial, so corny, so ugly, so nothing, that I couldn't believe it. I mean I really looked at it as "the Emperor has no clothes." And there the Scot comes out in me. In the end there's something puritanically implacable about my mind if I really see something. And nobody could have convinced me that I was wrong. And actually I think I was right.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What do you think the problem was in those days? Was it the fact that there was so little awareness of European art, or intellectualization, or intellectual life?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I don't know. Why don't Americans drink wine? Why don't they have bidets? Why don't they have three of the basic things that civilizations have discovered make life a very comfortable, agreeable, and so on? They're foreign; so they won't take them. I mean, again, that's changed a lot since the jet airplane and people began to see it all. Or maybe - oh, I don't know - a couple of weeks ago I gave a lecture in Omaha and was arguing for internationalism. Two days ago I got a letter from a professor who was in the audience very angry saying that concreteness and so on, and mentioning Dostoevski and God knows what all. I understood very well what he meant: that there's something beautiful in local things, Greek customs, or Irish customs or Irish literature, or Spanish literature. Which I wouldn't deny for a moment. But let's say the Americanism struck me as phony. You know, in the end if you attack Norman Rockwell ... it's not that he's a bad painter. He's a very good painter in his particular way. But the subject matter is a goddamned lie. I mean America is not like that. Reality is not like that.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, he's painting a fantasy.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. And in that sense the Soyers painting their ballet dancers seem to me a goddamned lie. If what they meant was the Degas tradition, which is all that they could have meant, then it was clumsy, corny, colorless, ridiculous. But if they were great American Painters then there was something cockeyed with American painting that it was using such standards. And so on right down the line.
PAUL CUMMINGS: So much of it seems to harken back rather than looking at today or even looking forward.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Sure. I mean I think there are two universals that one has to deal with. One is nature, I mean just the universe. And the other is the culture of art. And any work made anywhere has to be able to stand against both, the way Cézanne would put one of his landscapes out in the field and see if it was as good as the field. And the other thing he probably wanted to do was put it next to a Poussin and see if it was as good as a Poussin. Those are primitive examples but, let's say, that's a way of setting up standards. what seemed to me appalling were the standards of American art.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Do you think it was because of the artists? Or the criticism? Or the society? Or the kind of newness of painting in this country.?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I don't know. I mean we're talking about the 1940's. It was equally true of Spain, of Italy, of everything in Eastern Europe, of Germany, England. There wasn't anything anywhere really except in Paris. But that didn't mean that one couldn't use high standards the way Paris did. And exactly what's happened in the last thirty years is that Americans have enormously raised their standards and Europe has enormously lowered its standards.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What about studying engraving with Seligmann? How did you like that, and him, and the experience?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I enjoyed it very much but we both knew that he was taking me in, so to speak, for a few months until I somehow got a bit oriented. The real thing started when Matta who had an oedipal relation with the Surrealist - he both loved them and hated them - and was younger, he was my age - which is to say we were in our twenties - and they were in their forties. Matta wanted to start a revolution, a movement, within Surrealism. He asked me to find some other American artists that would help start a new movement. It was then that Baziotes and I went to see Pollock and de Kooning and Hofmann and Kamrowski and Busa and several other people. And if we could come with something. Peggy Guggenheim who liked us said that she would put on a show of this new business. And so I went around explaining the theory of automatism to everybody because the only way that you could have a movement was that it had some common principle. It sort of all began that way. I realize now - and I don't mean this cynically - I was naive. I realize now that most of the interest of the other artists was not in the principle of automatism so much as in the fact that I had a connection with Peggy Guggenheim.
PAUL CUMMINGS: And it was very practical.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. Their interest was practical, but I was talking theoretically all the time. Somewhere there's an interview with Matta in the last several years where he says "Bob was always talking about aesthetics", and what people don't understand is that he means that quite literally, that I was trying to lay the basis of a new aesthetic based on free association.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Was that the theory of automatism.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How was that developed?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: It was a Surrealist technique but it had all kinds of possibilities that had really never been developed. In those days of sort of interest to us - Klee used that kind of technique, although he was not really a Surrealist; Masson and Miró and Arp were all doing it. It was doodling in one way or another but still with European classical composition and so on. You see, what I realized was that Americans potentially could paint like angels but that there was no creative principle around, so that everybody who liked modern art was copying it. Gorky was copying Picasso. Pollock was copying Picasso. De Kooning was copying Picasso. I mean I say this unqualifiedly. I was painting French intimate pictures or whatever. And all we needed was a creative principle, I mean something that would mobilize this capacity to paint in a creative way, and that's what Europe had that we hadn't had; we had always followed in their wake. And I thought of all the possibilities of free association - because I also had a psychoanalytic background and I understood the implications - might be the best chance to really make something entirely new which everybody agreed was the thing to do. You know, like Baudelaire says at the end of The Voyage - "Looking for the new." And it's all so obvious and yet nobody got it.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Sometimes the obvious is very difficult to see.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. I mean so obvious if you know modern culture. And I think in a way we all intended just to carry on the European thing. In fact, when the big American show was on at the Metropolitan I remember Kramer writing in the New York Times Magazine that we were the true heirs to the École de Paris. Which is exactly how we started.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Talking again about the Surrealist group, which ones were you closest to or most involved with besides Matta?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Max Ernst, Duchamp --
PAUL CUMMINGS: Breton? He was here for a while, wasn't he?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. I knew them all well but probably the three I saw the most and knew the best were Duchamp and you see, all three of them spoke English very well - all three of them then like America (both Matta and Ernst changed later) - and Ernst for a year was married to Peggy Guggenheim. Peggy always rather liked me and my Mexican wife who was fantastically beautiful. Peggy always thought that we made a nice decoration at her parties and was very nice to us. Masson I liked very much but he lived in Connecticut and I rarely saw him.
PAUL CUMMINGS: But what about Duchamp? He was older than the rest of the people that you knew at that point, wasn't he? Or did that not make very much difference?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: No, nobody ever thought of ages really. Also simultaneously I was going around with Surrealists. I knew Baziotes very well who was very close. And then during the forties I slowly got to know Rothko, Gottlieb, Tomlin, Newman, Tony Smith, Herbert Ferber, David Smith. In fact it's hard to describe now but Matta from the European side, and I from the American side, were sort of liaison officers between these two camps which really didn't intermingle at all. Ultimately gorky got drawn into the Surrealist camp; also David Hare, and Noguchi who was in love with Matta's wife at that time. People nowadays have very little sense of how little intermingling there was. I mean everybody now knows that the European artists in exile were here during the way and the all assume that these artists were everywhere and that everybody saw them. It wasn't that at all. The Europeans mainly saw The Museum of Modern Art people and society people, not especially because they wanted to but they were sort of taken in hand that way. They were very alienated and very frightened. During the first three years of the war it looked as though the Nazis might very well win and that all of European civilization would collapse. On the other hand, the Americans had been on the WPA. Nobody would buy one of our pictures for seventy-five dollars when a Dufy would sell for several thousand dollars. So on the American side there was a lot of bitterness and discontent, and so on. I suppose that only person who throughout this period has moved equally well in both camps has been Calder who also is the only one who has continually lived in France as well as in America. But there was very little connection. In fact I think it was a golden opportunity that was largely missed. And then there was also Modrian. He had half a dozen fanatical disciples. And there was Léger ditto. There was Ozenfant running a school; Zadkine running a school. Who else was there? Lipchitz who was always mean everybody. You know that famous photograph of the European artists in exile?
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, yes, at the Matisse Gallery.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. If it hadn't been for the war you never could have gotten those fifteen men in the same room, but being exiled was even more important at that moment than the aesthetic differences. Everybody forgets everything.
PAUL CUMMINGS: The thing that I find interesting is that Léger really spent a lot of time in the country and didn't take to New York from what I've been able to piece together.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Well, he had a studio there. I remember going to it. Actually for one thing, all the Europeans worked very hard. They were much harder workers than the Americans. Secondly, they had no resources. They had to work in order to make a living. And where they were very lucky was that the best galleries - Curt Valentin, Pierre Matisse, Julien Levy and so on - were all for them, so that if they had the work they could immediately have shows at the galleries, make a living and so on. But they were in dead earnest because they were really up against it. And the main meeting place was the so-called Free French Canteen. This was a sort of store front that Pierre Chareau redesigned and where sort of high society Francophile Americans would provide wine and coffee. On the Fourteenth of July there's be dancing and so on. It was a kind of wartime European-in-exile canteen and people would meet there in a very friendly way. You see, Paris still at that moment in 1910, 1941, 1942 was the queen of European culture. And so France became the symbol of the whole shooting match. Russia was Stalinist. Germany and Central Europe were Nazi. The English hadn't been very involved in the modern art scene. So it was everybody who was connected with Paris and therefore with the Free French Canteen.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What about your association with Duchamp? What brought you together? What was the mutual interest that developed the friendship, would you say?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Well, that's not the right way to put it. It was more that the Surrealists had constant enterprises: a big show, or publishing a magazine, or writing a manifesto, or publishing a portfolio to raise money for the poets. And so there'd be these gatherings of all of them. But, for example, I would more naturally find myself talking to Duchamp who was detached. After all, I was a scholar as well as an artist and also had a certain detachment. I'm not an ideologist at heart. Or I would talk to Max Ernst who probably was the first painter before me to have a degree in philosophy and who was perfectly willing to talk about intellectual things and who thought I had a lot of possibilities. He used to say to me, "You have a tremendous capacity to grow because you're always learning." Or I would talk to Matta because we were already beginning to figure out our "revolution" and so on. But also language. You see, I'm tone-deaf; I speak so poorly anything but English. But also it was a matter of temperament. Tanguy would just get drunk and bash his head against the wall. Masson, who was very bright, didn't know one word of English and wall all sort of self-contained and rarely there Callas was there a lot but I never liked him and he didn't like me.
PAUL CUMMINGS: He was also sort of needling people.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: No matter what he said, if he said "hello" you'd feel there something there.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes, exactly. There was something very pretentious. And Breton was a very difficult person. I admired him but found him very difficult. Seligmann was always very pleasant, but a little bit frightened in those situations; he was much less secure as an artist than the others were rightly so. There were group meetings. Matta then had a very beautiful American wife. I remember once in somebody's studio we were talking about bringing out the magazine. Suddenly there was a terrible fight between Breton and Max Ernst. They were both standing screaming at each other. My beautiful wife, and Matta's beautiful wife and somebody else had gone to Chinatown for dinner and had bought little wooden pipes, you know, that you play tunes on. At the height of this fight these two beautiful girls came in piping little tunes on these pipes in front of everybody's face. Everybody broke into uproarious laughter except Breton and Ernst who, as I say, were still equally furious, but were suddenly in a position were being furious was absurd. The girls had no idea of what was going on. It was all very much like that, I mean it was very human, very real, all of it, in a way that I understand where when I would be with the American artists it would be a lot of bitterness toward Europe, toward The Museum of Modern Art - which of course neglected us all then - talk about money all the time. It always struck me that the European artists never mentioned money, and the American artists talked about money ninety per cent of the time. The Americans didn't want to talk about aesthetics. The European artists would always talk about ideas. I remember that.
PAUL CUMMINGS: I wonder why that is. I find that many artists that I know find it very difficult to talk about art in general or specifically, or their work, or other peoples' work.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Like you were saying earlier, the American artists want to talk about practical things. The European artists regard it the way an aristocrat does: it's vulgar to talk about practical things; and it's your own business and you take care of them in your own way. At the same time I think probably they're shrewder than Americans are about money but they never mention it.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That's fascinating. There seems to be this terrible problem. They do talk about money here all the time.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I'm sure it also has to do with American civilization in that somehow in America to achieve something has to be confirmed by money whether you believe in it or not, because American civilization is so oriented that way it's unreal. And Europe in not that way. I mean a poor poet can be held in as great respect for what he is as a cardinal. And here there's not that kind of support. I mean I'm treated very well in Greenwich not because I'm a well-known artist but because I drive a Mercedes-Benz down the street.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Do you think people will every change their spiritual values here?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Well, I think it's one of the things the younger general is trying to do. And I hope they succeed. And I think they might.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, it will enrich the life a great deal.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, sure. And put everybody under much less abstract pressure. You know, certain people are designed to become rich. Most people are not. They would be much better off if their aspiration were something much more natural to them.
PAUL CUMMINGS: They might end up accomplishing more.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Absolutely, and much more happily.
PAUL CUMMINGS: When did you start teaching at Hunter?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: In 1950.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Were you teaching anywhere in the 1940's?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: No. Rothko and Baziotes and I had a one-year school but it was just in a loft with a dozen students.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What about the magazine VVV and all those publications that seem to be appearing? You started writing reviews and all kinds of things somewhere in the 1940's; started being published. Was that something you planned to do? Or was it something that happened?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: It happened. I've never written anything in my life that I wasn't asked to write. It would never occur to me to just sit down and write something for the hell of it. But in those days everybody needed explanation and because I was the most highly-educated of the American artists I became the guy who inevitably wrote whatever had to be written. And also probably I believed more in words than the others. I mean I'm aware of how terrible they are and also often attack them, but they're a real social weapon and anybody ignores them at his peril.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, because people are trained to respond.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Exactly. And I think it's wrong that they are. But I think also it's wrong to ignore that they are.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What about the exhibition in the catalogue The First Papers of Surrealism? That was one of the great manifestations of that period. did it mean something to be included in an exhibition like that? Or was it just something that one was in because of the circle? - because so often now you hear painters say, "Oh, So-and-So is doing X kind of exhibition and I've got to be in that" - for one political reason or another.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: No, no. It was the Surrealist family. As I remember, the only Americans in it were: Calder, who was part of the international business; Man Ray who had been a Surrealist; Baziotes, and myself who were going around with the Surrealists; Bernard Reis's daughter, Barbara, who was also studying with Kurt Seligmann; and maybe one or two other young Americans - maybe David Hare was in it - I don't remember. But it was definitely just people who had daily contact with them who could be regarded as part of this family. Maybe Cornell was in it, and if Cornell was in it then it would have not been personal contact but that everybody recognized immediately that he was involved in a kind of magical poetry that Surrealism was interested in. Matta and I were both very strong advocates of him in those days when most people didn't pay any attention to him.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Why did it take so long for people to think of Cornell?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I don't know.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You know, there were all those little indications of his presence here and there but nothing --
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I really don't know.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Was it because made boxes and objects that weren't paintings or drawings?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I don't know. I really don't know. He's a very difficult man. And he wasn't around that much. He's kind of Captain Ahab. Misfortune really. It's so obvious - you know, I used to say in those days, "he's the one American artists who could be set down in paris and the next day everybody would get it." But nobody ever did.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What about Baziotes? When did you get really involved with him, and how did that come about?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Matta introduced us. Baziotes was the only American painter that Matta knew except for me at a certain moment. One day Matta and I went to Columbia to look at the models of mathematical objects which we regarded in those days as more beautiful than most modern sculpture and there was a very nice young girl. Matta talked to her for a minute and then came back to where I was standing. I asked, "Who is that?" He said, "She's the wife of an American artist named Bazitotes. Do you know him?" I said, "No." He said, "You should. I think you two would like each other." And he introduced us. We couldn't be more opposites. Baziotes was from a Greek immigrant family from the ghettos of Reading, Pennsylvania, trained at the National Academy, looked like George Raft, was interested in gangsters. We couldn't have been more different but we got along like a house afire.
[BEGIN TAPE 2 SIDE 1]
PAUL CUMMINGS: This is Side 3 - February 21, 1972 Paul cummings talking to Robert Motherwell in his house in Connecticut. Well, shall we just start by developing your involvement with the Surrealist group and the other artists as you met them in New York in the early forties.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: What I meant to say is I don't remember anything of what I said before. But yes, 1941 - and not all - but --
PAUL CUMMINGS: But that was the beginning?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Who was the key person there as far as, say, introductions went?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Matta who was very close to me in age and had been in New York for several years. He had an American wife and spoke English quite well, and at the same time as a South American had a parallel problem with North Americans, which is the whole problem of not being a colonial artist without becoming an expatriate like, say henry james and being totally absorbed by European culture. Also I don't know whether I said it before: the Surrealists were the most closely knit group of artists I think that has probably ever been. If you knew one - as i did working in Seligmann's studio - presently every one would pass through. And there would be many group dinners, group lunches, group enterprises, magazines, exhibitions, political issues, God knows what; but they were always continually consulting each other, so that to know one if you were acceptable you were very quickly incorporated in the ambiance of not just one person but in the whole circle.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That never really happened with the American artists.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Certainly not to that extent. I think it's also unusual with Europeans - I think the reason it was possible with the Surrealists was they had an elaborate ideology and an elaborate series of methods, of methodology, so that there was something beyond personal affection or personal relations to relate to.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Also they had Breton as their guiding spirit.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes absolutely. It was not that Breton was a dictator, though sometimes he seemed to be so. But as Max Ernst always used to say Breton was Surrealism. So that to the degree that it was an ideological question, or whether or not somebody had a "Surrealist sense" he was the ultimate arbiter. And it must have been something peculiar to his own personality. I certainly don't know of any other group of European artists, or certainly any group of American artists, who would have accepted a poet as the arbiter of who was on the track, so to speak, and who was off.
PAUL CUMMINGS: But a poet more than, say a critic or historian?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, certainly.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How did you find people like Breton and Matta, and I think Duchamp comes in there at some period, does he not?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: I mean was it possible to communicate? Or was it rather distant or difficult? Was it social?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, it was probably social but that wasn't the point. You know, probably the most important Surrealist publication was a magazine called Surrealism at the Service of The Revolution and if one searched for the lowest common denominator in all these relations I would think it would have to be that everyone in some sense, on some level - and the sense would differ and the levels would differ - that we were all involved in a revolutionary enterprise.
PAUL CUMMINGS: In what way? Because Surrealism had very political overtones at a certain point?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: In the generic sense of revolution, of changing, transforming, bringing about real historical effects, that that was the task for all of us. And different people conceived of it in different ways. That's what all the discussions were about.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did you find the American artists at that time as aware of a sense of history as the Surrealists seemed to be?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: No. Not at all.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Were they - what? - more involved with themselves? with their own work?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: And with being beaten. I mean the American Establishment then was social realism, and regionalism, mostly social conscience things. This was the tail end of the Depression so that they were an underground modernist ghetto in relation to the prevailing American thing. And conversely, American collectors, museum directors, etcetera, in general could not conceive of an American being a first-rate modern, or abstract or however you want to put it artist, so that the Americans were a closed enclave being shot at from both directions or rejected in both directions. I mean imagine the feelings of a Pollock or a Rothko or whoever going to a Park Avenue apartment on the few occasions when one might be invited and seeing not only great European masterpieces by Picasso, Léger, and Matisse, and so on, but also seeing Dufys and Vlamincks and Van Dongens and God knows what all as being held in a kind of a scene that none of use would be. So that it was a closed in, in many ways paranoid making, a situation which meant that most of the Americans - there were a few exceptions - later on Gorky, David Hare, Noguchi, who was half-Japanese; myself, and - I don't know - a few others. But generally the Americans were in a very standoff relation with the Europeans. The Europeans, on the other hand, were very much taken up by the American art establishment. They had the best dealers, they were entertained by The Museum of Modern Art, but had their own private drama which was that in the early forties, I guess until the end of 1943, or maybe the beginning of 1944 the Nazis were conquering everything and it looked as though Europe and a certain kind of humanism might really disappear. They were exiles in a foreign country, many of them could scarcely speak English, their main contacts with America were with first-class dealers or Park Avenue parties and so on. So they must have felt very strange. I mean I would feel very strange if I were in exile from America and my only contact with another country would be its upper crust, so to speak, instead of my own colleagues.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did they show much interest in American artists as they met them? Some of them id and some of them seemed to be rather aloof, from what one hears.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: It differed with different people. For example, Ozenfant and Zadkine had schools here as they had had in Europe and in a certain way met American students and all the rest of it all the time. In those days the most known form of abstraction is what we would nowadays call "hard-edged" abstraction. Both Modrian and Léger were heroes to those people interested in that direction so that they had a little coterie of their own.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That was the American Abstract Artists group, wasn't it?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. Lipchitz alone treated American artists with real contempt and indifference. There was a peculiar circumstance that the Surrealists had as part of their aesthetic a real belief in young talent. I mean their heroes were Rimbaud who finished his work at eighteen, Lautréamont who committed suicide at twenty-two or twenty-three, the early de Chirico who made his masterpieces in his twenties; and so on. So that a circumstance that was lucky for a few Americans at least was that the Surrealists were on the prowl for young talent. Peggy Guggenheim was very influenced by them; at a certain moment she was married to Max Ernst; and listened very carefully. It was the Surrealist search for the new and the young that made the real contact.
PAUL CUMMINGS: It sounds like such an American activity.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes, very much. But I imagine a unique European activity. I can't imagine any other group of Europeans doing that. so in the end Peggy showed Pollock and Baziotes and myself and Gottlieb and Rothko, and Hofmann who was an old man but who had his first show when he was sixty, and who in that sense was a young man, or a new artist. And, conversely, she also showed things from Europe for the first: Giacometti's sculpture; I think she had the first show of European collages in america to which she asked Pollock and Baziotes and me to contribute and we did. Naturally, as youngsters, relatively speaking, we were delighted to be in a show where there was Max Ernst and Arp and Picasso and so on.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How did you get involved with Peggy Guggenheim? Was she just around, or did you meet her rather formally through someone?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: To tell the truth I don't remember. But she often invited me I think partly because not having grown up in the New York art world but coming out of the university world I didn't have any particular antagonism toward Europeans. I think partly because I was young. I was rather handsome and had a beautiful South American wife, an actress who was a Brigitte Bardot of her day I think probably Peggy liked us as decoration, or whatever. And I didn't care what the terms were so long as I could talk and see and be with people that I was avid to learn things from. Also there were ironic things. I remember one time at her place Tchelitchew, whose work I never particularly liked or esteemed, saying to me, "Are you a young painter? You look like one. And I said, "Yes." We were standing in front of a Tanguy, certainly a not very abstract Surrealist work, and his telling me that everything was in composition, and explaining to me the composition of the particular work, and my thinking: you're all wrong, composition takes care of itself. But I being a beginning painter could not say so. Or another time George Grosz telling me at length impassionedly that art is really illusion and describing seeing German theatrical shows of the kind that I had also seen in America when I was young where there was vaudeville. I've forgotten exactly what Grosz described but a certain moment - it must have been a snow scene - then artificial snowflakes fell on the stage. And he said, "That's what art really is, that kind of magic." I remember my thinking to myself: you're absolutely wrong; that's a kind of magic but that's not the magic of painting.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Don't you think some of these were ploys on their part to kind of see what one was into, or interested in, or to fend you off their own activity?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: No, I think it's more the opposite. It was probably that the social gatherings at Peggy's and at the Reis's and with a few other people - it was one of the few moments that they felt expansive, taken care of, secure, respected, well-fed, well-dined. After all they were political exiles and I imagine in many ways were quite frightened. And then, so to speak, in an expansive mood Grosz with a cigar and having had a cognac and so on, as an act of generosity on his part would tell me what art really was. I don't mean that I was so talented or whatever, but I knew damned well the history of Cubism, the character of Matisse's art, the principles on which Modrian operated and so on, and from that standpoint what he was telling me about the snow falling on the stage in a provincial town in Germany was pure corn. But I was polite enough not to say so.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, who of those people became the closest to you?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Max Ernst, marcel Duchamp, Matta, Seligmann; I think Modrian would have if he hadn't died. Which is to say among other things - with the exception of Duchamp who is unique - artists who were not French, not with that European sense of America being strange or vulgar or whatever; but artists who spoke English well, who took America for what it was, who were by nature extremely open and friendly and so on. Chagall lived in a world of his own. Berman went around with ballet people and that sort and Tchelitchew did. Léger simply went about his business painting his pictures and surviving. Zadkine ran his school. Masson in the three or four years he was here never learned one word of English and just passionately worked away in Connecticut. I mean it had nothing to do with me. I think it had to do with the difference between the ones who were very open and the ones who were very close. And the ones I speak of I became friendly with because they were very open.
PAUL CUMMINGS: They were accessible and interested.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, what about VVV magazine? Weren't you involved with that at some point?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How did that come about? There weren't a lot of issues of that, were there?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: No. I'll tell you what I remember - and there's a lot I don't remember. in France before the war I think Skira - but I'm not sure - published an extremely elaborate deluxe art magazine called Minotaure that increasingly became a vehicle for the Surrealists. The Surrealists were proselyters. Which the other artists weren't at all. They very badly wanted a vehicle here. By hook or by crook slowly some money was raised. The actual editor was André Breton who always was the chief of everything surrealist. I think Marcel Duchamp and max Ernst if I remember were associate editors. But the Surrealists had a feeling - not really realizing that artists in America are not taken very seriously - that they were politically radical, etcetera, they were aliens, exiles, etcetera, and that ostensibly there should be an American editor. There was also some effort to get some Americans to contribute. William Carlos Williams and so on. And so for a time I accepted the role simply to help them out. Then one day it became clear to me in an angry discussion in French, which I only partly understood, that they had also assumed that I had American connections and could raise some money. Which I didn't have, and couldn't. Then I got furious and resigned. And the compromise was that Lionel Abel and I co-edited. And then what transpired was that Abel, who had no job, no money, no anything, asked for the colossal sum of twenty-five dollars a week simply in order to exist while he was gathering the manuscripts and all the rest of it. And again, they got furious at that and fired him. Then I said, "I resign." Then David hare who had, I think, an independent income agreed to be the nominal editor. Something very interesting to me that always amuses me is how the name VVV came about. They wanted to invent a twenty-seventh letter in the alphabet. In French the letter W is double V (VV). And so they hit on the idea of having triple V (VVV) as the twenty-seventh letter. And Breton also didn't know a word of English. And as sort of their American adviser, lieutenant, liaison officer, I pointed out to him that for reasons I didn't understand double V in English is pronounced double U so that it would not translate; in English you would have to call it triple U when nevertheless the sign was three V's and it really wouldn't work. He would not accept that it wouldn't work. And it used to confuse everybody. People didn't know whether to say V-V-V or triple V or triple U or whatever. But if it were literally transcribed into English the proper title would have been triple U. And the fact that they choose V with the way that English-speaking people say V made it not translate. Well, if you said triple U the name of the magazine immediately Americans would have got the point. But it was always called triple V and nobody got the point. It seems senseless.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, it's like the classic V U V combination.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes, exactly.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did you get know David Hare through this? Or did you know him before?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I never knew him well. Only in connection with things like this. I think he had the show just before mine at Peggy Guggenheim's, or just after - no, it must have ben just before because Baziotes had the one just after. And we were the same age, you know, a man to talk to, but we were never comrades at all.
PAUL CUMMINGS: I think it was the end of 1941 or thereabouts that you painted The Little Spanish Prison [1941-44] which seems to be a key picture of that period. What is there about that painting that you feel is so important at that point, say as it changed or remained the subsequently?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Actually it was the first year I began to paint seriously. Before that I was a student who painted on the side. And I would imagine that that was the first picture in which I hit something that is deep in my character, as two years later when I made my first colleges I hit something else that is deep in my character, and as seven years later in making the first Spanish Elegy [refers to series of paintings Elegy to the Spanish Republic] I hit a third thing that's very deep in my character. But what it is I don't know. What it stands for I don't know.
PAUL CUMMINGS: After the collages show with Peggy Guggenheim there was a nearly total black - or totally black painting. How id it derive that it was getting more and more colored over that way?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: No, the black paintings were much later.
PAUL CUMMINGS: 1943?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: No, no. Twenty years later
PAUL CUMMINGS: There's something in there about that. It's out of order then. In 1944, I think it was, you started the Documents of Modern Art [George Wittenborn and Viking; New York, NY: 1944-1972] with Wittenborn. How did that develop? Was that an interest of yours? Or did it develop through Wittenborn?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Well, all my life next to paintings I like books the best and always or for many years, decades, have haunted bookshops, secondhand bookshops, any kind of bookshops looking for things that interested me. I always ran up staggering bills at bookshops. During college I would be hired during the busy Christmas season to be an employee because I knew the stock so well. I would pay off the bills that way. And when I have attacks of anxiety, which I do all the time - as all artists do -one of the ways I alleviate it is to go to a bookshop and browse. In the forties the most pleasurable place to browse if you were interested in art was at Wittenborn's and Schultz's Bookshop which was on the floor above Curt Valentin's gallery; which was also the best gallery then. And I used to go in and look at things by the hour and talk to the people who came in. I'd talk to Wittenborn and Schultz and so on. Like most painters I'm a very poor linguist and I often used to be upset that there would be something in French or German or Italian that I couldn't read. One day we were talking about it and somehow out of the air came the idea that we should put all these things, or as many as we could, into English. And we just shook hands on it. Schultz was the deepest book lover of all. He insisted - and I had no reason to disagree - that Apollinaire's The Cubist Painters would be the first volume. We all agreed that all the books should be by artists themselves. Wittenborn had the feeling that they should be only in paperback. He thinks books are too expensive, with which I agree. But it was too premature. And they weren't publishers; they were small art bookstores publishing some books and it was too big a problem for them to take on by themselves.
PAUL CUMMINGS: But you did quite a number of books over the years.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes, we did twelve or thirteen. Then Schultz was killed in a trans-atlantic plane crash. I think Wittenborn and Schultz were partners and I think Wittenborn was in the economic position that he had to pay off Schultz's estate and there was no capital left. Also Wittenborn literally and deeply believed in astrology - I believe this was in 1950 - and had my chart read by a very famous astrologer - to my diffidence - and the astrologer predicted seven terrible years for me. And I think that also affected Wittenborn's decision not to continue. And ironically the astrologer was absolutely right. That year I entered into a disastrous marriage which presently nearly paralyzed me as a painter. But during those years I was a professor at Hunter College and id very well there. And I think I would have done very well editing. But, anyway, through Schultz's unfortunate death, the wrongness of the stars, and so on, the thing came to an end. Several years ago Wittenborn came back to me and wanted to begin again. But I didn't want to be subject to astrology again so I went with Viking instead.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You liked doing the series, though?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, sure. It's been a marvelous hobby for me. I like to think about what art is. I think one has to in modern times.
PAUL CUMMINGS: In what way? Do you mean generally?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I mean: what is it. I mean the whole problem of modern artists? Which is to say the whole problem of artists when art is not a tribal expression; which modern art is not. What is it? And I would rather think about what artists I respect think than what anybody else thinks, and so in making their work available to myself I also as a by-product, if you want to put it that way, published them for everybody else, too. There are many Americans in the same position.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What about the teaching? Did you start that at Hunter?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Well, there was the school that Rothko, Baziotes and David Hare and I had together for a year. Then I had a school of my own for a year. But in both cases we didn't make enough except to pay the rent and the heat and so on. And then I was offered a job and simultaneously had married a woman with a child and presently was to have a couple of children of my own, and for the first time was in a situation where I was responsible for four people. and it was really necessary to take the job. And I did.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Do you think that the two previous schools were useful experiences? Or were they just looking for something that really didn't develop properly?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: They didn't develop at all in the way one hoped. But there was an extraordinary by-product of the group school. Clyfford Still was originally to be one of the teachers. We had arranged it that each of us would teach one day so that, say Baziotes would teach on Mondays; Rothko Tuesdays; David, Wednesdays; I would teach Thursdays; and Still, Fridays. At the last moment, for reasons I've never known, Still dropped out and went back to California. So there was a blank day and to fill that blank day we began to invite other artists - de Kooning, Reinhardt, Harry Holtzman - I don't know who all - to come and instead of teaching to give a lecture in the evening. We were very anxious that the school not be doctrinaire, that those of us who were teaching be regarded as individuals, and that the students be regarded as individuals. Those Friday evenings, as they came to be called, became the magnet, the center, for everybody in New York who was interested in the avant garde to come to. Originally it was just for the school. Then people would call up and say, "Can we come, too?" And pretty soon we were renting a couple of hundred chairs and so on. We were so poor then that the pay for whoever gave the lecture was to be taken to dinner and given a bottle of his favorite liquor. In those days we all drank seventy-five cent sherry. If he wanted a bottle of Scotch or whatever it was we got it for him, and seven dollars was like seven hundred dollars now. Then that whole tradition went on and became the famous Club. But that was pure chance.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Were you active in The Club once it turned into The Club?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: No. The Club really began just about the time I became a professor at Hunter and was married with a child and had more children and had to live a regular life. The essential nature of the Club was for bachelors, for guys to get together - although that's not a fair way to put it. But if you're carrying on a complete life and having to keep regular hours, which I used to have to, then to go out in the evening for six hours and drink and talk was less reasonable than it was before. I think The Club must have started in about 1950. And it was that year that I married.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You were at Black Mountain one summer?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Two summers.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Was that through Albers? Or someone else?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I don't know.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Do you remember anything about Black Mountain that might be pertinent or illuminating about that place? Did you like it as a summer experience?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. I mean in those days I couldn't afford to go anywhere for the summer. They paid a hundred dollar a month to distinguished visitors and they themselves had an income of twenty-five dollars a month. But it was in the mountains and it was sunny and there were marvelous guys there. And it was a way of getting a break from New York and at the same time going to a place that one would not feel alienated from. Black Mountain more than any place was the avant garde college that Americans had. Reed College in Oregon wasn't then. Bennington wasn't then. But Black Mountain really was. And since my whole commitment was to the avant garde, nothing could have been more natural than to go there, given all the circumstances.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Were there any particular people there that interested you, or students that you remember?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Among my students were Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Francine Gray, and others. It was a very small community and apart from my classes the thing I remember with the greatest pleasure and realist contact was through the baseball games we played on Sundays. I remember - what's his name who had the press in North Caroling - a poet --
PAUL CUMMINGS: Jonathan Williams?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes, Jonathan Williams. He was a superb centerfielder. I remember Joel Oppenheim pitching. I remember Charles Olson playing first base with a tremendous beat. I remember Dan Reis, a marvelous catcher. I remember Fielding Dawson egging us all on with Southern whoops, and so on. And it's odd, there in a funny way at the baseball games all the various areas, camps, blue jeans, Brooks Brothers, whatever it was, it all suddenly was flattened out and we were all just playing a marvelous game together and having a ball. We did that every Saturday and Sunday.
PAUL CUMMINGS: So you found the summers interesting there?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. Oh, yes. The second summer I was there the place was falling apart economically, spiritually, and every way. They supported themselves by having a big farm and had their own milk and corn and so on. I remember passionately arguing to them that the essential nature of the place was an avant garde college, that the natural place to draw on would be New York, and that they should sell this place in North Carolina and get a big farm on Long Island - everybody in North Carolina hated them - and that they'd have no difficulties at all. Which I'm sure is true. Then they would be a celebrated place now. But it reached the standpoint of internal friction, argument, decadence. Nobody could listen to anything.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What about the local community? Did you get involved with it and meet any those people?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Well, Black Mountain was really a farm on - I don't know whether it was a mountain or a hill or whatever. But I remember very clearly the first time I was there was either during the war or right after the war when rationing was on. The closest town was Asheville which I gather is a rather aristocratic Southern town, in a way like Greenwich here. You couldn't get cigarettes at that time. i remember going into a drug store to buy something and seeing cartons of English Players cigarettes, which I like. I like practically all cigarettes. I asked, "Could I have a pack of those?" The guy said, "You can have as many as you want." This was at a time when you had to bribe somebody to get one package. I think I had enough money with me to buy three cartons - which I bought. When my stretch was over there I was on the train going back to New York. It was filled with soldiers. Many of the cars were non-smoking. It was the old-fashioned kind of train where there was a sort of bathroom with a little foyer with a bench where you also could sit and smoke and shave and so on. I remember going back there and smoking. There was a big fat Southerner there maybe shaving. he saw me take out the Players package which is a cardboard one where you shove the cigarettes out, unlike an American package. He asked, "What are those?" I said, "English cigarettes. Would you like one?" He said, "Yes." He took one and we started talking and he asked me what I was doing, or whatever. I told him I had been teaching at Black Mountain and I was on my way back to New York. He immediately flew into a rage that it was a bunch of what we now would call hippies, homosexuals, New york Jews - I don't know what all. I got up and left. And from things I've hears afterward I would have the feeling that the whole community around felt that way; that this was a hippie camp or whatever, that hey wished the hell everybody would pick up and get out. From that standpoint Long Island would have been much more reasonable.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You had one show with Peggy Guggenheim, right?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Right.
PAUL CUMMINGS: And after she closed you went to Sam Kootz?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Right.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did she arrange that? Or how did you get involved with that gallery?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: He arranged it. I don't know the exact details. I have the impression that he had been in advertising, in public relations, all kinds of things. Anyway, at that particular moment, which must have been at the end of 1944 or early in 1945 he decided that he wanted to start a gallery; and because he had no financial backing they would have to be young artists, they would have to be modern artists. I think his favorite artist in Europe was Léger. He liked strong, masculine, semi-abstract artists. The only inducement he could have would be to pay the artists. so he offered us two hundred bucks a month for our complete works which had to be a minimum of seventy-five works a year - drawings, watercolors, paintings, etcetera. It also was the end of the WPA. It was the one chance to be supported entirely by one's own work, difficult as the terms were. I insisted I wouldn't go unless he took Baziotes, too, who was desperate. Kootz was reluctant to but finally did. He also took Gottlieb, Hofmann, David hare, Carl Holty, somebody else, I forget who. And he started the gallery. Peggy as a corollary had always made it very clear that she really wanted to live in Europe and that the day that war was over she was going to move the whole damn thing back to Europe. She had originally meant to have her gallery in London, and she didn't know whether she was going to take it back to London or where. As it turned out, she took it back to Venice. She always very clearly said to us, "I will help you as long as I'm here in whatever way I can, but the day I go you're on your own." I think it was only Pollock that she made some kind of arrangement to take care of. The rest of us were really on our own. Nearly everybody who had showed with her went either to Kootz or to Betty Parsons.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How did you find the experience in that gallery over the years, or for a while?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, God, that's complicated.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, was it difficult? Was he demanding, or not?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I don't know - I imagine the experience differed with different people. Because he had so few artists one thing was you had to have a show every year. I'd only been painting two-and-a-half years when he got me and wasn't that experienced. I think in my first two shows I really tried too hard to meet his demands. From that standpoint it was bad; in fact a really awful for an inexperienced artist to tie himself up that will-nilly he was going to produce so much work. On the other hand, one has to balance that with the fact that he was the only person in the world who would have paid us anything at all to go about painting and the fact that from his point of view the more we painted the better. Also I think in a certain way he was something of a hero - he also had bad faults - but he was something of a hero in that he was really the first person who took it upon himself to convince the American art establishment that modern American artists were also worthy of recognition. He fought like a tiger for that. He was also totally unfinanced, had to borrow money from Chinatown at fantastic rates of interest, maybe twelve percent a month. He was always desperate. And in that sense there was always much much to much pressure on us, on him, etcetera. On the other hand it gave him a drive that Betty Parsons, for example, who is a great lady, who had connections, who - on the modest scale that she operated I think probably always could have got sufficient capital - was not hungry enough. There was a certain moment maybe - I don't know - 1949 or 1950 when Kootz had closed, that Betty Parsons really had of that generation and that milieu all of the greatest artists in America. She lost them all because she couldn't provide enough for anybody to pay the rent. She also had dozens of other artists that she knew socially or God knows how. everybody loved her but one would have to be in the position of being able to afford. Which none of us could.
[BEGIN SIDE 4]
(Tape 2, Side 2)
PAUL CUMMINGS: This is Side 4. It's very interesting that Betty Parsons did have all those people in her gallery and they eventually all drifted away, and really it was for financial reasons I guess ultimately.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Or survival reasons. I mean nobody has any conception of how poor we all were then. I remember maybe as late as 1955, you know, after the so-called triumph of abstract expressionism Rothko saying to me, "If somebody would pay me $500 a month for all my past work, which constituted hundreds of pictures, plus everything I'll make in the future, I would gladly accept it in order to survive." I remember looking him in silence because we knew - and this is in 1955 - that nobody in the world would pay him $6,000 a year for his total output; and he was married with a child in the most expensive city in the world.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What do you think the problem was as far as patronage and collectors were concerned?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: The position in the 1930's and 1940's was that if you were a modern artist and any good you were by definition a European.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Was that un-American or anti-American?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: No, it was like wine. If wine is any good it's French. Or if cooking is any good it's French. It's inconceivable that an American can make a masterpiece. And, okay, certainly people like Matisse and Picasso and Miró and so on are gigantic figures. But for us on the few occasions when we were invited to a collector's house to see not only those but the most chichi Dufys and the most disintegrated Vlamincks, or whatever, also held up as way beyond our capacities would fill us with a depression and an anger - which are the same thing - that one can't imagine. At the same time the American scene was equally hostile to us because if, as we thought to make an authentic gesture without any a priori idea of how it would turn out with the real gambit then everything "hard-edge" abstraction with its ideology, social realism with its ideology, regionalism with its ideology, landscape painting with its sentimentality, portrait painting with its class background, anything you imagine, was equally threatened by our premise. So that if the Europeans didn't know we existed, and the collectors who collected Europeans didn't know we existed, all other American artists hated us as one man as probably the only coalition there's ever been from left to right among American artists was against abstract expressionists. Alfred Barr told me this with astonishment.
PAUL CUMMINGS: When id he say that?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, years ago. Maybe 1950 something - 1952; twenty years ago, let's say.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You know, the thing that was so difficult is that the personalities and the imagery and things are so different. There was no one uniting force like Breton, or no one particular critic.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: No, but there was a united ideal, and that was that American painting no longer be colonial. And everybody attacked the problem in his own way. And by God, that we succeeded in. Partly because, unexpectedly, simultaneously, the great School of Paris collapsed.
PAUL CUMMINGS: But you had no idea that you were going to be the alternative?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: It never occurred to us. I think Clement Greenberg had an inkling in 194 that it could be that. I don't think it occurred to any of us. What occurred to us was that if there were an international exhibition we would like to have work that on international terms would stand.
PAUL CUMMINGS: So, in other words, it wasn't necessarily a national - it was more an international --?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, absolutely. I remember talking to Pollock about it once. In effect he said, "one's nationality takes care of itself." And he was right. But certainly all the ideals were... Oh, hell, and there's nothing unique about it. Paris was great before the Second World War because it was the international meeting place. Munich was great before the First World War because it was an international meeting place. I mean the German Expressionists, the French Cubists, the Dutch de stijl group, all the rest of it, couldn't have cared less about nationality. It was to try to find some universal, modern principles. And we were engaged in the same enterprise.
PAUL CUMMINGS: But there wasn't a direct awareness? Or was it after the fact? Or was it just undefined?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: It was undefined but always there. Always there.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, what about Greeenberg? He was one of the few people who was writing about --
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Because he was the only critic with an eye. I mean I disagreed with him about many things but he had a painter's eye. And none of the other critics did; not one. So as a direct intuition he got it right off the bat, and being a critic, not being filled with our kind of anxiety, traveling around, probably saw it in much better perspective than we did. And it occurred to him from the beginning that this was going to be of international consequence. As it turned out to be. The BBC guys who were here today - the other day when I talked to them they told me that in England if you talk to the man in the street about Cubism or Fauvism or Surrealism or Futurism they look sort of dim, but you say "Action Painting" and immediately whatever the image is there is an image and they know who you're talking about. You see, I think we had no conception of the impact it made outside. To put it another way, the danger of modern art is to become decoration. And in France after the war it did. And if there's anything that is abstract and anti-decoration it's abstract expressionism.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What about the term, though? There are so many stories about that.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: It's so logical it's unbelievable. Which is to say, let's say in 1944 or 1945, whenever it came into use, generally abstract art in America meant what we call "hard-edge" abstraction now. Expressionism meant highly emotional art. So obviously confronted with abstract expressionism, that kind of painting which was both abstract and highly emotional, it would be an absolutely logical two terms in that particular context simply to describe what one is referring to. I mean ultimately at the end of 1949 and the beginning of 1950 I invented the term "School of New York." I was asked to write the preface to the first showing on the West Coast and in trying to find common denominators among the various people (including some people that we now would not regard as abstract expressionist), I realized that one couldn't make aesthetically a common denominator; but that what everybody did have in common in the sense that there was a School of Paris or in those days a Boston School of Jewish Expressionist painters, there was a New York School. But the word "New York" was meant in another sense. Thee is no such thing as abstract expressionism. They're collection of individuals working with certain aspirations or whatever.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You were in the Fourteen Americans show at The Museum of Modern Art in 1946?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Right.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That was one of the Dorothy Miller number exhibitions.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Right.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did you find that that exhibition which also had some Newmans, I think, and Rothkos, and some others --
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, no, they were years later.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Were they later? Yes. But did you find that that exhibition did anything useful for you as far as people being able to look at what you were doing?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I really don't know. I have no way of judging. You see, an artist's relation to the exhibition of his work extremely indirect, remote. I imagine I've had as many museum shows as any American artist, thirty or forty or something. Maybe twenty times in my life has anybody every said anything to me about one of them. It's that remote.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Oh, really?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What about your own feelings, though, seeing these exhibitions?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Most of them I never went to.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, what about the Museum of Modern Art retrospective exhibition. Was that a more meaningful exhibition? It certainly was a large survey.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, God - I think it was the first time I ever confronted the practicalities of human existence and I was fifty. Which is to say I was no child. And it was awful. Well, for example, the last show I had at Marlborough in 1969, three years ago, - well, less than three years ago, was of huge paintings. so large as Marlborough is, we could show only fifteen or sixteen or seventeen. I sent forty pictures over and was quite sure that I would show, say thirteen of them and that it would be a question of what the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth one would be. As it turned out, out of my original selection only three were shown when we tried to set up the ensemble. The ones I thought in my mind would work well together didn't at all. Well, in the same way at the Museum of Modern Art show when O'Hara and I were working on it we'd go through all the photographs and say yes, that one is important. And I also made an agreement with him which he violated. The Modern Museum asked me who I would like to have as the curator in charge of my show. O'Hara had never put on a show but he was a poet. And what I didn't want was a historical show but a show of what I thought in the boundaries of my work were the most radiant works. and I thought I'd have a much better chance with a poet than with an art historian to bring it about that way. In fact, O'Hara, maybe because it was his first show, fell right back into the art historian thing. so that we chose - I don't know - a hundred and twenty pictures or something, many of which for historical reasons. When they were all together and we were trying to assemble it in a terrible gallery - I had the first show in that Philip Johnson wing with no windows, no anything - it's like being in the middle of a pyramid. I realized that thirty per cent of the pictures, or twenty per cent, or whatever, shouldn't be there. And then I confronted reality. I said, "Let's just put those out. We made a mistake. We were guessing. We guessed wrong there." And it was pointed out to me that we couldn't put any of them out; that the pictures had been borrowed from lenders and the lenders in their vanity would be mortally wounded, would say to the Museum: You asked me to lend my picture, now when you get it there you discover that it's not good enough. And so we had to put the whole goddamned thing on. Which very badly hurt it; which is to say with any show with a picture itself you edit it. And I was put in a position where I could not edit anything.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How do you mean "edit" the picture itself? In what way?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, you can have a beautiful passage in a picture and want to retain it at any cost and ultimately realize that, beautiful as the passage is it's hurting the picture as a whole and then you paint it out. Or you paint a lousy picture and you burn it. Or whatever. Photographers do the same thing. They crop, they tear up, they throw away. Writers revise, change, get the galleys back, cut certain parts off. I mean it's part of the creative process. I was put in a position with the most important show of my life, perhaps probably the most important show I will ever have, and not being allowed to edit at all. So though it was marvelous that it happened at that institution that I love above all other institutions, it was not the show I wanted.
PAUL CUMMINGS: I get the feeling that you were more interested in an aesthetic or an art experience exhibition than one that would document the whole --
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Absolutely. Because that's the point of art. The point of art is to have an aesthetic experience. I mean not to look at somebody's biography unless the subject matter is history or something, which my art certainly is not. I mean my art is about feeling organized in a certain way, and there's no point in showing anything that doesn't do that at its maximum intensity. And that's all I wanted the show to be. Then the exhibition went to London. And I wrote Robertson who was putting it on, and whom I know; I said: "For God's sake, take out thirty per cent of the pictures." He wrote back, "Thank God, you know what you're doing." Then it went to Continental Europe. Later I met one of the people who put it on in Europe - I don't remember whether it was Milan or Amsterdam or Brussels, wherever - and he said, "My God, you're a peculiar artist. You wrote us not to show some of your pictures." He couldn't believe it.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did they have to take the whole group of them from the Modern?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: But they could select out of that then?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Well, theoretically there supposed to show it as it was.
PAUL CUMMINGS: In the late 1940's you began the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series. Was that title an afterthought on looking back at things?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How did you develop that? What is it based on?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Sometime in the 1940's - I forget when - say, about 1947, when I was still editing books with Wittenborn and Schultz they told me that they'd like to put out an annual about the current scene and would I edit it. I said sure; but I think it should be broader than just painting and sculpture, and that it was too great a responsibility and too great a demand on my time to do it single-handed. I said that I would be glad to do it if I could have some co-editors. The said, "Fine. Who do you want?" I suggested Pierre Chareau as the architectural editor; he was a French architect-in-exile with whom I had worked several years building a studio in East Hampton. I suggested John Cage to deal with music and dance. And Harold Rosenberg to deal with literature; and I would do the painting part. They found that agreeable. We brought out an issue. It was called "Possibilities." The we were working on the second issue. in those days Harold Rosenberg regarded himself as really a poet. He was doing these other things incidentally the way I've always regarded myself as really a painter and doing these other things incidentally. He wrote a very powerful, burtal, I would think Rimbaud-inspired poem. We agreed that I would handwrite the poem in my calligraphy and make a drawing or drawings to go with it and it was to be in black and white. So I began to think not only about getting the brutality and aggression of his poem in some kind of abstract terms but also that this was going to be reproduced in black and white. I worked for weeks getting the amounts. In painting really the whole issue of quality is quantities, is the amounts of black and white or thinness or thickness, fluidity,and whatever. I really conceived something that worked beautifully in black nd white. It must have been at that time that Schultz was killed in the airplane and the whole project was dropped. I stuck the thing in a drawer in East Hampton. A year or two later I moved to New York to a little studio on Fourteenth Street. One day while unpacking I came across it and was able to look at it with detachment. I thought: God, that's a beautiful idea; I should make some paintings on the basis of that kind of structure.
PAUL CUMMINGS: This was on your black and white structure?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. One day I realized there was something really obsessional about it, that I would probably make many; that it had taken on a life of its own; and that it would no longer be legitimate to refer it merely to Harold's poem which indeed was the original impulse that it might indeed turn out to be possibly the main statement I would make in painting and therefore I would like to connect this with something that through associations reverberated in my mind as completely and as widely as the concept itself. And belonging to the Spanish Civil War generation I thought of that. I think maybe there was a transitional moment where I thought if it's going to refer to poetry it should be to Lorca [Frederico García Lorca]. In fact, the first Elegy was originally called At Five in the Afternoon from the refrain out to Lorca's poem, the Death of the Bullfighter [Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter (1935)]. Then one of the few times in my life that a lot of people talked to me about a picture was about that picture, and they would say, "I saw the most beautiful picture by you. I can't remember exactly the title. It has something to do with the cocktail hour or something." And suddenly I realized that five in the afternoon in New York means no the death of a bullfighter but a martini. And then I began to grope for a more generalized expression. The original ones were subtitles, I mean Elegy to the Spanish Republic (Granada) or whatever. And then that began to raise questions: does it really look like Granada, and so on.
PAUL CUMMINGS: It's relationship to the main title.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. So I finally dropped that. And I don't regret it. I mean to me subjectively in the sense that for us though the Spanish War was an issue of black and white, of lie and earth, an overture to the Second World War which we all knew was coming, and all the other things that are obviously involved no, I don't regret doing it. I also suffered a lot. I've always been politically independent. I've never belonged to a political party. And for years it was taken for granted that I was a Communist.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Yes, because of the series.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. I mean it was just assumed.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You have other series of paintings?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, sure. The Je t'aime series [1954-8], the Beside the Sea series, Lyric Suite. I think what happens is that when you hit something that seems a true expression of one's self, it's mysterious to one's self why that particular configuration rather than another one is, and one begins to investigate, mucking around, trying it in different ways, trying to find what one's own essence is and worry it and worry it and worry it.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Well, that implies then that you feel these are major streams of activity, right?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, sure. I mean I happen to be an anxiety-ridden person. I think if for ten days in a row I awakened feeling radiant I would begin to try to find out what is it that makes me feel radiant and hang on to it. In that sense, the original thing in the series is a sense of one's real potence. and that's a real preoccupation of any human being: what is it that's really making me so potent?
PAUL CUMMINGS: Was the Je t'aime series the first one where you used words in the paintings?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: No. There's an early collage with "Viva" in it. No, I'm sure there were many before. You see, I never really was a surrealist but I did go around with them for two or three years and picked up a lot. And certainly one of the things was a belief that generally speaking there's something marvelous about painters and poets together, that they're involved in different media but in a very parallel enterprise; and secondly, the surrealists all the time used words interchangeably with blocks of color, or certain shapes, and so on; and I guess in a literal sense it was a lingua franca. And I took that for granted.
PAUL CUMMINGS: But it was very uncommon for American painters to use words in a painting?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL; Yes. But if I may say so, in that sense I'm a very uncommon American painter.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What was the reaction like from other painters when they saw the words appearing in the canvases?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I only know of one, which is devastating. Last year I was waiting in Bill Rubin's office to see him about something. He was late so I looked on the table and there was this catalogue of Frank Stella's show which I had never read. I began to look at it. suddenly I came across my name and Je t'aime and a footnote. I looked in the back of the book at the footnote and it turns out that Stella made a series of pictures with some really Pop title like Purple Lips I Love You or something and Stella had told Rubin that this was a parody of my Je t'aime series and that was how it occurred to him to do it. I don't know the exact words we could look it up.
PAUL CUMMINGS: But in the collages there are a lot of words because there are printed pages and things. Do you use words, or are they just considered shapes or colors? Do the words mean something when they're visible and apparent?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh at times in my life when I painted I would play certain pieces of music again and again. I remember painting a whole show in which I continually played Mozart's Requiem Mass. I remember another show when I made the Homely Protestant [1947-48] I was very friendly with Joseph Cornell then who had an equal interest with me in French culture. One day he sent me a post card telling me that he had found a recording by Berlioz who was really unknown here then and that I should get it. The recording was Harold in Italy. I bought it. In it William Primrose plays the viola. I played that like mad all winter. Every time I turned it on something would move in me. It was in the same way that Delacroix, who I used to be an expert on, used to have people read Dante to him, or whatever, when he was painting. Another thing I often do is obsessionally to read a book of poetry during a period. There was a period when I had a book of Paul Eluard's poems. It was a moment when I was very unhappily married, teaching at Hunter, feeling very lonely, very uptight. In one of the poems there was a line "Jour la maison nuit la rue" (meaning "In daytime at home, at night in the streets). And that was exactly my miserable life at that time. I would stay home in the daytime and paint and by nighttime I couldn't stand it anymore. I'd wander the streets, go to the Cedar Bar, drop in on Rothko, go to Times Square, or go to a movie, or I don't know whatever. So that no, the phrase was not a decoration but a declaration. The Je t'aime series was done about the same time when I was equally miserable. People used to think I must have fallen in love and that's why I was painting these. it was the exact opposite; it was really a cry that I would like to love and probably an incorrect thing. I also wrote it in such a way that certain French people thought it said, "I'm hungry" (j'ai faim). Then everybody said: okay, you don't know French very well really; you like lot of French things; why don't you write it in English? But there's such a thing as artistic distance and if I had written "I love you" it would have had what nowadays we would call a Pop quality that I didn't want. Whereas in a foreign language it was exactly what I meant and yet it was one step removed.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What would it be to a Frenchman, though?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Probably Pop art.
PAUL CUMMINGS: It's interesting how the same thing can mean different things.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I remember when in the last few years I made a series of aquatints with the Gauloises blue cigarette package because I love that blue as part of the image Helen Frankenthaler looking at me with stupefaction and saying, "I can't imagine you being a Pop artist." And certainly from the French point of view it must look like Pop art. To me it looked as exotic as Tahiti must have looked to French travelers.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You know, it's interesting mentioning the blue and then looking at the painting there which is mainly or it's all black and white, isn't it?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL; No, there's a little bit of the Gauloise blue in the upper right.
PAUL CUMMINGS: You're very specific in the way you use colors over and over and over and over. Is that conscious, or is that just the way it happens? And it's not a large range of colors.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: You know, when I came to New York to study with Meyer Schapiro [art historian, 1904-1996] I lived near him and I used to drag around my latest picture at eleven o'clock at night I realize now to his great annoyance. I would ask him, "what do you think of it?" He told me a couple of good things I don't mean about the painting but about what it is to be an artist. There was one picture he rather like. He said, "Go home and make a lot of them. What it is to be an artist is to get to know your own forms." And I would say that in that sense there are certain colors that have become my colors; they're yellow ochre, black and white, a certain ultramarine blue (in fact some people in New York call it "Motherwell blue"), and so on. Colors are no different than shapes. Anybody recognizes a Tanguy shape, or a Magritte shape, or a Miró shape. Well, one has to use color as personally and as exactly as one does shapes.
PAUL CUMMINGS: So it becomes a refining process of identification.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Sure. And part of your vocabulary.
PAUL CUMMINGS: What about the teaching experience at Hunter? You've referred to that a number of times. Was that practical? Enjoyable?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, yes. I had a marvelous rapport with the students. But what it turns out is that if you take teaching seriously which I did as I do everything practically it takes exactly the same kind of energy as painting does. At the end of a few years there I realized that because I was giving so much to the students I myself was producing less and less. When it came time for my sabbatical I took it and discovered that I painted four times as much and also began to make a little money because there were more pictures to choose from. And so the next year I took a sabbatical without pay and painted five times as much. Well, the truth is I'm a professor at Hunter this year but in a very special circumstance where I'm a so-called distinguished Professor where I don't have any regular courses or anything like that. and that I like.
PAUL CUMMINGS: But you found that the teaching really cut into your own work.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Oh, it's exhausting.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Did you have a heavy schedule? Or was it just the activity of it?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: What basically happens is you become the kids' father in every dimension. Maybe if you were teaching mathematics you could just teach mathematics. But art is so broad that in the end you're involved in their family problems, economic problems, their sex problems, their everything problems. And when defenseless youngsters are looking at you imploring you to help orient them, unless you're a supreme egotist, which I think I'm not I'm certainly egotistical as all artists are to use a highly exaggerated example: Socrates did write any books; he didn't have any time to; Plato wrote the books. and in the same way if you're treating the students seriously there was not time enough and energy enough to paint as much as one should. At the same time I had married a woman who had a child, had two more, as I said, and I had to take the responsibility for them. If I knew more I would have done something differently I guess. Also I was young enough to think that the future was endless, that I had the energy to do everything. Now I know otherwise.
PAUL CUMMINGS: I find it interesting that you've always gravitated in and out of the university life. It always sort of weaves around
. . .
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Yes. That's very astute. Most people have never noticed that. I don't know how to explain it accurately. It has to do with getting away from political pressure and distortion. You see, when I enter a university I come, in a way, as a visiting lord which is to say that my credentials are not academic but from the creative world so that I'm a sort of special guest. I have nothing to do with the routine, I'm not involved in promotions, I'm not a rival in terms of academic accomplishment, scholarly articles, or whatever, I come in as my own man, and because I'm in no way a threat to them I'm treated as my own man. And there are times, though, I have to be partisan and in certain ways am partisan. The politics and the pressures and the historical distortions and rewriting of history, for whatever end, really shocked me in the art world. And also the illiteract.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Why do you think the art world has produced such writers and doesn't really attract literate people? Is it because it's new?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Because it's one of the quickest ways there is to get power. We live in a non-visual world essentially where most people can't tell the difference between a real picture and a pseudo picture. and artist cannot control very much his own fate. At the same time his fate in the external world depends on his reputation. So artists are very easily terrorized. There's a wide open field for somebody who talks or writes to walk in, look at the artist and tell the rest of the world who's who and both cow the artist and cow the rest of the world for entirely different reasons. The artist is helpless, the victim. The rest of the world doesn't know the difference. So-and-so is writing for the Times or Art News or whatever it is. In the world's naivete he must know what he'd talking about or he wouldn't be there. I happen to have been beautifully trained as a scholar before I ever became a painter, happen to believe in the free discourse of ideas. And the narrowness, the partisanship, the distortion, the heedlessness, the irresponsibility, the venality of it all used to shock me. I also have many friends who have spent their life as professors and they say that if I had spent my whole life in the university world I would have found it equally the same thing. So I move back and forth. In the same way as much as I can I go from Europe to America on occasion to get a perspective, to get a relief from the immediacy of the struggle or whatever. I was talking to somebody the other day who was very shocked that I want to go to Switzerland because from one point of view Switzerland is so dull. I pointed out that I wasn't in search of excitement but of the opposite for a magic month to reflect and sit and think. In that sense the universities were partially a magic month, also very receptive. If in a scholarly way you could authenticate the enterprise, no matter how strange the enterprise was, in a funny way they were much more open than the real world to it.
PAUL CUMMINGS: The real world being what?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Say, 57th Street, New York; or Paris; all that business.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Sort of the "art scene." Yes.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Sure. And you also have to realize that I was for eight years in universities, four years in prep school before that, so that until I was forty I had spent more of my life in schools than I had outside. It was a very natural environment to me.
PAUL CUMMINGS: So there was always somewhere to go and look and search and then come out and do and then come back.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Sure.
PAUL CUMMINGS: Do you think that there's been any influence in your work apropos of the academic university experience? Or has it been fairly separate?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Completely separate. Actually at Hunter in a couple of weeks for the first time in more than thirty years I'm going to give a couple of lectures in the philosophy department. I'm also going to give one in the cooking department. When I was writing professor of philosophy who asked me I said, "Yes, I was trained as a philosopher but in thirty years and I now think to address a course in aesthetics I really think philosophical aesthetics has nothing to do with what professional artists are involved in, so that I feel dubious about accepting your invitation." He wrote back, "It's exactly because you feel that way that we would like you to talk. We're using such and such an anthology of Santayana and Dewey, etcetera. Would you come and explain to us why they have nothing to do with what you're doing." And I said, "Sure." On the other hand, philosophy is a marvelous training in words.
PAUL CUMMINGS: That's true.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: From that standpoint I don't regret it.
PAUL CUMMINGS: In the teaching at Hunter you had what graduate courses? Or undergraduate courses?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: With the exception of one hour, only graduate courses. In fact, I first went there I was the only full time graduate professor. I mean essentially I taught everything the studio, the seminars, read the theses, the whole shooting match.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How much do you think one can teach in a studio course in a university situation?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I don't know. Then I think one had to do it in conjunction with a seminar. in fact at the end of my tenure at Hunter Yale wanted me when Albers retired to become head of the department there. It so happens that at Yale the art school and the art history department are entirely separate; I mean even organizationally they're set up differently. I said that if I did teach I would only teach art history in conjunction with studio. They refused to make that coalition. So I refused to make that coalition. So I refused to accept the job. Which is to say any art is part of general culture and ultimately I think it's a cultural problem. Most artists like to think not. It's a question of individual genius and genius is a sinequa non but it's not enough. As I was saying the other day, I think that if Rothko had really believed in culture he wouldn't be dead. But believing only in his own ego, I can see why he's dead. And when I say "Culture" I don't mean with a capital K, but I mean the fabric or the interchange of human beings at a given historical moment in a given place with given preoccupations. I think everybody completely underestimates what a third ear artists have, how aware they are of everything that's going on in the world in terms of their medium even if they're living in a hamlet in Vermont. So what I was able to teach at Hunter was to teach culture. You know, I taught them about Stravinshy, about Picasso, about Joyce, about Mondrian, about the Surrealists, about the Dadaists, about Whistler, about John Marin, about Eakins, about I don't know what, to give them the sense that they were living in the midst of one of the most absorbing moments in the history of human culture and it would be fascinating to be aware of it and participate in it and follow it all one's life. And that they got. And most of them weren't painters. They were school teachers getting and M.A. so they could get a raise. They enjoyed, in a way, the classes. I said, "Look, there's a beautiful story, a beautiful enterprise. Let's follow it and talk about it." And they liked that.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How much do you think, though, that one can teach somebody who wants to be not a teacher but a professional painter in a university situation? Do you think there's much? Or not really that much?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I used to tell them all the time then and, you see, I haven't taught since then except sporadically, but no seriously and sustainedly and we're talking about the 1950s I used to tell them, "The moment for you to become an artist is the day you go and get yourself a studio and move out of here, out of this university and start thinking what you're going to show when you can show it. Then you become serious." I used to tell them Degas's remark, "You plan a picture the way you plan a bank robbery and if you succeed you'll be shot or imprisoned." And in an academic situation there's rarely that sense of risk that it has to come off, it's much more a spoon fed thing; if I please the professor I'm going to get through the course. And of course that has nothing to do with anything.
End of Side 4 (Tape 2, Side 2)
Side 5 (Tape 3, Side 1)
PAUL CUMMINGS: This is Side 5 March 30, 1972 Paul Cummings talking to Robert Motherwell. We open by discussing the photograph of The Irascrible. Where was the photograph taken? Do you remember?
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: No. I think maybe in the photographer's studio who was a very grim German woman. It was very difficult to get everyone together, incredibly difficult. There were a lot of tensions . . .
PAUL CUMMINGS: Yes, because there were all sorts of personalities.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: She kept
END OF INTERVIEW
This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Robert Motherwell, 1971 Nov. 24-1974 May 1, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Harvested in 2010 from the url: http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-robert-motherwell-13286 for "A Collection of Essays on Art" by Michael B. Chang http://www.michaelchang.dk/04_words/workwords/on_art.html#_references Reference vi