Robert Motherwell at Menil Drawing institute celebrates process

Robert Motherwell “Lyric Series” installation view. Courtesy photo

A drawing is a mark. It can be as simple as a dot on blank page, maybe a straight line. Add some complexity and it can be swirling lines, maybe that intersect and overlap.

Or, in the hands of a master, the drawing can be an explosion of dynamic movement. The drawing encompasses a scale that transcends size. The great Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell is such a master of drawing and the current exhibition at the Menil Drawing Institute is an absorbing delight.

“Robert Motherwell Drawing: As Fast as the Mind Itself,” on display through March 12, is an overview of his creative experimentation with the medium — from drawing to spontaneous splotches to collages of torn paper. In effect, if it can be used to make a mark on paper, Motherwell did it.

Robert Motherwell, Kafka’s Big Room, 1944. Courtesy photo

The earlier works in the show are representational, not to be confused with realistic. The small watercolor and ink works feature abstract figures that resemble Arshile Gorky (considered a father figure to the Abstract Expressionists) and have a Picasso-esque in feel. “Kafka’s Big Room,” from 1944, is similar in composition to a Picasso interior.

In 1948, Motherwell produced the drawing “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” his meditation on the Spanish Civil War, which led to arguably his most famous series of paintings. It is a composition that fascinated him, and he produced multiple paintings in the “Elegies” series and continued to play with a similar composition over his entire drawing career.

The 1995 acrylic “Elegy to the Spanish Republic,” although small, still echoes the epic scale of his famous painting. Motherwell returns to the theme by using various techniques, sometimes with color, sometimes in black and white. The sketch contains the poetic lines, “I knew who had sent them in three green cases./Who doesn’t lose his mind will receive like me/That wire in my neck up to the ears.”

I have always been a fan of the artist’s black and white drawings, his shapes are consistently intriguing, evocative and enticing.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 1, 1948. Courtesy photo

Through a few bold shapes, such as in the oil sketch “Elegy Study C,” he has the ability to create a dynamic balance. The paint splatters explode the shape which is balanced by the black rectangle that anchors the right side of the frame.

A series of black and white images on large paper incorporate splatters and lines are both playful and serious. They are conceptually articulate but always allowing for the spontaneous. Motherwell is a thoughtful artist, and one senses the deep intellectual questioning that is taking place. Yet there is also a sense of play. He balances bold shapes with dribbles and splatters. One can imagine the fun he must have had creating the marks, seeing what images reveal themselves through the process.

The wall of ink and gouache drawings, “Lyric Suite,” comprises 24 pieces that are each unique but interconnected through attitude and intention. Motherwell applied ink to Japanese rice paper which accepts the ink into itself. How the ink spreads and absorbs in impossible to control, a process that Motherwell embraced. To stand in front of them is revel in the joy of making the work. They are just a few of the more than 500 pieces he produced for the “Lyric Suite.”

Robert Motherwell, Rimbaud Series No. 3, 1967 Courtesy photo

Motherwell’s collages are interesting as he uses the torn paper to create color shapes in perfect balance. In “Scarle with Gauloises #8” contrasts the iconic blue cigarette packets with a solid red ground.

The “Rimbaud Series” from 1967 features eight gestural ink drawings on acetate. Once again, they are a delicate balance between soothing shape and dynamic energy.

In 1979’s “Drunk with Turpentine,” the oil paint bleeds into the paper and separates from the pigment, a slight brown tinge around the image staining the paper.

“Robert Motherwell Drawing: As Fast as the Mind Itself” rewards the curiosity seeker. To appreciate the images, one needs only to embrace to sense of exploration Motherwell brings to the process. It is a show that really leaves a mark.

The Menil Drawing Institute is located at 1412 W. Main St. in Houston. For more information, visit

This story first ran in the March 5, 2023 edition of the Beaumont Enterprise.

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