PROVINCETOWN — Robert Motherwell (1915-91) first came to Provincetown in the middle of the Second World War, when enforced blackouts at dusk gave the town a thick and gloomy atmosphere at odds with its usual image of expansive, sun-kissed freedom. He came with the emigre Surrealist Max Ernst, art collector Peggy Guggenheim, Ernst’s wife at the time, and Motherwell’s own first wife, actress Maria Emilia Ferreira y Moyers.
It was, in the event, a tense, unsettling stay. Motherwell knew no other painters in town. Ernst was expelled by the FBI, who required all Germans to live at least 10 miles from the coast. And without a car, Motherwell’s own movements were restricted. Looking back on that first stay, he said “the claustrophobic silent dark of those World War II nights here remains with me like a black stone.”
The quote appears in an essay by Daniel Ranalli in the catalog accompanying “Robert Motherwell: Beside the Sea,” an enchanting exhibition at the Provincetown Artists Association and Museum.
Motherwell was one of the leading figures of Abstract Expressionism, the movement that grew out of European Surrealism in the 1940s and played a central role in shifting the art world’s center of gravity from Paris to New York. He was around the same age as Jackson Pollock and a decade younger than Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko.
In spite of that spooked first visit to Provincetown, Motherwell ended up returning after the war — this time in the company of de Kooning. He spent his next 40 summers there.
Those summers were unusually productive. Upon arriving, he often took time to get going. But once he did, work came in a gush.
Upstairs in a waterfront cottage on Commercial Street that he converted into a kind of barn with three floors, long arched doors, and an interior like a ship, he would paint on canvases or thick paper laid out on the floor. For many years, his second wife, the painter Helen Frankenthaler, occupied another studio on one of the two upper levels; the downstairs level was used as a beach house.
One of the beach house’s most constant occupants was Motherwell’s daughter Lise, who helped organize this Provincetown exhibition with Ranalli and PAAM director Christine McCarthy. In a perceptive and moving catalog essay, Lise Motherwell remembers her father listening to baseball or opera in his studio at night. “He said that his childhood asthma attacks mostly occurred at night and that nighttime painting reduced his fear of dying in his sleep.”
“Some mornings,” she writes, a few paragraphs later, “he would come downstairs, his clothes disheveled, his hair uncombed, while my sister and I sat at breakfast in bathing suits ready for the beach. He would say with a big smile, ‘I painted a masterpiece last night.’ ”
In truth, Motherwell rarely painted masterpieces. He was to the Abstract Expressionists what Camille Pissarro was to the Impressionist group: a figure of central importance to the wider phenomenon, fruitfully connected to everyone, sincere, articulate, passionate, immensely talented — but palpably lacking in genius.
This shortfall shouldn’t bother us: Motherwell’s work gives off the same sense of nervy responsiveness, willingness to experiment, and integrity as Pissarro’s. Both artists may lack the flash of genius, but they earn our love in steadier, slower-burning ways.
The PAAM show is focused on selected examples from a series of more than 30 paintings on paper, called “Beside the Sea,” created by Motherwell in the 1960s (mostly in 1962). Inspired by the waves that would break explosively against the bulkhead beneath his studio at high tide, these works were made by loading a brush with liquid paint and boldly smacking it against the paper. So vigorous was the process that Motherwell initially broke through the strong rag paper he was using, and had to switch to sturdier five-ply rag paper laminated with glue.
The method reflected Motherwell’s longstanding fascination with the actions of chance and the operations of unconscious actions in French surrealism; also, the spontaneity of Japanese Zen painting (which it most closely resembles). But even more, it was a clear attempt to match nature — and in particular the mesmerizing, incessant action of the waves he saw crashing outside his studio over so many summers.
Each painting in the “Beside the Sea” series contains two or three thick horizontal lines of differently colored paint below, evoking bands of land, sea, and sky. Above are the isolated splatter marks resulting from Motherwell’s sudden thrusts. Some of the marks are ringed by a nimbus of yellow. These stains, the serendipitous result of oil separating from the pigment and sinking into the paper, suggest shadows, setting up curious spatial dynamics.
The splatter marks — even those most powerfully suggestive of water spray — remain literal rather than representational, and this mattered to Motherwell, who saw aesthetics in moral terms. A diehard existentialist, he had, as he once described it, “an animal thirst for the real.”
This craving for “the thing itself,” and a concomitant delight — almost fetishistic in its intensity — in the materials of painting, were of central importance to the Abstract Expressionists. But Motherwell was less fanatical about “pure” abstraction than his peers, de Kooning excepted. He had a lyrical spirit, borne of his love for French symbolist poetry, and he was by no means immune to the seductions of suggestive evocation.
This lyrical spirit is all through the show, not just in the subtly restrained colors and serpentine splatter lines in the “Beside the Sea” works, but in a series of captivating collages made in Provincetown, and in a number of large-scale paintings that dominate entire walls, adding a quality of silence and majesty to an otherwise intimate show.
Two vertically oriented works, “Summer Seaside Doorway” and “The August Sun and Shadow,” are bracingly minimal. Inspired in part by Matisse’s near-abstract paintings “View of Notre Dame” and “French Window at Collioure,” they intrigue, but lack magic.
Motherwell was at his best when working with collage, which he described as “the greatest invention of modernism.” Two collages here made 10 years apart were my favorites in the show. One, made in 1967, places vigorous light blue splatter marks against a strip of Motherwell’s favored clay brown. Beside the blue paint Motherwell — a Francophile to the end — has pasted a fragment of a Gauloise cigarette packet in almost exactly the same hue.
Another work, titled “Beside the Sea With Fish and Chips,” sets fragments of fish and chip packaging against a similar color scheme of blues, browns, and blacks. It’s a delight.
Adjacent galleries at PAAM are given over to a show that includes a smattering of other Motherwell works set among larger works by a group of Provincetown artists who banded together to form the Long Point Gallery, which lasted from 1977 until 1998. If Motherwell was the best known of the group, the others were no slouches.
What is impressive about the show, which was organized by former Long Point Gallery director Mary Ellen Abell, is not just the range of work but its quality of grown-up self-assurance. Among the Long Point artists were Varujan Boghosian, Carmen Cicero, Robert Beauchamp, Sideo Fromboluti, Edward Giobbi, Michael Mazur, Budd Hopkins, Renate Ponsold, Paul Resika, and Judith Rothschild.
If the best works in this particular show are photographs by Ponsold, assemblages by Boghosian, and paintings by Rothschild, Mazur, Cicero, and Fromboluti, such snap judgments seem more than usually beside the point: The show is a salute to what is in actuality a surprisingly rare thing — a genuine and enduring community of artists.
The Motherwell show, by the way, includes a collage called “Blue Guitar” which speaks volumes about his connection with Provincetown and the Long Point artists.
In the summer of 1991, he was too ill to come to stay in Provincetown. But after making “Blue Guitar,” he rang Giobbi to tell him it was “the best collage” he had ever made. (The work uses a fragment of an original score of music composed by Giobbi’s son Chambless, which Giobbi had given to Motherwell specifically in the hope that he would use it.)
Motherwell was determined to get the work to Provincetown to show it at Long Point, and he went with it especially for that purpose. Sadly, he had a heart attack while on the Cape and died in the ambulance on the one-hour drive to the hospital.
“Bob defied his doctor’s orders,” Giobbi told Abell recently. “The only reason he went to Provincetown was to show that work at Long Point.”
ROBERT MOTHERWELL: Beside the Sea
Through Sept. 30
Long Point: An Artists’ Place
Through Sept. 2
At: Provincetown Artists Association and Museum, Provincetown. 508-487-1750, www.paam.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.