Art Dealer Rebecca Michelman Shares Why This Painting by Modern Artist Robert Motherwell is a Prized Discovery
Bold, distinctive strokes of ivory, beige and maroon frame a brazen and vivacious starburst motif in sunshine yellow. As one considers the amalgamation of these charismatic elements, a light and spirited sense of joie de vivre takes over.
This is Untitled (Figure in Doorway), a painting by renowned American abstract expressionist artist Robert Motherwell, who was part of the famed New York School collective of avant-garde creatives in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Representing this rare painting is Rebecca Michelman of Michelman Fine Art, a New York-based private art dealer who has the work from a collector.
“Although Motherwell’s initial recognition came from his series called The Elegies—which utilised an austere palette of black and white and conveyed an unabashed honesty, brutality and elegance—he ultimately was a brilliant colourist. This painting, which we are offering for sale, was created during a powerful moment of introspection and reappraisal over the course of several months between 1982 and 1983,” she says.
Michelman adds that Untitled (Figure in Doorway) is an uncommon example of his work as it is a reprise of Mural Study, a small painting he created in 1950, which he displayed in his studio in the months leading up to his 1983 retrospective exhibition at the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, New York.
At least two other paintings from the '50s that feature the same starburst motif are in museum collections, notably the Smithsonian and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard. The motif undoubtedly derives from what Motherwell called l'art moderne, meaning the art of French Modernists such as Henri Matisse and Joan Miró; Motherwell experienced their work firsthand while living in Paris in the 1930s.
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She reveals: “Clearly the subject of this painting (Mural Study) was significant to him and represents an important synthesis of his creative concerns—the tension between the abstract and the figurative. Here, it is rendered with a touch of whimsy and joy. By revisiting one of his earliest smaller paintings, Motherwell was reviewing and yet reinventing in the final decade of his life.”
Michelman’s appreciation of abstract expressionist artists like Motherwell can be attributed to a background in the sale and acquisition of Impressionism, Modern and Post-War artworks with Michelman Fine Art, a family-run boutique company founded in 1974 by her mother Joan Michelman in New York City. Her sister, Amy Michelman, is also a principal in the business providing brokering and advisory services.
When I am invited to speak to groups of new collectors, I emphasise the importance of developing a curatorial eye through the study of art history
— Rebecca Michelman, private art dealer, Michelman Fine Art
Since joining the company in 2003, Michelman has facilitated the sale of blue-chip works in the secondary art market by Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, while overseeing details ranging from authenticity, provenance, clear title, contracts and negotiations.
She shares: “I grew up with an art dealer mother who is as passionate about art as the art of the deal. For me, the exciting part of the business is the discovery and research of great works. When I am invited to speak to groups of new collectors, I emphasise the importance of developing a curatorial eye through the study of art history. I love to trace the currents of ideas and developments in art by digging into the artist’s influences and then telling the rich story about that singular object.”
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Michelman is particularly excited by this latest Motherwell acquisition, which she says is an homage to contemporaries Joan Miró and Henri Matisse, both of whom were held in great esteem by the artist. Motherwell’s admiration of their work, combined with the purpose of creating “universal art that would more deeply engage with the zeitgeist of its era”, led to an immersion of the ideas and philosophies of early 20th-century Modernism—a key catalyst that sparked the creation and repetition of his starburst motif.
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“The star-shaped design in Untitled (Figure in Doorway) reappears in at least three other early Motherwell paintings—all of them in museum collections—including Voyage, 1949 (MoMA), Wall Painting, 1950 (Fogg Art Museum; Harvard Art Museum) and Wall Painting III, 1952 (The Smithsonian),” says Michelman.
Motherwell was one of the leading proponents of Abstract Expressionism in New York in the early 1940s. He developed a universal visual language that he achieved partly by using automatic drawing, or "automatism," which he learned from the Surrealist Robert Matta. Automatism allowed the unconscious mind to influence the creative process of art-making and was popular with the Surrealists in the 1930s. Motherwell adopted the technique, and spread its message to artists like Pollock, de Kooning and Hofmann. It remains among the most compelling components of his early work.
The starburst motif he employs in Untitled (Figure in Doorway), is open-ended and unique, giving the viewer a multitude of interpretations with each viewing. Standing in front of this large-scale work, which has incredible power, one cannot help but think of Motherwell's declaration about the impact of abstract expressionist art: “Nothing as drastic an innovation as abstract art could have come into existence, save as the consequence of a most profound, relentless, unquenchable need. The need is for felt experience—intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic.”
The need is for felt experience—intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic
— American abstract expressionist painter Robert Motherwell
While the work of Motherwell offers one plenty of room for interpretation, for admirers like Michelman, his intent is clear. “Painting was a way of giving form to the deepest questions of existence. Throughout his career, he developed a profound pictorial language, using simpliﬁed geometric forms that were animated by the emotional gravitas of his chosen palette and the expressive force of his brush,” she says.
To enquire about Untitled (Figure in Doorway) by Robert Motherwell, please contact Rebecca Michelman at michelmanfineart.com.