Robert Motherwell is universally recognized as a leader of twentieth-century expression. As one of the key voices of the New York School and as an innovator who had particularly uncanny ability to blend art theory with the expressive process, Motherwell will forever be remembered for his unique style. A new exhibition at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York takes a look at where this brilliance began: “Robert Motherwell: Early Paintings” highlights the production of the artist over the 1940s and 1950s as he followed in the footsteps of the Surrealists as a foundation for charting his own artistic course in the years to come.

This period of Motherwell’s career is undoubtedly fascinating, as it reflects the era in which Motherwell truly came alive as an artist. To be sure, by this point he had studied art and its theories at some of the country’s most revered institutions, but it was his move to New York to attend Columbia University in 1940 in hopes of pursuing his love of art theory that Motherwell found his icons within the realm of Surrealism. Studying briefly with Surrealist Roberto Matta in 1941 and then falling into fascination with the work of Piet Mondrian in the midst of the exhibition of his works the following year, Motherwell found himself consumed by the technical underpinnings of the movements. He found a particular draw to the technique of automatism, one that pursued the unconscious release of a composition, and began to pull this method into his own work.

It is this release that can be sensed across this exhibition’s display. These paintings reveal the freedom with which Motherwell developed his canvases while also contemplating the role of materials. Some works like Orange Personage, play with the role of texture with the addition of sand to the surface of the composition; others incorporate collaged materials to blend notions of texture and pattern in novel ways. The result is a series of works that showcase Motherwell’s inherent understanding of Surrealist principles while also defining his own unique style, a feat that is particularly noteworthy considering the landscape of American painting at this point in history.

During this historical moment, the brash strokes of Willem De Kooning’s oil-on-canvas compositions and the drips of Jackson Pollock’s action paintings had already begun to define the era of Abstract Expressionism. Motherwell, however, builds on that energy by making space for nuanced applications of such abstraction. By doing so, Motherwell not only defined his role in contemporary art but also secured his status in the ongoing evolution of art history.

Fans of contemporary art and of Motherwell cannot miss this showcase, which remains on view until 28 October 2017. For more on the exhibition, please visit the Paul Kasmin Gallery website.

– Alexis Culotta

Installation view of “Robert Motherwell: Early Paintings” at New York’s Paul Kasmin Gallery