When Fort Worth's Modern Art Museum opened in December 2002 with five times the gallery space of its former building, chief curator Michael Auping experienced exuberant glee unlike any he'd known in his long career in fine arts. Finally, Auping told anyone who would listen during the planning and building phases of the second-largest modern art museum in the United States, we will be able to share this museum's extraordinary collection of masterpieces with the people of North Texas. The Modern, it seemed, had remained faithful to its acquisition mission even as the galleries could no longer accommodate all the art. Hundreds of pieces were scrupulously stored, waiting for the day that Auping, director Marla Price and other museum insiders had only dreamed about.
Since its opening, the Modern staff has exhibited countless pieces from the permanent collection. This week, the museum opens its first focused show of 40 paintings, collages, prints and sketches by abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell; the first focused show from the vaults of the permanent collection. "We have the largest collection of Motherwell's work outside the Museum of Modern Art in New York City," Auping says. "He started very young, so he had a 50-year career. These paintings are from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, mainly, and feature rare pieces which should delight viewers."
Auping's favorite picture from Robert Motherwell From the Collection: 1941-1990 is "Elegy of the Spanish Republic," painted in 1960, but he is fond of Motherwell's rare Iberian series, painted during a trip to Spain. "These are very dark and very beautiful," Auping says, "and they're small and intimate." Motherwell's work covers a scale of 8-inch canvases to 16-foot canvases. "His work deals with the aftermath of World War II," he says. "Some of it addresses beauty and simplicity, but some comes from mourning and elegy. It's very contemplative and representative of the history of American art." Motherwell and his peers in abstract expressionism are one of the reasons the center of the world of modern art shifted from Paris to New York City in the 1940s.
In a 1971 interview, archived by the Smithsonian Institute, Motherwell talked about starting a movement in art, trying to establish a "gang" of American artists who would stay together, analyze techniques together, discuss other art movements and artists, argue and improve their own work through a gentle critique process. He said, "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." Check out Motherwell's exhibit, and you'll get it.