Friday, January 27, 2012

Which is your family of painters?

From an oral history interview with Robert Motherwell (1915--1991):

PAUL CUMMINGS: You've mentioned before something about visiting the Stein collection and how that happened in Palo Alto. Had you seen many paintings before that in going to museums out there?

ROBERT MOTHERWELL: I used to collect books, little Italian books of all the old masters. I really learned to draw copying Michelangelo and Rembrandt and Rubens' Baroque paintings. But I didn't know modern art existed except from some Cézannes that I had come across in the Encyclopedia Britannica, which I also copied. You see, I was only seventeen when I saw the Matissess and they were literally the first twentieth-century pictures I ever saw. And I fell for them at first glance, and to this day au fond Matisse moves me more than any other twentieth-century painter. But I also think there are families of painting minds quite apart from history; that there are about -- I don't know -- five or six basic psychological types; and that whatever the type is that Matisse is, I think that is the family that I naturally belong to.

PAUL CUMMINGS: How would you describe those? What is an example of a family?

ROBERT MOTHERWELL: For example, Vermeer is the family I feel the most alien to. Several years ago in a very learned article in the College of Art Bulletin I was very pleased to discover that he used a machine -- the camera obscura. And I would say that, say Norman Rockwell, and Wyeth, and all kinds of people belong to that objective eye who love to work with photographs or machines and look at everything in a very retinal lens-like way. There's another family like the Caravaggios and the Spaniards -- Murillo and so on, and one aspect of Rembrandt that loves dramatic contrasts of light and dark and blackness and so. And there's certainly a linear type like the ancient Greeks and the Siennese and the Florentines. And there's another kind that's very sensual, that if you look at the picture from a distance it's very beautiful in its way and if you look at the surface very closely, you know, your eye just two or three inches away and just looking at a square inch or two it's intrinsically beautiful just as a painted surface, the way when you's having a beautiful meal if you look at the food, you know, you're sitting at the table and you're looking at the plate there's something marvelous about all the textures and colors and so on. And I think Matisses are par excellence that kind. And it's that kind I like. and Rembrandt has it. Titian has it. Most classical twentieth-century painting has it. The Impressionist had it, although the Impressionists are less clear-cut in their shapes than I like.

Oral history interview with Robert Motherwell, 1971 Nov. 24-1974 May 1, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution