‘The supreme gift, after light, is scale’, wrote Robert Motherwell in a letter to the poet Frank O’Hara in 1965. As demonstrated by an exhibition of his large-format paintings that opened at Kasmin Gallery’s recently-inaugurated 509 West 27th Street space last month, the artistic possibilities of scale were a constant concern throughout Motherwell’s long career. This exhibition of work is the first to focus solely on the monumental in his oeuvre, and features eight paintings: some, like Dublin, 1916, with Black and Tan (1963-64), take great joy in expanses of chromatic juxtaposition while others, such as Forced Entry (1981), exercise just a handful of brushstrokes to construct a rudimentary painterly gesture. Each of the eight captivate.
The ambition to scale up paintings was shared by Motherwell’s fellow Abstract Expressionists, some of whom had cut their teeth making public murals for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s – and these artists increasingly ‘reject[ed] the easel and yearn[ed] for the wall’, as the critic Clement Greenberg memorably put it. But Motherwell’s version of the large-format canvas remained committed to personal and ethical responsibility, not merely blown up for the sake of brashness or ego. For him, it entailed being present with the painting, rather than a photograph or reproduction, in order to engage with its reach and dimensions up close – and in so doing recover what he called a ‘sense of the sublime and the tragic that had not existed since Goya and Turner.’