Iberia No. 2 is a large, predominantly black and ochre canvas with three distinct layers of paint. The first is a thin layer of yellow ochre followed by a thin and then a thicker layer of black. It is one of a series of works of the same title which Motherwell made during the summer of 1958, when he and his third wife, the artist Helen Frankenthaler, were on honeymoon in St. Jean de Luz, a small fishing town on the French coast near the border with the Basque country. The two artists spent several months that summer working in France and Spain and it was a particularly productive time for Motherwell.
Of Iberia No. 2, Motherwell said: 'I almost never start with an image. I start with a painting idea, an impulse, usually derived from my own world. Though sometimes images may emerge from some chord in my unconscious, the way a dream might. Even in those paintings where an image unconsciously develops, a certain kind of experience is usually necessary in order to perceive it. In Iberia or Spanish Painting, for example, you would have to know that a Spanish bull ring is made of sand of an ochre color, and that Spanish bulls are very small, quick, and coal black. Both of those coal black, ochre pictures have a bull in them, but you cannot really see the bull. They are an equivalence of the ferocity of the whole encounter' (Marcelin Pleynet, Robert Motherwell, Paris 1989, p.91).
At the time that Motherwell painted Iberia No.2, General Franco's government was in power in Spain. Motherwell, who was a left-wing sympathiser, had become increasingly engaged with the movement against Franco and many of his paintings from the late 1940s onwards had strong political overtones. His use of black in works such as Iberia No.2 became particularly symbolically charged. 'Black is death, anxiety', he commented in 1963 (quoted in Motherwell, p.137). In his extensive series of Elegies to the Spanish Republic (see Tate L01884), begun in 1948, Motherwell used black to signify both the waste and the despair of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. Although derived from a specific political situation, these paintings were concerned with the notion of tragedy at a universal level, and reflected Motherwell's belief in abstraction as a way of drawing out the essence of life rather than fleeing it. 'One might truthfully say that abstract art is stripped bare of other things in order to intensify it, its rhythms, spatial intervals, and colour structure,' he wrote in 1951. 'Abstraction is a process of emphasis, and emphasis vivifies life' (quoted in The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, edited by Stephanie Terenzio, New York 1992, p.86).
H. H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York 1977, revised edition 1982, reproduced in colour p.47 and front cover
Mary Ann Caws, Robert Motherwell: What Art Holds, New York 1996
Stephanie Terenzio, Robert Motherwell & Black, exhibition catalogue, William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut 1980
Revised by Sophie Howarth July 2000