Ulysses dates from early in Motherwell's career when he was living in East Hampton, New York. It is painted on a piece of cardboard attached to part of a wooden crate. The nails and battens of this support may have helped to define the structure of the composition. Two planks of wood running down the lateral edges of the work are painted in a warm yellow ochre and frame the strong geometric shapes of the central composition. The consistency of the paintwork is varied, generating a collage-like effect of different textures. The oval shape at the top and the triangle below can be seen to make up a very simplified figure, reminiscent of the paintings of Motherwell's contemporary William Baziotes (see Tate T01693). Like Baziotes, Motherwell was attracted to Surrealism in the early 1940s and in 1942-3 experimented with various types of automatism.
The painting is named after James Joyce's famous modernist novel Ulysses (1922) which Motherwell first read while travelling though Europe in 1935. Joyce's style of writing, in particular his use of the technique known as 'stream of consciousness', had a profound effect on Motherwell, who believed that art should be an expression of the innermost thoughts and feelings of the artist. The art historian Dore Ashton has written: 'It is no exaggeration to say that [Motherwell's] discovery of Joyce was as important as his study of Picasso and Matisse, for Joyce revealed to him the infinite potential of free association' (Dore Ashton, Robert Motherwell, exhibition catalogue, Padiglione d'arte contemporanea, Milan 1989, p.11).
Throughout his career Motherwell dedicated a number of paintings to Joyce, sometimes, as in this instance, borrowing a title from him. In 1988 he published an edition of Ulysses which he had illustrated with forty etchings (The " Ulysses" etchings of Robert Motherwell, San Francisco, 1988). In an interview that year he explained: 'I found Ulysses at a time when I was searching for the key to a vaguely perceived modernist aesthetic that I knew I had to make my own. Joyce served my purposes then and now. If you have taken on the adventure of modernism as I have - and the history of it - there have to be a few prophets to help you when you get discouraged. You go back to them for reinforcement…Joyce is permanently on my mind.' (Motherwell, pp.285-6).
The title also makes reference to the wandering Greek hero of Homer's epic The Odyssey. This story of homecoming after the Trojan war may have seemed pertinent to Motherwell in the years immediately after the Second World War. In 1976 he commented on Ulysses and two other paintings, Surprise and Inspiration 1943 (Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice) and Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive 1943 (Museum of Modern Art, New York): 'Thirty years later, only half-remembering their original impulse, what strikes me now is that the true subject matter of these three early works is a "wounded person".' (Quoted in H. Harvard Arnason, Robert Motherwell, revised edition, New York 1982, p.104.) In the light of this, the roughly oval shape at the top of Ulysses and the triangle below it can be seen to make up a simplified figure.
Mary Ann Caws, Robert Motherwell: What Art Holds, New York 1996
Jack Flam, Motherwell, Oxford 1991, reproduced in colour, plate 15
Robert Motherwell, The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, edited by Stephanie Terenzio, New York 1992