Robert Motherwell



Not on display

Robert Motherwell 1915–1991
Oil paint on cardboard on wood
Support: 857 × 711 mm
frame: 962 × 814 × 85 mm
Acquired by purchase and gift from the Dedalus Foundation 1996


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.

Further Reading:

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

Sophie Howarth
June 2000

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Display caption

Painted on a piece of cardboard attached to part of a wooden crate, Ulysses dates from a period when Motherwell was attracted to Surrealism and experimented with various types of automatism. This painting is named after James Joyce's modernist novel Ulysses, whose ‘stream of consciousness’ technique involved transcribing the free flow of an individual’s thoughts. Joyce's style of writing had a profound effect on Motherwell, who believed that art should be an expression of the innermost thoughts and feelings of the artist.

Gallery label, August 2009

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Technique and condition

The painting was executed in oil paint on a single piece of laminated cardboard. The cardboard support is held by four planks of painted wood, two of which run vertically over the cardboard and which are attached to the other two which run horizontally and lie behind the cardboard. In addition the cardboard is held by a series of wide-headed nails which have been driven through the top and bottom edges of the cardboard support into the two wooden planks beneath.

Despite these attachments the support is extremely warped. Although a certain amount of this may have been caused by poor environmental conditions, it is doubtful that the cardboard was completely flat before the paint was applied. The support also contains a number of significant damages, including large holes in all four corners and a fairly serious tear in the top left quarter. All of these would have been present in the support before the application of paint and should therefore be considered as an integral part of the work. The area above the hole in the top left corner, however, has clearly suffered some further paint loss since its execution.

The paint has been applied directly onto the cardboard support, and in some areas this has led to some slight staining around the paint marks, where the oil binder has bled into the cardboard. The paint appears to have been applied in a variety of consistencies. Some areas, such as the green paint, is very medium rich and exhibits appreciable gloss, whereas others, in particular the black paint, would have been applied as a much thinner consistency and subsequently appear more matt and dry.
The absence of any varnish layer allows these differences in gloss to remain apparent.

The white paint was diluted considerably before its application. This produced a very fluid paint (a number of vertical drips are visible) and has resulted in an extensive network of fine cracking and even some areas of paint loss. There are two areas of severe drying cracks, both in areas of black paint. One is found in the lower left corner and the other in a region towards the bottom of the right edge. Both have probably formed due to the application of the fast-drying top black layer on top of a slower-drying layer beneath. Although these cracks would not have been present when the work was completed, the Tate was informed on the work's acquisition by the artist that he was, essentially against inpainting and in general unless there was a clear break in a line or passage of brushworks, always preferred to let the cracking show.

On acquisition, an adhesive was applied along the bottom edge and in the finely cracked off-white colour to consolidate areas of paint which were loose and in danger of falling off from the support. At least one previous attempt has been made to consolidate other areas of paint, the last one in collaboration with the artist. Despite its inherently fragile state, the painting is now in a stable condition. It is not known if the white L-section frame, which encloses the piece, is original.

Tom Learner
July 1997

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