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Wall Painting III

1952 Robert Motherwell Born: Aberdeen, Washington 1915 Died: Provincetown, Massachusetts 1991 oil on fiberboard 48 x 72 in. (121.9 x 182.9 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the Dedalus Foundation and museum purchase made possible by the American Art Forum © 1994, Dedalus Foundation 1995.2.3 Not currently on view

Exhibition Label

Throughout his career, Motherwell infused his work with human themes, autobiographical allusions, and elegies of human loss and struggle. He considered the modern artist to be a traveler whose life was a spiritual voyage. For him Wall Painting III was both epic and joyous. He described the star-like ochre shape at the left as a figural form that pushes against boundaries.  Its organic counterpart dances at the right in a celebration of life akin to figures in the great cutouts of Matisse. Flat, frontal, and expansive, it is a statement of personal and artistic confidence.

Modern Masters: Midcentury Abstraction from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2008


Gallery Label

In the early 1950s, Motherwell created works for two synagogues in the Northeast. The pieces were commissioned to symbolize the integration of these Jewish congregations into modern American life after World War II. Motherwell was not particularly religious, but he was interested in the idea of an "Absolute." He used this word not only to refer to the spiritual but also to the strong contrasts of light and dark colors, absolutes that express extremes of human experience.

The radiant ochre shape on the left is both a stylized, six-pointed Star of David and a form that Motherwell called a "figure" in other paintings. On the right is a darker shape that the artist also described as a figure. If we read this image from right to left—as we would the Torah—the painting evokes the Jews' passage from the darkness of the Holocaust to the joy of living freely and in obedience to the Commandments.

Motherwell fought against the tendency of modern artists to isolate themselves from the world while they searched for a pure art. He wrote in a private letter that he enjoyed collaborating with the synagogues, "neither for money nor fame," but because he wanted to work with others "as one human being to another."

Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006




paint - oil