Mystery Canvas links famous painter Motherwell to the days of the UO
Robert Motherwell, Oregon Landscape, 1940. Watercolor and ink on paper, 9 X 9 inches. © 2021 Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
On holiday in Guernsey several years ago, I climbed along the rugged coast to the sites that Pierre Renoir had contracted to paint 140 years earlier. Savoring the thrill of seeing its sunny seascapes with my own eyes, my mind drifted back to Eugene. Had Oregon’s natural beauty inspired famous artists? Some might speculate that Eugene’s greatest hippy-dippy artistic legacy is the tie-dye T-shirt or perhaps the animal house movie. But they would be wrong. Robert Motherwell, one of the truly great names in American art, taught at the University of Oregon in 1939-1940. Yet a single landscape painting serves as a visual clue to the brief period when Eugene was his home.
Artists go to their sacred space to create. For some, it’s a mental space to visualize artistic intentions. For others, the space is physical. I enjoy browsing through them to find out what made them so appealing. Brett Whitley’s studio was an unassuming terraced house in a leafy Sydney suburb – a place you could walk past without even noticing. Filled Frida Kahlo Casa Azul in Mexico City with the chaos of loud, hairless dogs. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine a quieter site than Claude Monet’s house in Giverny. Jackson Pollock – whom I study – fought his way to fame in a windswept barn on the northern tip of Long Island. A contemporary of Pollock, where would Motherwell go in Eugene to find her special space?
Although Pollock captured the public imagination as a leader of the Abstract Expressionist movement, art scholars hold Motherwell in equal esteem. Their abstractions pushed the aesthetic envelope with such power that they shifted the attention of the art world from its traditional base in Paris to New York. Together, these artistic warriors scaled the rarefied heights of modern art using radical painting techniques – and their rise was swift. Four years after leaving Eugene for New York, Motherwell had his first solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, the Museum of Modern Art began to purchase his work, and he had become the leading spokesperson for the avant-garde art. in America.
Unlike Pollock’s wild and drunken brawls, Motherwell’s reputation as an intellectual of Abstract Expressionism stems from his philosophy degree and teaching at the UO. In reality, the latter was born out of a compromise in his “cold war” with his father, who saw a teaching position as a more stable career path than Motherwell’s aspirations to become a painter. Family friend Lance Hart, an artist and UO teacher, served as a peacemaker and suggested that Motherwell fill a temporary opening in the art department by teaching modern art history classes, aesthetics and contemporary architecture.
In addition to teaching, Motherwell worked on sets for a production of Pride and Prejudice at the Very Little Theater in Eugene. He also exhibited drawings in local exhibitions, including at least one devoted to faculty. The enigma of why only one Oregon landscape painting survives could be explained by a challenge in its artistic development. He had recently enjoyed spending time in France but reluctantly rushed home due to the impending war. Recalling his time in Eugene, Motherwell recalls, “I spent a year learning… French intimate painting very well. I made part of it from postcards from France. I made it a part of nature in Oregon. But it was hard to do in Oregon because Oregon is very forested and Scandinavian; and all that French stuff is based on everything being park and mannered and manicured and man-made.
Motherwell left the university when his contract ended in the summer of 1940. An article in the Eugene Registry-Guard from that month, June describes a student campaign to bring Motherwell back to the department: “Although his views have sometimes been criticized … he can be credited with a stimulating interest and discussion in his field.” It is one of the primary functions of a teacher, it seems to us. … We launch this slogan: Motherwell back to art school.
With the mention of “falling under fire,” perhaps his radical views on abstraction that would soon send aesthetic shockwaves through the art world were already sending ripples through the classrooms of the OU? And perhaps the Oregon landscape painting serves as a rare testament to Motherwell beginning her transition from her infatuation with French illustration to her epic, very American abstractions. Harvard art historian Arnason described Motherwell’s reaction to the sight of Oregon landscape painting years later: “Motherwell was able to recognize in it that naturalism was no more than a pretext… he was already groping towards a sort of abstract automatism.”
The location of the scene remains mysterious, as it is unclear whether it is real, imaginary, or a mixture of the two. The front inscription on the board reads “For Valborg” and refers to Valborg Anderson, who taught English at the university. Katy Rogers, director of Motherwell’s catalog raisonné, speculates: “Maybe the Oregon landscape is a rendering of where she lived in Oregon? Or a place where the faculty would go? Much has changed in our local landscape in the 80 years since Motherwell and Anderson wandered around Eugene. Yet when I remember the thrill of seeing Renoir’s scenes with my own eyes, I hope that some rainy day in the future I’ll walk my dogs and a casual look around me will trigger that thrill again. .
—By Richard Taylor, a physics professor at the University of Oregon who studies nanoelectronics, neuroscience, retinal implants, solar cells, and visual fractal science