When Robert Motherwell first started making collages, he had no idea what he was doing. In 1943, along with fellow fledgling abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, the American artist was invited by legendary collector Peggy Guggenheim to give it a try for a show at her Art of This Century gallery in New York. According to Motherwell, all they knew was ‘you pasted things on’. Soon after, Pollock gave up collage but Motherwell found something he liked about the process and kept at it. This show collects together collages made from the 1950s until his death in 1991.
What you get is a series of highly accomplished, mostly abstract works in a variety of media, ranging from understated manila envelopes to shopping bags, accompanied by bright blots of paint. In their rips and textures the best works carry a sense of exploration and discovery – of working things out.
Still, by the time he made much of this work Motherwell perhaps knew too well what he was doing. In interviews he used to compare abstract painting to classical music, and sure enough there are scraps of music here including a Mozart score. Even the trash is well-mannered: unlike, say, Kurt Schwitters’s pan-European filth, or Dieter Roth’s all-embracing garbage collection (currently on show at Camden Arts Centre), Motherwell’s detritus is all Madison Avenue shopping bags and vintage cognac labels. Even so, the more crudely executed, jarring pieces – such as ‘La Cuisinere’ (1967) – do hint at the messiness of everyday life.