42nd Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Group, May 31 – “Made of Paper: Robert Motherwell’s Collage Materials in the 1940s” by Jeffrey Warda

Jeffrey Warda, Paper Conservator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, presented a fascinating technical study of the collage work of Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell (1915-91). Warda completed this study in preparation for the exhibition Robert Motherwell: Early Collages organized by the Guggenheim. The exhibition, which was presented at Guggenheim venues in both Venice and New York in 2013, featured exclusively Motherwell’s papier collé works dating to the 1940s and 50s.
This presentation discussed the evolution of Motherwell’s collage work as a function of his relationship with other artists and patron Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979); collaborative efforts to better characterize Motherwell’s process and palette of materials; and the artists’ perspective on the aesthetic of his works and the inevitable changes that result with the passage of time.
Warda began the presentation by describing the importance of the Motherwell’s relationship with Peggy Guggenheim to the artist’s pursuit of collage as an artistic medium. In 1943, Guggenheim organized an exhibition of contemporary collage at her gallery in New York City, Art of This Century. In preparation, she paired emerging artists to collaborate with more established artists to produce collage work for the exhibition. Motherwell was among the younger artists invited to participate along with Jackson Pollock (1912-56) and William Baziotes (1912-63). Encouragement by the artist Roberto Matta (1911-2002) was also cited as influential in Motherwell’s pursuit of collage and the creation of The Joy of Living, which was exhibited in Guggenheim’s 1943 exhibition and is now located in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Clearly this was a formative moment for the artist who continued to produce collage work, numbering nearly 900, throughout his entire career.
Illustrated with examples from the collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Harvard University Art Museums, the presentation continued with a discussion of Motherwell’s palette in terms of both color and materials. The former owes much to his the artists travels in Mexico and California. Modern art critic and curator James Johnson Sweeney related Motherwell’s color selections to these landscapes, relating the pinks to bougainvillea and terracotta. The blue grays and yellow ochres in his palette are often viewed as allusions to his childhood spent in California.
The survey of his collage work revealed Motherwell’s use of diverse materials including paperboard, colored artist’s papers, hand-coated papers, cloth rag, inks, paint, pastel, found paper objects (e.g. labels), and several adhesives including LePage’s® (fish glue) and Duco Cement® (cellulose nitrate). His favor for decorative papers is evident in his repeated use of a unique crinkled, Western-fibered paper with Japanese aesthetic qualities, seen in Harvard’s Collage No. 1. When Motherwell’s stock of this paper runs out, he continues to allude to it in his work by manipulation of other papers. Also of particular interest in this technical study was the characterization of a specific magenta-colored paper found in several of Motherwell’s collages. This paper was first observed in Motherwell’s collages by paper conservators Kimberley Schenck and Tom Primeau at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The fugitive nature of this colorant used in this brilliant paper was emphasized through examination of Mallarme’s Swan. In this work, exposed areas of the magenta paper have become severely discolored while areas protected from light by other paper elements remain vibrant. During this study, the colorant was identified as a Rhodamine-based dye and its light-sensitivity relative to Blue Wool Standards determined. For the exhibition, a virtual reconstruction was created using Adobe Photoshop to give visitors a sense of the original appearance of this work as the artist intended. In Harvard’s Collage No. 1, an interesting phenomenon was observed where a particular adhesive was applied, the magenta paper elements were somewhat protected from light-induced discoloration. The adhesive as identified as cellulose nitrate using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR). The protective qualities of the adhesive may be attributed to the fact that cellulose nitrate is an ultraviolet-absorbing material.
Finally, Warda discussed Motherwell’s perspective on the aesthetics of his collages with regard to materials employed and his views on the changes that occur over time as a work ages. Maintaining a matte surface was important to the artist and he was reportedly “loathe” to see a collage varnished. Accordingly he employed artist materials with binders that would help achieve this effect, many of which were identified through gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) during this project by the Getty Conservation Institute: gum Arabic, animal glue (distemper), and casein. Generally, Motherwell tended to accept change in works as they aged and, in an interview with conservators Betty Fiske and Rita Albertson during the 1980s, described that he actually liked the visual effect of discoloring adhesives in his collages.