Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)

August Sea No. 4

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
August Sea No. 4
signed with the artist's initials and dated 'RM 72' (upper right); signed, titled and dated again '"The August Sea #4" R. Motherwell 1972' (on the reverse)
acrylic and charcoal on canvas
71 ¾ x 36 in. (182.2 x 91.4 cm.)
Painted in 1972.
Lawrence Rubin Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1973
J. Mascheck, "Reviews," Artforum, vol. 11, no. 5, January 1973, p. 91.
J. Flam, K. Rogers and T. Clifford, eds., Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Vol. 2: Paintings on Canvas and Panel, New Haven, 2012, p. 341, no. P670 (illustrated).
New York, Lawrence Rubin Gallery, Robert Motherwell, October-November 1972, no. 5.


August Sea No. 4 is a remarkably elegant work from Robert Motherwell’s oeuvre that embodies a beautiful melding of two of the artist’s most famous series, the Beside the Sea series and the Open series. The eloquent marriage of these two series creates a poignant piece that celebrates line and color with the combination of bold brushstrokes, architectural elements and expansive color field painting.
The Beside the Sea series was conceived in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and consists of small paintings on paper that were inspired by the breaking of waves against the sea wall. Motherwell infused the movement of the waves into these works, painting aggressively and spontaneously by flinging the paint from his brush onto the paper. The result of this forceful movement created beautiful works that mimicked the movement of the ocean and also infused the actions of the artist himself into the work.
The Open series embodies the artist’s aim to create a pure visual unity through the use of distinct shapes and colors. The Open paintings were born by sheer happenstance, and have expanded and evolved into one of Motherwell’s most extensive and celebrated bodies of work. The origin of this series occurred in 1967, when Motherwell happened to lean a smaller painting against a larger one in his studio. He discovered that the relationship between these two proportions inspired a new concept of painterly unity. “With me, painting is not an act of will, it's a happenstance that comes from some deep inner hunger that's always there” (R. Motherwell, quoted in G. Glueck, “The Creative Mind; The Mastery of Robert Motherwell”, The New York Times, 12 December 1984). This discovery ultimately launched a six year period in which the Open paintings were Motherwell’s primary preoccupation, and led to significant critical and commercial acclaim as an extremely important contribution to the history of art.
August Sea No. 4, is an elegant large-scale work, most notably characterized by its deep and luscious blue tones that cover the entire canvas. Two intersecting lines delineated by charcoal are nestled comfortably against the beautifully rich blue backdrop. The charcoal lines are a defining characteristic of Motherwell’s Open series, and add an architectural element to the piece. The composition of August Sea No. 4 feels both finite, by virtue of the physical nature of the canvas and the dark lines, and yet also feels beautifully infinite in its openness of composition and the depth of its feeling and expansive color. It is this unique contrast that allows this work to appear both abstract as well as conceptual. August Sea No. 4 projects a powerful presence, both in size as well as deeply alluring color. The richly blue passages combined with the title evoke artistic inspirations that allow the viewer to expand beyond the confines of the canvas, by way of the minimal forms and brilliant and colorful brushwork. All these elements combined allow for a deep inspiration and imagination as to the true nature of the work, evoking such scenes as watching the waves break on a warm August day.
The rich blue tonal color field covers the entire surface of the painting. Diverse shades of blue, both dark and light as well as slight tinges of purple, blend together to create a unique and complex tonality that sets the scene for the entire work. The brushwork is bold and textural, with large, sweeping applications that are visible to the eye. The depth and complexity behind these brushstrokes mimic the ebb and flow of waves rolling across the sea, a defining characteristic of the Beside the Sea series. The canvas is dotted with areas of color that are lighter and darker, which refer to the pressure of the artist’s hand while at work, and are also further suggestive of the ocean as inspiration. These elements of color, brushstroke and pressure are all indicative of the name August Sea No. 4. Although both tonal and color field, Motherwell is able to explore essential elements of both line and color without entirely entering into the realm of Minimalism.
This beautiful composition conveys a strong frontal, rectilinear and architectural appearance, organized around a blue field, only to be interrupted by two black lines. These lines intersect but also branch off one another. Although seemingly straight, the composition of the lines suggest that they were manually traced, marrying a natural element into the more architectural aspect of August Sea No. 4. These lines are often interpreted as a window, door or wall in Motherwell’s work, as he would have surely taken inspiration from everyday structures that he encountered in his lived environment and imbued them into his work. Yet, when it came time to define the completed work, Motherwell was very adamant in his conviction that the whole canvas indeed represented a single pictorial plane, and nothing more. In describing the effect of these compositions, he famously noted that “I refuse to distinguish the interior from the exterior, plastically, since the two entities are made of the same substance pictorially speaking” (R. Motherwell, quoted in J. Flam, et al., Motherwell: 100 Years, Milan, 2015, p. 200).
Motherwell was also drawing from a painterly tradition of capturing openings, and a sense of inner/outer dynamics present in early 20th century art history. A deeply cerebral artist, he was acutely aware of modes of visual exploration pursued by the generation great of artists that came before him. He would often turn to these artists as a source of inspiration and deeper exploration in his work. He openly admired the work of Picasso, and Mondrian, among others, and their sensitive and ground-breaking innovations.
August Sea No. 4 is a beautiful composition that showcases Robert Motherwell’s exquisite talent as an artist, through the perfect marriage of two of his most celebrated series. The Beside the Sea series and the Open series come together in this piece to create August Sea No. 4. The lively and bold brushwork in the Beside the Sea series and the expansive color field and architectural inserts of the Open series become one, and create a stunning piece that is the result of two of Motherwell’s most important contributions to art history.

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