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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 10, Number 2, June 2016

Charles D. Tarlton
Northampton, Massachusetts, USA

Whatever You’d Like It to Mean:

Robert Motherwell’s Original Pen and Ink Template for His
Elegy to the Spanish Republic

This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection . . .

—Charles Darwin


Harder by far to translate than even Chinese hanzi, three thick-brushed India ink pilasters and three black rough-edged ovoids here on white paper, and then, in a narrow box in the upper right, more rough inking over what appears to have been chirography.

All this sits in the bottom half of an 8½ x 11-inch page with a thick black bar across the top in the upper half (obliterating still more handwriting?). Between these two disparate fields of blackness are three lines of roughly scrawled and incoherent poetry:

I know who had sent them in these
          green cases.
Who doesn’t lose his mind will receive
          like me
That wire in my neck up to the ear.

A thin black ink line has been drawn with a pen to separate the two largest ovoids, which appear, at their edges, to be paramecia with their celia visible under the microscope.

The three black columns squeeze inward to the center, wedging the three black daubs up between them, so they look like shadow riders on the Gravitron.

dark philosophy
its layers peeled back one by one
revealing the core
everything comes down to this
arranged in twos and threes

stare at surfaces
long enough and your eye slips through
gazing all around
at the undersides of things
places where the meaning hides


The deception (and isn’t all art deception?) underlying the Elegies comes in right here. The artist wants these marks to “mean” something, to stand for hate, for violence, for death, for glory. But, what exactly are the mechanics by which such rough black figures come to mean anything? What happened to the poem-fragment’s lexicography of its green cases and the wire in the neck?

He [Harold Rosenberg] wrote a very powerful, brutal, I would think Rimbaud-inspired poem. We agreed that I would handwrite the poem in my calligraphy and make a drawing or drawings to go with it and it was to be in black and white. So I began to think not only about getting the brutality and aggression of his poem in some kind of abstract terms but also that this was going to be reproduced in black and white . . .”

Now we are getting somewhere! These black and white figures will become abstract reflections of brutality and aggression? All words and writing were to begin with—abstract, I mean; they become concrete and mean specific things by consensus, following the teacher’s pointer from word to picture and back.

you look at a thing
long enough it can become
what you were looking for
teabags drying in a cup
becoming leathered sculptures

it makes you feel it
somehow, the rough roundedness
and the black columns;
I say they symbolize
darkness in das Unbewusste


Anyway, they also remind me of the polished black leather tricornio worn by the Guardia Civil in Spain. Or am I reasoning backwards? I don’t think he had that in mind; at first these bars and ovals didn’t really mean anything, and certainly not the death of Spanish poets or liberty.

One day I realized there was something really obsessional about it [the black and white template], that I would probably make many; that it had taken on a life of its own; and that it would no longer be legitimate to refer it merely to Harold's poem which indeed was the original impulse that it might indeed turn out to be possibly the main statement I would make in painting and therefore I would like to connect this with something that through associations reverberated in my mind as completely and as widely as the concept itself . . . And then I began to grope for a more generalized expression.

All at once the little sketch was bigger than it looked, and had become the idea of a lifetime, his own Mount Rushmore, some spontaneously off-the-wall thing now destined to mean, well, mean something—important!

A spring to go to, over and over, to take long drinks, rub the back of his hand across his mouth, pick up the brush, and get back to work.

name what you wanted
it to become, an invention called
“you’ll never forget”
has so much more to live up to
overlooking its provenance

these marks were pregnant
with their later monumental
heirs and descendants
singing all about each other
echoing the same old song


There wasn’t anything to come that wasn’t already here in the first quick pen and ink. An idle moment’s sketching (doodling, really), and what the hell! This new idea tumbles out onto the table. Isn’t that a dream come true? You’re just going along, caught up in some little what’ll-you-do, and an idea emerges on its own, and idea for a life’s work.

Intrigued by the forms, Motherwell scaled up the motif into a casein painting entitled At Five in the Afternoon 1949 (Collection Helen Frankenthaler), after Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem "mourning the death of a bull-fighter" [sic]. The same year, Motherwell produced Granada 1949 (Collection Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York), his first major instance of what would later become the series of Elegies. Motherwell defined the series in 1951 as “an attempt to compose a subjective image of modern Spain. They are all in black and white: celebrations of death.”

No, they are not celebrations of death! They are not the image of modern Spain!

Let me tell you a fairy story. There was a maiden stepped accidentally into the mud and ruined her beautiful gown. A tall modern-day and bored gallant stood idly to the side, well out of sight. He never intended to rush heroically to her side, cast his cape into the dirt, and offer her his arm.

But, he had imagined it, and that was the story he was going to tell!

don’t forget the “wire
in my neck up to the ear”
bleakest nihilism
where nothing at all is true
everything is permitted

two sticks and three balls
variations on a theme
as his signature oeuvre
(said he always loved things Spanish)

Author's Notes:
• Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic, #1.
• Oral History Interview with Robert Motherwell
• Elegy to the Spanish Republic #132



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