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Robert Motherwell's Rare Artist's Book Translates His Painterly Vision into Print

Robert Motherwell: A la pintura (To Painting)
at the Getty, March 4 through June 22, 2003

February 28, 2003

LOS ANGELES—In 1968, Robert Motherwell (1915–1991) embarked upon an ambitious project to translate his literary and painterly impulses into print. The result is the remarkable A la pintura, a sumptuous artist's book of aquatint print images and letterpress texts that will go on view in Robert Motherwell: A la pintura (To Painting), at the Getty from March 4 to June 22, 2003. The book, one of the most important examples of this unique artistic genre, represents a milestone in the renaissance of American graphics in the 1960s and 1970s.

A la pintura contains 24 unbound pages of Motherwell's original aquatint images accompanied by Spanish poet Raphael Alberti's verses celebrating painting. More than an ambitious work of art, A la pintura is an important vehicle conveying Motherwell's comment on the development of art. This rare copy of A la pintura is held in the special collections of the Research Library at the Getty Research Institute, and usually only available to scholars for study. The exhibition is a unique opportunity for the public to examine the book in its entirety. The presentation also includes filmmaker Michael Blackwood's interview with Motherwell, filmed at the time of the book's creation. 

Motherwell produced A la pintura at the Universal Limited Art Edition studio in Long Island, where the American printmaking renaissance blossomed under the devotion of Tatyana Grosman. Together with her husband Maurice, Grosman revived the tradition of the artist's book—an illustrated publication produced in limited editions, in which each image is an original work—and encouraged collaborations between artists and printers that pushed the boundaries of printmaking. Her studio attracted most of the prominent New York painters of the era, including Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, and Motherwell.

Over a period of four years, Motherwell produced 40 editions of A la pintura with the help of master printer Donn Steward (1921–1986). Motherwell, who had no technical training as a printmaker, relied on the skills and sensibilities of Steward to translate his painterly vision into print. The deep color saturations and expressive lines in the prints were achieved over long periods of experimentation, in close partnership with Steward. Motherwell composed the sheets with as much attention to placement and color of words (English in black, Spanish in colors) as to images, thinking in terms of medieval illuminated manuscripts, but conceiving a modern, abstract iconography to represent his artistic ideas.

A solitary artist, Motherwell initially resisted Grosman's many entreaties to collaborate with a poet. But in 1966, Motherwell discovered an English translation of Rafael Alberti's poems in homage to painting and decided they would pair beautifully with prints. Alberti, whom Motherwell considered the greatest living Spanish poet of the time, belonged to the "Generation of '27," a group of poets who rose to prominence in the tumultuous period leading up to the Spanish Civil War. Alberti, who had wanted to become a painter himself, wrote these poems in the 1940s dedicated to his first experience of painting at the Prado, to the palette, to the paintbrush, and to the various qualities of black, blue, red, and white.

Motherwell's work has always exhibited his dual interest in painting and literature. His marriage of abstraction and Spanish referents began in 1948 with the first in the decade-long series entitled Elegy to the Spanish Republic. He is also known for his Open series of paintings, which he began in response to the so-called color-field paintings of the younger abstract expressionists.

Robert Motherwell's A la pintura occupies a critical place in one of the major collecting areas of the Research Library at the Getty Research Institutethe modern periodwhich also includes the correspondence and archives of artists, archiects, art critics, and photographers. The Research Library at the Getty Research Institute is a major educational and cultural resource, containing over 800,000 volumes and special collections relevant to the history of art, archaeology, and architecture from antiquity to the present.

Note to Editors: Images available upon request


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