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Robert Motherwell and Jasper Johns: Poetic Works as Metaphor

March 25 - July 9, 2006

Collaborations between writers and artists can be a source of intense creative artistic expression. These partnerships may take a variety of forms with the most traditional on being that of the artist who illustrates the written word. Sometimes, however, artist and writer may work together in more relational ways. Robert Motherwell and Jasper Johns: Poetic Works as Metaphor, for example, presents fifty lithographs and etchings were the result of two distinctly different collaborations.

Robert Motherwell, one of the principal exponents of Abstract Expressionism, and Jasper Johns, one of the leaders responsible for the breakthrough from Abstract Expressionism to the Pop art movement which succeeded it, are brought together in this first ever showing of their combined bibliophilic works. The exhibition focuses on collaborative efforts with poets that share the artists' vision in a new exhibition at the University of Wyoming Art Museum. Robert Motherwell and Jasper Johns: Poetic Works as Metaphor focuses on two separate and isolated projects, each involving highly unusual collaborations between artist and poet.

The Motherwell prints, all lithographs which were made between 1980 and 1983, are directly related to a single poem "El Negro Motherwell," written by the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti and dedicated to Motherwell. The Jasper Johns prints, etchings and aquatints, were produced in 1976 for publication with a series of five essays, written and interpreted in English and French, by the Irish-born poet Samuel Beckett.

The collaborations were highly successful, though both projects might be considered more of a responsive endeavor than a true collaboration; it was the admiration and respect that each held for the other that brought about the collaboration in the first place. The end result was never the less extraordinary with nineteen lithographs by Motherwell and thirty-one etchings by Johns. The Motherwell prints are viewed with the full sheet exposed in their frames to show off the beauty of the hand-made paper with deckled edges and cockled surface, each sheet selected by the artists for this series of works. Motherwell's interest in hand-made paper stems from his study of East Asian art which utilized Chinese calligraphy and Zen images. Motherwell often commented that paper was "the most sympathetic of all painting surfaces." And, of course, the making of the lithograph prints began with the brush creating a design on the printing plate.

Jasper Johns' etchings include much of the familiar imagery which the artist uses in his work: flagstones, hatching, plaster casts, numbers and words. However, the familiar images of the American Flag and the Target are not included in the images.

Johns is arguably acknowledged as the greatest printmaker of our time. His images are masterfully executed and beautifully printed with strong designs and a variety of compositional uses. The quality of the drypoint and aquatint, as well as the superb quality of the printing of, make the prints in this collaborative effort with Samuel Beckett a major work by the artist.

The exhibition catalog that accompanies the show helps to provide an interpretation of the images and discusses the relationships between the artists and poets. Although the exhibition consists of visual works of art, there is an awareness of language and an understanding that the world around us is more than what one perceives through sight alone.

Both Motherwell and Johns incorporate words into their art. Words become images and images express emotions and ideas. The final result becomes an intellectual exercise that plays an important role in the understanding and interpretation of this exhibition. The ideals that the artists and poets commonly address are centered on the awareness of humanism. Motherwell's interests are committed to philosophical issues of freedom while Johns relates more to literary artistic freedoms. His concerns seem more focused on what one sees and what he understands as truth.

Robert Motherwell and Jasper Johns: Poetic Works as Metaphor is a national touring exhibition organized by Contemporary and Modern Print Exhibitions of Laguna Niguel, California.

  • Funded by FMC Corporation and the National Advisory Board of the UW Art Museum. This traveling exhibition is organized and circulated by Contemporary and Modern Print Exhibitions.


Left: Jasper Johns, Numeral 3, 1976, stop-out varnishes over aquatint ground, 9-3/8 x 7-3/16 inches

Center: Robert Motherwell, Elegy Black Black, 1982-83, lithograph in colors, 15 1/4 x 38 inches

Right: Jasper Johns, Hatching Pattern, 1976, four-color life-ground aquatint and drypoint in orange, green, violet, and white from four copper plates 11-9/16 x 18-5/16 inches

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