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Art Essay: At Home with Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)

An Interview by Marybeth Weston
ART TIMES online January 2014

Robert Motherwell was one of America’s foremost artists and spokesmen for modern art. In the summer, he lived and worked in a house on the harbor in Provincetown, Massachusetts. For most of the rest of the year he lived in a stone carriage house in Greenwich, Connecticut. In both places Motherwell created his Abstract Expressionist canvases and collages in houses that he redesigned to suit his own needs and those of his wife, photographer Renate Ponsold, and family. Both houses were spacious, casual, crammed with paintings and prints — his own and those of other major figures of his era, and furnished with an eclectic and very personal mix of furniture, ranging from wicker in Provincetown, to French provincial, Biedermeier, and African in Connecticut.

What follows is a conversation taped in Provincetown in June 1986:

How important to you and your work is the place where you live?

RM: I was born in a seaport, and have always preferred to live in one. There is an old European saying that you dress for other people but eat for yourself. I feel the latter way about a home and couldn’t care less what anybody else thinks. What I like is informal, unpretentious - no gilt, gold, chandeliers or curtains. What we have is very much a studio feeling.

Have you always worked at home?

RM: From time to time I’ve been invited to work in California, Paris, wherever. I did it once and it was a disaster. I cannot work unless I’m surrounded by my own work and my own things. Most artists feel this way. You know the classic French artist’s studio was a wide room with beds and a kitchenette, slanting skylights and a little balcony. It’s not the bourgeois set-up with every room having an assigned function. The work going on in that open space is the essence of life. If you’re not home, near the studio, you can lose the best moments. There is something demonic about art that can’t be fitted into normal environments and sociability.

The two houses I’ve seen where you work are Sea Barn in Provincetown and the carriage house in Greenwich. They seem so different .

RM: And there were two other main ones - a brownstone in the Upper East Side in New York and a Quonset compound I built in 1946 in East Hampton with the French architect, Pierre Chareau. Basically, these are the four places I’ve lived for half a century as an artist.

Can you talk about each one? What you liked about them, how they differed, why you moved on?

RM: What they all had in common was being a compound. I suppose my personal taste, ideally, would be a U-shaped Normandy farm complex with different buildings for different purposes. In America I invariably go for barn architecture. Even my brownstone in a funny way was a compound. Four floors - one for the children and the housekeeper, one for my wife and myself, one in common (a living room and a kitchen), and one studio floor. That was from 1953 to 1970.

Greenwich was a complex to begin with. A big country carriage house, a cottage for the gardener, and a stable. All I did was connect the carriage house with the gardener’s cottage, which were in line with each other, to make a New York loft-size studio. Then I turned the stable into a music room with a professional dark room for my wife Renate. It’s not only a workplace. It’s a refuge for her. I don’t even have a key to it.

Here in Provincetown I own the condominium on each side of my house so I always have a place for my two grown daughters, my own personal printer, and again a place for Renate. My studio is on the top floor of the main house where almost no one can get to me. The one place none of my wives ever touched is our house in Provincetown - it’s very masculine. I put down tile floors because they are easy to take care of, and because I like tile. We go around barefoot in the summer and the floors are quite cool. Sticking to my principle of plain walls, but because we look directly on the water, I used varnished mahogany, and cabinets and details made for a yacht. The whole thing has a houseboat feeling.

When you bought Sea Barn, what was it like?

RM: It was an old 1900’s A-house, tiny, with a pointed roof. The plot is only 33 feet wide. It was a scandal to my neighbors, but what I did was to square the whole thing off to have room for two children and my wife [then the painter Helen Frankenthaler]. Squared, it looked much higher — but if I took off the studio walls you’d see the top of the ceiling is exactly where the A met. The idea was to have the ground floor as a beach house, and the next floor as a studio for Helen, and the top floor as my studio. And then it turned out my children never wanted to go back to the regular house I owned across the street, and Helen preferred to work outside the home. She has the brownstone and still has a huge outside-studio.

You’ve talked about the importance of architecture to you, the shape of a place. Is there anything about color or decoration that makes a house possible — or impossible —for you to live and work in?

RM: I think there is an international good taste that goes back to ancient Greece — white walls, terra-cotta tile or dark wood floors, ceilings beautifully proportioned. There is a band going around the world — all along the Mediterranean, both on the Arab side and on the Spanish, French and Italian side through Yugoslavia and Greece, and through India to the Orient — where the colors tend to be vibrant. There is another band further north where the colors are more subdued but with that same sense of white walls divided by wood-framed doors and windows — beautiful doorways in Austria and Sweden, wonderful whitewashed buildings in Ireland, Scotland and the Provence. The Japanese style is in a class by itself — beautiful, but not, I think, as adaptable to homes in America.

What I’m saying is that there is a world-wide good taste based on peasant style and it’s a very basic concept and I think a real one. My living quarters are invariably white. I like beams on white ceilings. I like dark terra-cotta tile floors or parquet floors — floors make a room. And a lack of color. In a way all my places are extensions of studio life, and studios are always white.

How important are furniture, and arrangements, to you?

RM: I’m supposed to be very talented at collage-making. Collage-making is placing things on a surface. When I was young, because my mother had faultless taste, I never understood why people had interior decorators. Her house, by the way, was in a home magazine in the Twenties when that was rare if you weren’t a Vanderbilt or whatever. Now I realize that decorators provide a very real function. Most people know what they would like but haven’t the remotest idea of how to do it, until they hire a professional to make their fantasy come true, for better or for worse.

Let me put it this way. Some of my friends are world-famous writers. And I often think to myself in their homes: if their visual surroundings were translated into books they would be appalled — it’s kitsch. They don’t see in that sense. Whereas with painters of real caliber, if the visual surroundings were translated into books - it would be poetry.

I love my friends, and the last thing I focus on is their furniture. But ninety percent of people are blind and have no idea that every pillow, every shade, everything, is speaking to someone who is visual.

You haven’t spoken about comfort yet — in chairs, beds, lighting. Or is that not so important to you because you are so visual?

RM: Chairs are very important to me. Our dining chairs are one thing we have that I wouldn’t choose aesthetically. All our friends are either intellectuals or Europeans, which is to say that meals often take three hours — not necessarily on account of Renate’s good food but on account of the talk. Our mass-produced Breuer chairs — metal, inexpensive, with back and arms shaped right and with cane seats that give when you sit — are the only ones I’ve found that you can sit on for three hours, having back trouble, and be perfectly okay. I never sit long on our antiques.

Renate and I also detest overhead lighting and have only table lamps. We have very eclectic furniture. Renate’s favorite taste is early American and Biedermeier. I have maybe fifteen pieces of my mother’s French provincial antiques — armoires, bureaus, chairs. It’s a mix but in another sense it’s all about 1740 to 1840. Renate’s father’s house [in Germany] was also a compound, and it’s almost eerie the similarity in his lifestyle and mine. So Renate and I happen to have identical taste.

You’ve never bought anything the other didn’t approve of?

RM: We don’t shop. I’m perfectly willing to make do for years. But yes, Renate loves to go to fairs, junk shops, antique places, but in a very modest way. If you have an eye, you can. For example, last summer she brought home two beautiful things about the size of placemats. They were made out of soapstone, with four or five shapes carved in three dimensions, in the shapes of half a hardboiled egg. They were as beautiful as any twentieth-century sculpture I’ve seen. Just faultless, and she found them on Cape Cod for about $15 each. It took a while to figure out what they were: early- or mid-nineteenth century molds for chocolate Easter eggs! If I signed one and put it in an international show I assure you the art world would say, “I didn’t know he was a sculptor, and such a good one.” I can’t imagine Renate selecting anything I would really object to.

The last furniture I bought, several years ago, is African. It is as beautiful as Louis XV furniture or a Brancusi sculpture. Faultless, the way a Ming vase is, or prehistoric Greek carvings.

Where were the African pieces made, and when?

RM: I have a list somewhere, but I don’t have the slightest interest. I imagine the Congo. I look at African things all the time in books and never read the captions. There is one thing about them: they were all made for ritual purposes — for example, there is a certain chair for women to give birth on, a kind of little bench. Which is to say: in things of first-rate quality, they’re never made as a commodity, any more than the stained glass for Saint Chapelle in Paris was made as a commodity. They were made by hand to the glory of God.

But, well, maybe I’m sounding like some sort of esthete. And for all my talk about art and antiques, in Provincetown most of the furniture is white wicker, which I acquired 25 years ago, before it regained its popularity. It’s marvelous. There’s something about wicker more people should know. Wicker has a reason for being perfect for a place beside the sea. It originates in Sumatra and other places that are very tropical and damp. Wicker needs to be in a damp climate such as the seashore or you have to use a water hose on it to keep it from becoming brittle. Also, there is at least a 100-year or more tradition for this sort of summer furniture in New England and New York.

The piece of furniture I use the most in Greenwich is an English club sofa, which doesn’t fit with the rest of the things at all. That’s where I take my afternoon nap. That’s where Renate and I watch TV and have a glass of wine and discuss things. It’s a leather Chesterfield, in a corner. If you lie down to take a nap, the back and the sides are so high you’re almost in a cradle. You don’t see the rest of the world. As an object it’s rather ugly but now I understand why English gentlemen’s clubs invented the style. It’s ideal.

Speaking of chairs, may I offer you another chair now or give you a chance to go home to get a nap — or get more work done?

RM: I’m fine. You’ve asked me some questions I haven’t had to answer before. When I was a boy we always spent the summers at my grandmother’s house in Aberdeen, Washington, which is a seaport. It was very much like my place in Greenwich. A huge library. My grandfather was also a great reader and an unsocial person, a lawyer. His wife was a fantastic gardener and cook. My father was also unsocial. He was a banker, and it was in his contract that he only had to give three dinner parties a year.

If I were left to my own devices I’d become very much a recluse. I don’t mean a crazy one, but it just doesn’t occur to me to pick up the phone and take the initiative in calling friends. And when Renate has to be away I eat frozen dinners. If there’s not a masterpiece of some sort on TV — films, music — then I turn on baseball or football, which I love just as much. I like junk food as well as three-star restaurants.

I buy my clothes by mail — very often from Brooks Brothers or L.L. Bean — I don’t want to go in and be fitted. And not only that, if I buy very expensive clothes I’m apt to immediately get paint on them. I’ll be walking through the studio, say in black-tie going to some benefit, and notice something about a picture and pick up a brush without thinking, and rub my forehead and there’s some paint. And then I pull out my handkerchief and get paint on my trousers — what’s the use of having an expensive suit?

But a woman like Renate is a godsend to any kind of man. She keeps the pipeline open to the rest of the world. I live most of my life in a state of anxiety. But I feel my homes are my Zauberberg, my magic mountain. Everything I want is there.

(Marybeth Weston, now 86, taped this interview of Robert Motherwell in Provincetown, Massachusetts in June 1986. At the time, she was the recently- retired Garden Editor of House & Garden magazine, although she was doing this interview for House Beautiful. Motherwell agreed to the interview because he was friends with Lewis Bergman, an editor at The New York Times, who was a friend and Marybeth Weston's husband). "This is the first time this interview has been shared with the public."

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