They say Robert Motherwell has given up Gauloises for Kent III's lately, making him an Abstract Expressionist of the low-tar school. But in an exhibition of 90 lithographs, aquatints, etchings and silkscreens opening at the Phillips Collection this Saturday, the blue French cigarette package must be counted among his signature images.
"The Painter and the Printer: Robert Motherwell's Graphics" -- or Zen and the art of Motherwell -- is a study in highly intellectualized images, sometimes drawing on surrealist influences or psychic doodles. The artist admires Miro, Arp and James Joyce. Accidents and process seem as important to his work as end results.
It was in the mid-Sixties when Motherwell began to work primarily in graphics. He found that good lithography could be as complicated as the most sophisticated painting and learned, according to conversations recorded in the catalogue, that "great lithography has to do with the stoneness of stone." (A lithograph from one stone printed in black, titled "The Stoneness of the Stone" is part of the show. The work comprises two vertical stripes with splatter effects, on handmade paper.)
Close inspection reveals the quirks in the paper or stone that so fascinate Motherwell. Artist and printer collide when, instead of "modulated" proofs with lumps and flecks, the printer aims to pull perfect prints. But usually, Motherwell notes, he enjoys the collaboration of the print medium as a break from the loneliness of painting.
Oddly enough, the artist's testimonial to painting was a print project. The master-work "A la pintura," a 24-page book with 21 aquatints based on the poem cycle by Rafael Alberti, is one of the show's subtle high-lights. The book explores color in words and aquatints -- "How many blues make a Mediterranaean?" -- and uses the sugar-lift process by which positive brush strokes can be etched into the copper plate.
The artist's fascination with triangles, mimicking the letter "A" in "A la pintura," and bizarre twists on calligraphy are everywhere. The "Madrid Suite" of 10 lithographs, involving a triangle enclosing two circles, reveals the texture of the wall against which the artist rubbed a crayon.
But it's not all black inverted Vs, lines and borders; the show also offers brilliantly collored lithographs that seem closer to Matisse than to Goya.
THE PANINTER AND THE PRINTER -- At the Philips, 1600 21st Street NW, through August 29.