This in another deceptively simple painting, which evokes the relationship between geese and nature in a few brush strokes. The background of is blank and bare, referring to the concept of nothingness, and the two geese are sketched in relation to a few lines which represent reeds. The work suggests a sense of great depth and space as well as the mystery of nature.
Figure 1. Elegy to the Spanish Republic #58, 1957-61
The works of Robert Motherwell are similar to Zen paintings in that they also often achieve a sense of the immediate and unmitigated sense of reality that we associate with Satori or enlightenment. In the first instance there is a critical similarity in artistic approaches and technique. Motherwell used spontaneous drawing methods in his works that are similar to traditional Zen styles of art. As some critics note, there is an Eastern calligraphic influence in his paintings and drawing style.
This can be seen in the spontaneous use of varied inks and acrylics and in his brushwork in some works such as The Stonenes of Stone ( Figure 2). McCormick et al. For instance acknowledge "…the influence of calligraphy and other Asian concepts" in Motherwell's work.
(McCormick et al.) This style is intrinsic to the very nature of his form of abstraction. The influence of Eastern philosophy and Zen Buddhism had on his philosophy and artistic outlook is also well-known.
Motherwell was strongly influenced by Zen painting, which he characterized as "unadulterated automatism," something that the Surrealists also believed. His goal for the "Lyric Suite" series (which was influenced by music) was to paint 1,000 sheets "without interruption, without a priori traditional or moral prejudices." Instead, Motherwell wanted to paint spontaneously, with gestures that conveyed a sense of freedom and exhilaration.
However, when we analyze a series of paintings such as Elegy to the Spanish Republic, we encounter much more than a superficial reference to Zen Art. If we take one painting in this series, Elegy to the Spanish Republic #58, we see obvious references and similarities to the deeper intentions and spirit that were also expressed in the Zen paintings discussed above.
The painting itself consists of a relatively empty background that emphasizes and throws forward the ominous but wonderfully intriguing dark black shapes. "The massive black area of paint is foreboding, and the subtle grays and pale blue of the background fading into a pale shadow, nearly colorless."
The starkness of the painting is further emphasized by the slight areas of muted color around the shapes.
In the first instance the blank wash of the background serves much the same function as the background in most Zen paintings; i.e. they are deep reservoirs of nothingness or emptiness from which the central objects and abstract shapes emerge almost organically. Like Zen drawing they are seemingly spontaneous, with little if any representational aspect. Despite this simplicity in design and content, the painting is an evocative and powerful tribute to the Spanish Republic and its conflict and suffering; it is both simple and monumental and has a stark sense of realism about it that is almost brutal. What is even more striking is the sense of immediacy. In other words, there are no intermediate obstacles or theories between the work of art and the senses, except for the title. It is this ability to convey a sense of immediate reality that is also such a prominent feature in Zen art and philosophy.
Perhaps the best way to approach the meaning of this painting is to refer to the words of Suzuki on Satori.
Is Satori some-thing that is not at all capable of intellectual analysis? Yes, it is an experience which no amount of explanation or argument can make communicable to others unless the latter themselves had it previously. If satori is amenable to analysis in the sense that by so doing it becomes perfectly clear to another who has never had it, that Satori will be no Satori.
In the above sense, while the painting is ostensibly about something, the historical context does not impede the paintings ability to stand on its own and to project a unique mood which is both evasive and mysterious and almost tactile. Like the Zen paintings discussed above, it is an image that is both in the world and not of this world. The visual drama that the work projects is dark and forbidding but also intriguing strangely uplifting. The following quote by Watts on Satori in Zen is useful in reference to an interpretation of this painting.
Perhaps the special flavor of Zen is best described as certain directness…in Zen there is always the feeling that awakening is something quite natural. Something startlingly obvious, which may occur at any moment….for it points directly and openly to the truth, and does not trifle with symbolism. "
This mysterious quality is also found in many of the other works on the series, which are variations on a theme and provide interesting and absorbing permutations.
What is interesting to note is that all the paintings in the series tend to project the same quality of Satori or insight into reality, even though some differ in marked ways from others. For example, a work entitled Personage (Autoportrait)
is very different in structure and content but can also be said to provide as sense of immediacy and Satori.
A study of the philosophy and spirit of Zen is extremely useful in attempting to understand modern abstraction and abstract expressionism. This applies particularly to the works of Robert Motherwell. This relationship between Zen and modern abstraction can be illustrated by the following painting.
Figure 3. Robert Motherwell: The Stoneness of the Stone.
As has been discussed above, this work has obvious similarities in style and intention to the works of Zen artists. Motherwell is however an extremely modern artist and is responding in a very contemporary way to the problems and issues of his time, both in an historical and artistic sense. However, it is interesting and enlightening that we can relate much of his contemporary oeuvre to the spirit and ethos of Zen Buddhism and to paintings and painters who lived centuries ago. In this regard we can refer to the study on Zen by Brinker. Brinker states that;
Zen art seek another form of expressing the inexpressible through the use of elements and objects from the ordinary world. This relates to the central philosophy of Zen Buddhism, in that enlightenment or Satori can be experienced within the individual in the midst of ordinary experience.
Motherwell's use of techniques like automatism and spontaneous drawings are contemporary and a development of modern abstract art but he also follows a tradition of direct and spiritual art that extends back centuries into the Asian and human past.
Brinker Helmut, Zen in The Art of Painting. London: Arkana, 1987.
Chilvers, Ian. A Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
McCormick, Seth, et al. "Exhibition as Proposition: Responding Critically to the Third Mind/response." Art Journal 68.3 (2009): 31.
Read, Herbert. Art Now, London: Faber and Faber, 1960.
Suzuki D.T. An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, London: Rider,1969.
Watts A.W. The Way of Zen. Toronto: Random House. 1957.
Zibas C. Robert Motherwell, Abstract Expressionist, 2009, April 20, 2010,
Figure 1. Circle by Yamada Kensai ( 1911-1974)
( Source: Brinker, 290)
Figure 2. Orchids and Rocks by Tesshu Tokusai (1366).
Figure 3. Wild Geese and Reeds by I-shan I-ning.
Figure 4. Elegy to the Spanish Republic, No. 57:1957-60.