Motherwell Collage and Japanese Papers

March 4, 2014

Your comments are always welcome

I am always pleased to receive comments and questions on the blogs I write, especially when they require me to dig deeper and locate information and learn something new in the process.

Duh Chuen Wang Priefnitz commented on the Dec. 18, 2013 post Robert Motherwell and Contemporary Collage, and asked about Motherwell using Japanese rice paper in his collage practice.

It’s true. Motherwell incorporated Japanese rice papers into his collages.

I re-read the exhibition catalog Robert Motherwell Early Collages, especially the chapter by Jeffrey Warda on papers and materials that Motherwell used in the 1940s (pp 55-67) and learned the Japanese papers were called unryu. See an image of the paper below.

Japanese Unryu Paper

Japanese Unryu Paper

Unryu is one of the most popular papers from Japan, and is commonly referred to as mulberry paper. It contains strands of fiber that are added to the sheet to create contrast and texture. Tear Unryu Paper in any shape you desire and you create a soft, feathered edge. The name translates as “dragon paper” and refers to the long fiber swirls that are unpulped, unbeaten kozo fibers. Unryu paper can be tissue thin or thick enough to support a print. The long fibers are typically made of kozo, but can be gampi or hemp. See what the papers look like at NY Central Art Supply.

Motherwell Modified Collage Papers

Jeffrey Warda wrote Motherwell modified his papers with ink and paint – always exploring how the papers changed as he applied new paint or ink layers. Unryu is especially strong and can withstand manipulation with water media.

It made me think about what I saw at the exhibition, and how the surface of the collage papers were wavy and the edges were irregular.

Robert Motherwell, Pancho Villa Alive and Dead, 1943

Robert Motherwell, Pancho Villa Alive and Dead, 1943

My favorite Motherwell collage (seen above) is titled Pancho Villa Dead and Alive (1943).  It includes gouache, ink, oil and pasted German decorative paper, colored paper, Japanese paper and wood veneer on paperboard (size: 71.7 x 91.1 cm – 28 x 35 7/8 inches), collection, the Museum of Modern Art, NY. Image: Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA.

Please notice how Motherwell created a geometric background with rectangles and circles in layers of paint in dusty blue, faded pink. creamy white and yellow with 2 abstract black stick figures painted over. Notice papers on top of papers. See red black and tan paper on the right side. This is his German decorative paper. Motherwell added splotchy dot patterns with pale red, pink blue and black.

In the catalog essay, Warda tells us Motherwell loved to work with fine quality artist drawing papers for their matte appearance and subtle textures. We learn Motherwell selected commercially printed decorative papers for their bright colors because the papers reminded him of long visits to Mexico with artist Roberto Matta. Warda also discussed how Motherwell experimented with Japanese rice (unryu) papers to see the response he got from ink and paint stains he applied to the thinner Japanese papers.

Robert Motherwell, detail, Joy of Living, collage

Robert Motherwell, detail, Joy of Living, collage

 

The image above is a detail of the collage Joy of Living (1943) and shows how the green ink puddled and spread.  Notice the  wavy irregular texture of the green paint. We don’t know how many layers of water media, ink and paint Motherwell applied and reapplied because he wanted to see how the paper changed as it absorbed each new application of ink or paint. Please note also that the colors faded and some changed over the years. Warda shows examples of color changes.

Robert Motherwell, Joy of Living, Collage, 1943

Robert Motherwell, Joy of Living, Collage, 1943

The image above is a full view of Joy of Living (1943). The collage on paperboard includes Japanese paper, colored paper, construction paper, printed map and fabric, ink, gouache, oil, crayon. Collection: the Baltimore Museum of Art. Image: Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA (size: 110.5 x 85.4 cm – 43 ½  x 33 5/8 inches)

Robert Motherwell, View From a High Tower, 1944-45

Robert Motherwell, View From a High Tower, 1944-45

The image above, titled View from a High Tower (1944-45), is collage with tempera, oil, ink, pastel, pasted wood veneer, drawing paper, Japanese paper, and printed map on paperboard. Size: 74×74 cm – 29 z 29 inches (private collection). Image: Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA

Notice the torn edges of various collage elements and the wavy, buckled edge of the large light grey paper on the left side. Texture is an important visual element – almost as important as the geometric patterns with straight and wavy edged papers in red, brown, blue, white, yellow, green, black and grey.

Robert Motherwell, Blue With China Ink (Homage to John Cage)

Robert Motherwell, Blue With China Ink (Homage to John Cage)

The Motherwell image above is titled Blue With China Ink (Homage to John Cage). It’s collage with oil, ink, charcoal, pasted Japanese paper, colored paper, drawing paper and fabric on paperboard (101.6 x 76.2 cm –  40 x 30 inches). Image: Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA. Motherwell love to paint with a light blue and variations on yellow ocher.

Motherwell produced nearly 900 works with collage during his lifetime, and said collage influenced his paintings.

Read the exhibition catalog essays. They give critical insight into how Motherwell began working in collage, and how important it was to his creative practice.

Final Thoughts

The Guggenheim Museum exhibition was an opportunity to see and share Motherwell’s love affair with paper and collage.

On Feb. 6, 2014 I gushed: I love how Motherwell painted over his media, used patterned papers, painted onto so many different papers…I love how he tore off layers of papers to expose raw paper surfaces below…

I was excited because I had never seen so many Motherwell collages in person before the exhibition.

Please add your comments below. Tell me what you think about the papers Motherwell used. Do you work with Japanese papers? Do you paint your papers for collage?

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3 Responses to “Motherwell Collage and Japanese Papers”


  1. used this in several of my collages with encaustic – pretty and adds nice texture

  2. a ferreira Says:

    Collage is a way for me to re-purpose outdated magazines, flyers and other ‘sub-papers’ (mostly images). I’ve never used fine papers in them, may be I’ll give it a try someday!
    Thank you for the (provocative) inspiration!

    • nikkal Says:

      Thank you for comments. Adding fine papers to re-purposed collage papers is a lark. I love the way Romare Bearden uses white and off-white artist’s papers to create subtle tonalities when he does landscapes with clouds. He does the clouds in layers of different white papers. There are so many variations in white, and artists’ papers have matte and textured surfaces that compliment the shiny surface of magazine and catalog papers. Try it.


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