First Robert Motherwell show in Hong Kong a chance to assess Chinese influence on his art

The works of Motherwell, a contemporary of Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko and a fan of Chinese brush painting, are very undervalued, says Pearl Lam, who has long sought to show his work in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 September, 2015, 6:53pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 September, 2015, 6:53pm

In Hong Kong, where just one major art museum is in operation, private art galleries and auction houses play an important role in art education by presenting museum-quality works. The latest example is the Robert Motherwell exhibition that opens at Pearl Lam Galleries in Central this week.  

Motherwell (1915-1991) was one of America’s most influential modern artists, one who, unusually, was not only a groundbreaking painter but a writer about art able to describe and put into context the rise of abstract expressionism as it happened. He coined the name New York School for the group of artists among whom he worked in the 1950s and 1960s: Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, all undisputed giants of the modern art world.

If Pollock’s dripping technique is the most famous American manifestation of the European  surrealists’ process of creating from the subconscious mind, then Motherwell’s approach may well be the most intellectual. The painter had studied philosophy and art history and, as a professional artist, had frequent dialogues about automatism with the colony of European surrealists who fled the war to live in the  United States.

Motherwell was also a major player in the development of colour field painting alongside painters such as Rothko and Barnett Newman, and a mentor to Cy Twombly and others who would achieve great fame as artists.

This colossal figure in modern art has been dead 24 years but there has never been a solo exhibition of his work in Hong Kong until now, the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Pearl Lam  said her galleries’ focus  has always been on “cultural dialogue” and they have their roots in abstract art.

“It is very natural for me to explore [Western] abstract artists, especially Motherwell, who was strongly influenced by Chinese calligraphy,” she said. “It is impossible to  summarise Motherwell’s impact on the art world. He’s an explorer, a magnificent intellect and a teacher.”

Lam said the exhibition would feature 15 works executed over four decades and that it was an opportunity to examine, among other things, the differences between Motherwell’s paintings and Chinese modern ink paintings.

“Motherwell collected Chinese brush paintings. He painted with the discipline of Chinese brush artists. But it is hard to say how much parallel there is between his works and Chinese brush paintings. Motherwell took very superficial parts of ink brush paintings but I don’t believe that he truly understood their background. He was definitely strongly influenced by them, though,” Lam  said.

Prices for the 15 works range from below US$100,000 to US$4 million. “His work is very undervalued so it’s a fantastic time to introduce him to Hong Kong. We have been working for many years to try to bring over his works and we want people here to understand that the roots of western and Chinese abstract art are absolutely different. And to do a Motherwell show is to review these differences,” she  added.

Form, Gesture, Feeling: Robert Motherwell 1915-1991: A Centennial Exhibition will be held at Pearl Lam Galleries,  6/F, Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, Hong Kong, from September  9 to November 1, 2015.