"An Example of Free Thought" : Robert Motherwell and James Joyce
Posted by Andrea D. on July 30, 2010 - 3:12pm

The first work of art that a visitor sees when walking into The Modern's downstairs galleries is Robert Motherwell's Stephen's Iron Crown (1981). While the painting is rendered in simple black and white, the subject matter remains somewhat ambiguous. As it turns out, this piece is a nod to the literary influence of James Joyce upon Motherwell and his work.

Robert Motherwell grew up with a very prestigious education, and it began at an early age. He recalls being told stories by his grandfather which, he later realized, were paraphrased versions of Paradise Lost or Greek myths. By the time he was ten, Motherwell was spending the majority of his allowance on books at his local bookstore. He even claimed in an interview with Paul Cummings that he "read a book a day, from the time I was seven until I was twenty-seven." Motherwell also noted that "all my life, next to paintings, I like books the best."

This love of art and literature led him to study philosophy at Stanford and Harvard before beginning the doctoral program in Art History at Columbia, where he studied under the renowned art historian Meyer Schapiro and socialized with Surrealist artists on a regular basis. The time that Motherwell spent with the Surrealists proved to be incredibly influential on his artistic process. Specifically, he became interested in the process of automatism, or abtract "automatic" doodling that Surrealists would often use to tap into their unconscious. One example of this is Motherwell's Drunk with Turpentine series, in which he did automatism with oil paint that had been thinned-out with turpentine to the consistency of ink.

It should not be surprising that Motherwell identified with the writings of James Joyce, given his literary background and his fascination with the unconscious. Joyce often incorporated stream-of-consciousness and dream-associations into his style, characteristics which make his most famous work, Ulysses, a formidable read. In fact, Stephen's Iron Crown (1981) alludes to one of the main characters of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus, whose name is derived from the Greek "stephanos" (meaning "crown") and who experiences an Absinthe-induced hallucination that features the crown of Stephen I, the first Christian king of Hungary.


Because of their similar stream-of-consciousness styles, several of Motherwell's abstract sketches and multiple titles from his Drunk with Turpentine series refer to Joyce or his books. For example, Bloomsday references the Irish holiday that commemorates the life and work of Joyce, (a holiday which is still celebrated annually in Dublin every June 16.) Motherwell's Study for Shem the Penman #9 and Finnegan's Wake VII With Green (at left) both refer to the character of Shem from Joyce's novel, Finnegan's Wake. Mulligan's Tower and Drunk with Turpentine Series (Stephen's Gate) are further references to Ulysses, and Beside the Sea No. 24 alludes to Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the main character (also named Stephen Dedalus) experiences an epiphany that inspires him to become an artist.

Motherwell went on to produce a series of etchings to accompany a 1988 edition of Ulysses, and many of his Joyce-inspired sketches were collected and published as The Dedalus Sketchbooks later that year.

(Note: All works of art referenced in this post are part of The Modern's permanent collection. The Modern houses one of the largest collections of Motherwell's art in existence today, which includes over 70 pieces by the artist.)