Robert Motherwell
American, 1915–1991

Les Caves No. 2 (The Cellars No. 2), 1976
Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 144 in.
Museum Purchase and Gift of the Dedalus Foundation

In the 1940s, Robert Motherwell was part of the group of artists--including Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko--known as the abstract expressionists. Dismissing realism as an inadequate means of expressing themselves through art, they pursued various forms of abstraction. Particularly inspired by the European surrealists' emphasis on tapping the subconscious, they sought freely and with immediacy to convey not the objective realities of the visible world but their subjective reactions to those realities.

Regarded as the intellectual of the group, Motherwell attributed his erudition to extensive foreign travel and his study of philosophy, literature, psychology, and world history. Throughout his long career, he often alluded to these subjects in the titles of his abstract paintings--for example, In Plato's Cave and the extensive series Elegy to the Spanish Republic.

The year before Motherwell painted Les Caves No. 2, Baron Philippe de Rothschild commissioned him to create a work that would hang in the family museum in Bordeaux, France, and also be reproduced on the label of a vintage of the renowned Rothschild wine. Motherwell made a small sketch, titled Les Caves, which inspired a second, larger painting. He explained how this circumstance informed the titles of both works:

"Wine naturally makes one think of cellars and the French word for cellar is cave. This word brings to mind the English word cave. Cave in turn brought to the fore my memories of Lascaux and Altamira, of a tenth-century Saracen description of the barbaric Viking settlements on the Volga, of the antiquity of grapes and wine and the good earth—the caves in the Dordogne in France are friendly and warm, as they are north of Madrid, not damp and ominous as they are in other parts of the world. But since I called the Rothschild sketch Les Caves, its enormous successor could only be called, looking at it, the same thing. Thus, I named it Les Caves No. 2." (1)

The range of subjects Motherwell brings together here--from prehistoric cave paintings in France and Spain, to a medieval Arabic account of Scandinavian communities in Russia, to the centuries-old tradition of wine making, to a comparison of global climates--demonstrates both his breadth of knowledge and how free association was a critical aspect of his art.

--Emily Stamey
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Ulrich Museum of Art

1. Motherwell quoted in H. H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell, 2nd ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1982), 97.

Robert Motherwell (American, 1915–1991), 'Les Caves No. 2 (The Cellars No. 2),' 1976. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 144 in. Museum Purchase and Gift of the Dedalus Foundation