Black on White, 1961
Robert Motherwell, American, 1915–1991
Oil on canvas
78 × 163 3/16 in. (198.1 × 414.5 cm)
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
How to Be a Gatekeeper of Information:
Warm-Up With Grit
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Analyzing subject matter, particularly using clues to create inferences
- Understanding how one must work through an idea from its inception to its final impact on the reader
Connecting to the Work of Art
The first thing viewers may notice about this painting by artist Robert Motherwell, a prime example of the expressive properties of raw paint on canvas, is that is has no “obvious” subject matter. Instead, the artist features bold and sweeping splashes of paint on the canvas to express deep, emotional truths of the human experience.
Here, Motherwell used a limited palette of colors, earthy tones enlivened with the dramatic use of black. The thick, black brushstrokes range from feathery and drip-like to solid and heavy. This parallels a balance between other contradictory elements in the painting such as intellect/emotion, shape/line, sweeping gesture/measured rhythms—all very characteristic of Abstract Expressionist works. The black stroke is reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy and brush painting where the brushstroke can express poetic and lyrical rhythm. Additional rhythm is created from the spaces between the brushstrokes and color structure.
While the panoramic format is typically associated with landscape, the large-scale size allows the viewer to be engulfed in the work. The size and gestural brushwork are symbolic of the artist’s exploration of inner turmoil and anxiety. The shapes on the left side of the work are much more controlled than those on the right. Although there are some points of overlap among the shapes on the left, Motherwell attempted uniformity in creating their contours and edges. While some of the lines may appear to be bulky, they interact with one another with finesse. The fine, rounded intricacies of the red form lend it an organic gracefulness. Compared to the careful and contemplative left, the right side of the painting seems chaotic and destructive and is bursting with active energy.
Despite this strong contrast, the two moods exist in harmony. The clash between the legs of the large, central “x” adds drama without communicating violence or competition. Instead, the two sides exist in a yin-yang relationship on the canvas, balancing and complementing each other. The canvas could represent the dualities of life and death, love and loss, and failure and triumph that human beings experience.
Motherwell belonged to a group of artists known as the Abstract Expressionists, who strove to uncover their most personal feelings directly through making art. The movement exploded onto the art scene after WWII with its characteristic energetic application of paint (dripping, smearing, slathering, and flinging). Although at first glance it seems that a kindergartner could have painted this work, Motherwell and his peers cultivated the interplay of skill and unplanned occurrences to determine the painting’s final outcome.
- How would you describe the various lines in this painting? Consider their thickness and color.
- How does the artist use lines to create depth?
- How do the lines show movement and gesture within the painting?
- Notice the limited color palette. How would this work be different if more or brighter colors were included?
- Compare and contrast the right and the left sides of the painting.
- How does the artist create juxtaposition between the sides through his use of lines and movement?
- While there is a clear dissonance between the sides, how does the artist create a sense of harmony within the work?
- How would this work be different if it were smaller? Would it have the same overwhelming effect on the viewers?
- How does the artist add drama to the composition without communicating violence or competition?
- Why do you think the artist would select the title Black on White?
- Notice how the artist does not cover up the drips and rough texture. Despite these details, do you think there is a sense of intention and design within the work? Why would the artist leave those “mistakes” on the canvas?
- Without depicting recognizable objects, how does the artist communicate deep, emotional truths of the human experience?
- Although there are no recognizable forms on this side of the work, do any of the shapes resemble objects found in nature? How do these associations help the viewer connect to the work of art?
- Compared with the careful and contemplative left, the right side of the painting seems chaotic and destructive and is bursting with active energy. How does the artist connect the two sides to craft a greater message?
- Do you agree that the two sides balance and complement each other instead of opposing one another? Justify your answer.
- How could this work be representative of the dualities of life and death, love and loss, and failure and triumph that human beings experience throughout full and complex existences?
Connecting to the Classroom
- After giving students ample time to observe this work of art, ask what inferences students can make about the subject, with particular emphasis on what clues lead them to their inferences and conclusions.
- Have students make inferences as to the artist’s country and the time period of the piece.
- Why do you think the artist chose to render this as an abstract expression rather than a recognizable subject?
- What mood does the artist want to create in the observer?
- Inform students that the artist lived in the 20th century and is American. Do either of those pieces of information change the students’ perceptions as to the interpretation of the work? Why or why not? (Activate students’ prior knowledge o/cultural awareness)
- Does the painting seem “balanced?” If you agree that it is, how does the artist create this sense of balance? How might this be similar to the approach a writer must take to the organization of a written piece?
- Does the work seem “static” or “dynamic?” Why or why not?
- Divide the painting in half vertically and have students make observations on each half. Do the parts taken individually have a different mood than the overall piece? Why or why not?
- What is the artist trying to say with this piece? Are students’ impressions the same after the discussion as they were in the beginning? Why or why not?
- This discussion could be used as a warm-up activity or at the beginning of a unit.
- As an extension, students could write a poem to accompany this painting.
Subject Matter Connection
To many students, abstract renditions will seem meaningless; many may seem reluctant to take on the task of thinking about—let alone analyzing—a work that doesn’t “seem real” to the concrete-thinking middle school student. By discussing abstract works, such as Motherwell’s Black on White, students must work through those pre-conceived notions, developing grit and endurance along the way. Through this process, students can practice the important skills of endurance and grit, and the desire to rework ideas. The ability to endure is a critical skill in the language arts curriculum beyond mere stamina to get through testing situations. When analyzing literature or responding to critical thinking questions, the desire to rework ideas and stick with the problem and analysis is a critical prerequisite to this deeper thinking and the ability to relay that thinking to others.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.