Storming the Citadel, a documentary, produced and directed by Catherine Tatge (Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth), has been made timely and poignant by the death of the painter Robert Motherwell on July 16 at 76. Near the end of the hour, Motherwell says, ”I’m just beginning to learn the rudiments of painting. I would like to live long enough, but I think it would take until the 21st century to have something of a sense that I know how to paint.”
This was polite false modesty. One of the controversial Abstract Expressionists who emerged in the late ’40s and early ’50s in New York, including Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko, Motherwell achieved a brainy lyricism that was at once intellectually witty and deeply emotional. You’ll see a lot of Motherwell’s best work here, as Tatge’s camera lingers with gratifying patience over some of the paintings in the artist’s mordant Elegies to the Spanish Republic series as well as his elegant, sky blue collages featuring bits of torn cardboard and cigarette packages.
As art history, Storming the Citadel is dicey. Much is made of Surrealism’s influence on Motherwell, but it was actually the art movement preceding that one, Dadaism, that truly engaged Motherwell’s imagination and scholarship: Why no mention of his editing of the classic book The Dada Painters and Poets?
And as Time art critic Robert Hughes has pointed out, Motherwell’s best work occurred after he left the Abstract Expressionist fold (or it left him; he outlived nearly every artist in the group). But too much of Storming the Citadel makes it seem as if Motherwell lacked inspiration and context without his hardy band of rebels surrounding him.
Still, this hour is invaluable for its scenes of Motherwell working in his studio — daubing a white canvas with a black brush, ripping a piece of paper to prepare a collage, remarking that his goal was ”to end up with a canvas that is no less beautiful than the empty canvas is beautiful to begin with.” A-