By Barbara Schreiber, The Charlotte Observer

The centenary of Robert Motherwell, one of the most important artists of the second half of the 20th century, is being marked by exhibitions in New York, London and... Charlotte. The city is enjoying its own Motherwell moment with an exhibition featuring works on paper at Jerald Melberg Gallery.


Motherwell (1915-1991) was a member of the New York School, a group of abstract expressionists that included Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. The youngest member of the New York School, the groundbreaking group of abstract expressionists, "he was also the most intellectual," says Melberg. "He was their writer, spokesman, apologist."


There is also a North Carolina connection - like many other important artists of the mid-20th century, Motherwell taught at the legendary Black Mountain College.


This show's strength is the tender and the small. Perhaps the most accessible work in the exhibition, which is free, is the "Ulysses Suite." Motherwell had a lifelong devotion to James Joyce, whose works inspired many of his titles and themes.


The "Lyric Suite," 600-plus ink drawings on rice paper, is named for the Alban Berg string quartet that played in the studio as Motherwell worked on them. Twelve are on view here. Berg's "Lyric Suite" is a moody, sometimes disturbing composition, in contrast to Motherwell's Zan-like, spontaneous drawings. Motherwell purchased the Japanese paper at a stationery store and executed the drawings using American inks. As expected, the inks spread across the porous paper; but in addition, the oils in the inks leached out, creating eerie orange-brown halos around the fields of dense black. With bulbous forms that invite interpretation, these drawings have a Rorschach-like quality.


Over the course of almost two decades Motherwell, moved by horrors of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, completed numerous works on canvas and paper collectively titled "Elegies to the Spanish Republic." This vast body of work is Motherwell's most recognizable. With its characteristic black ovals and bands, it is stark and sad.


Motherwell's is the sort of work that might provoke a "my kid could do that" reaction. (FYI: No, your kid can't.) But this show is worth your while and worth approaching with an open mind and heart.

August 2, 2015