Robert Frank’s photograph, Untitled: Portrait of Robert Motherwell depicts the Abstract Expressionist artist seated with a book and a cigarette in front of one of his paintings. Frank is famous for his iconic images of The Americans, a photobook that shows the lives of Americans often in a controversial, complex, and nuanced light. This photograph does something different in the way Frank’s portrait of Motherwell is positioned outside the social context in which Frank often places his subjects. This image is about the artist, the painting, and the image itself. This image frames the Motherwell and his abstract painting so that they are intricately involved both literally and figuratively, a feat that actively involves the viewer in the photograph.
Abstract Expressionism was a movement grounded in personal freedom and exploration in the wake of World War II at a time when much of the world was tormented by communism, fascism, and totalitarianism. The use of large canvases, bold brushstrokes, and the materiality of the paint itself all contributed to a kind of sublimity that freed both artist and viewer from the confines of realism. Frank’s decision to combine abstraction with the stark realism of photography contributes to the impact of the image on the viewer and the aesthetic connection between Motherwell and the canvas.
The image of Motherwell next to his painting frames the artist as an intellectual. If the title of the work was not known, it would be reasonable to think Motherwell was just a man sitting in front of an abstract canvas. Artists are most commonly depicted with a tool of their craft, perhaps a brush or a palate, but Frank frames Motherwell in a way that shows his intellect and other interests, as a man of culture and society. In this photograph, Frank allows the viewer to put a hand and a face to the paint that covers the canvas. An Abstract Expressionist’s work is a piece of his or her soul and psyche, and the experience of seeing the soul and psyche of the artist in the paint and the artist in the flesh is a unique one. Frank literally frames Motherwell in a way in which curves of his shoulders, the wrinkles in his tie, and the apples of his cheeks seem to mimic, and even flow with, the lines of the paintings. Frank’s combination of the frame of the photograph with frames created by his composition truly blend artist, painting, viewer, and photographer into one entity and render an unusually complete, and uniquely framed, picture.
“R. Frank” is seen signed on the bottom right of the photograph, which, one could argue, makes this a work of art rather than simply a documentary photograph. Curiously, the bottom right of Motherwell’s painting, the location of many artists’ signatures, is not signed. This phenomenon delivers the image of artist and artwork entirely Frankian. By framing the artist and his unframed work within the frame of the photograph, the viewer unavoidably thinks of Frank and his work to create this image. The lens of the camera and the frame of Frank’s shot feel as if they could be in the viewers hands, which essentially places the viewer in the role of the photographer, further tying the intricate bonds between artist, subject, and viewer with the materiality of both the paint on the canvas and the glossy photo before our eyes.
Frank’s image urges the viewer to think about art itself, especially its materiality and the labor involved in its creation. Untitled: Portrait of Robert Motherwell uses the photographic frame to encapsulate the power of an image by framing an artist with his work and visually connecting them in an organized and structured way. The viewer’s awareness of the tie between painter and painting and photographer and photograph manifests itself as a deeper involvement with the image for that viewer. The multiple and distinctive frames of Frank’s work put a metaphysical camera into the viewer’s hands and lend a kind of self-awareness to the viewer that few images are able to accomplish.
By Kathryn Solomon, HAMS Vice President, Class of 2014