An Interview with Robert Motherwell


Barbara Flug Colin

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 122 in March, 2010.

In 1982 I was fascinated by the fact that Robert Motherwell’s abstract body of work was diverse, but with a consistent genealogy of images: abstract images that seemed an indigenous language; recurring images that purified, synthesized.

There was an inherent visual narrative.  First, prison bars (“The Little Spanish Prison, 1941”).  And portraits and self portraits: the self in many characters, identities.  Then, a visual echo of the original figures emerged, through bars, in “The Voyage, 1949.”  Then, a new freedom in the “Open” series, and in “The Spanish Elegies” (which recalled “The Voyage”).

Because Motherwell doodled, he was tapping into his unconscious. The language that evolved was personal, the solution to something for which there was no conventional image. Unlike Einstein who was creative in a given language.

What creates a language of images an artist returns to and purifies throughout a body of work? 

Miro said his art process was “…to rediscover the sources of human feeling…” 

I must have suggested some of my ideas and questions in the letter I sent.  Motherwell responded with a phone call. His voice friendly, sprightly. He liked my letter. As a young mother, I didn’t have the day to go up to Connecticut. We agreed to a phone interview.

The spring-like day, just before the interview, I remember biking with my three children to a local pond and thinking, I must find out.

Motherwell was fluid and answered my questions openly. I embraced this. At the end, he asked me to send him the transcribed interview. In time, he returned a version with his words edited, and a two page letter: “…the questions you asked me are the most pointed and penetrating ones in my interview experience.”

But there was more to find out.             

When we spoke again, we both agreed to a second interview. 

This interview occurred on June 9, 1982.  Because logistically it was impossible for us to meet in person, Mr. Motherwell suggested that we talk by phone for any amount of time the conversation might require, at his expense.  The following text is edited from our one and one-half hour taped conversation.

Barbara Flug Colin:  The evolution of your art seems, to me, totally true to the statement you made years ago about doodling as a “process through which one’s being is revealed, one’s originality . . .” and how the “esthetic comes afterward, according to one’s gift for plastic transformation.” I sense that your search was deeply inward according to your self . . . not climbing the rungs of art history. And your work, from the beginning, seems to have found its originality and the “esthetic.”

Robert Motherwell: Yes, though your statement might underestimate my knowledge of modern art history, plus the fact that I didn’t wholly devote myself to painting until late: I was 26. What you say is true, but partly, though essentially true . . . I started late with a lot of modern art historical knowledge, and having seen a lot of originals; not only that, I knew many of the masters of the first half of the century personally. So far as I know, I may be the first artist (at least one of them) in the history of modernism, who began with his mature style, so to speak. My plastic premises are already there in the first couple of years of my work. Obviously they’ve matured, they have developed or twisted or turned, and so on, but the consistency of the esthetic position is there from beginning to end . . . I mean there is no Blue Period, there is no Cezanne early impasto, there is nothing that can be . . . there is no apprentice work. It starts in full bloom.  I started full time painting in 1941. I also painted The Little Spanish Prison in 1941, which I would be proud to paint today. Or Pancho Villa (I think in 1943), and others. My subjects are different now, but how I then used the collage technique is still very much the way I use it now, and though the look and scale is quite different, superficially, the original identity is intact, as is the methodology you quote from my younger self . . .

BFC: Do you think there was something different about the time when you began that allowed that?  Something different about the art milieu then, from the art milieu now?

RM: Yes, for instance, I am just reading a marvelous interview in the current Paris Review.  Stanley Kunitz, the Pulitzer Prize poet, is being interviewed, and the other writer asks Kunitz about the present scene.  Kunitz was editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets for eight years, and they are talking about some of that, and then the interviewer says, what is the scene now, and Kunitz replies that there are more good poets now than there ever were (Kunitz must be in his late seventies)… than perhaps there ever have been in the modernist tradition.  But among the younger ones there are no masters, there are no outstanding ones.  Let’s say, I will pluck a number out of the air, that there are five hundred very good poets around.  But there is no T.S. Eliot, or there is no Octavio Paz, or there is no Rafael Alberti, no Ezra Pound among the younger ones.  I have very much the same take.  The level of competency in the arts is infinitely higher than it was fifteen years ago, but it is almost never that you come across a powerful personality, in the sense of a Pollock, or I don’t know… a Francis Bacon… or whatever.  In my time, art was a vocation, not a profession, even a doom, in the sense of a destiny…

BFC: Is it something about our present culture?

RM: I think it is partly because everybody is now so well taught.  The United States is the only place in the world where major universities have numerous courses in “Twentieth Century Art History,” and also actual studio practice.  I mean Heidelberg or Oxford or the Sorbonne would drop dead at the idea.  And since the war, our universities have increasingly absorbed very good painters and sculptors, as they do practically all poets.  The only way a poet can make a living is by lecturing in the universities; in that sense, I don’t suppose there has even been, in the last 150 years, a system set up where some of the best practitioners of the various arts are directly addressing thousands of students of those arts, and that is bound to make some students more sophisticated.  But at the same time, they are being spoon-fed what earlier artists had to seek out, in any nook or cranny, because it didn’t exist to be presented to you.  I came to New York in 1940 to study with Meyer Schapiro simply because he was the only man in America teaching modern art from the standpoint of modernism.  Now there must be 2,000.

BFC: What I am hearing you say has to do with an earning of the self.

RM: Exactly.  There is so much skill.  There is so much superbly educated skill.  But there is very little confrontation with selfhood . . .  I think it also has to do with a lack of innocence, a lack of belief in civilization that people born early in the century still have.  Kunitz has it.  I have it.  It is marvelous to discover this stuff and make it your own, to be a part of it.  In that sense, a kind of optimism and conviction.  I think youngsters, maybe with reason, think the world is going to come to an end, and why get so excited about all this . . .  Or they regard art as a “profession,” in the worst sense of the word.  It is now as “honorable” (because profitable) to be a painter as it is to be a doctor or a lawyer, which was nearly inconceivable a half a century ago.  In fact, that is the reason I myself had so much formal university education.   My father stopped dead at the idea of my being a painter.  We finally made an agreement: if I would get a PhD., then  I could do what I wanted to do. That is, I had a safety net. And since I didn't know any artist or anyone in art and I had to rely on him, I agreed. But then he died, so then I didn't get the degree.  Now I have various honorary doctorates!

BFC: In a sense they are owning the forms but they are not earning the forms.  In other words, they are learning Art with a capital “A.”

RM: Yes, yes, because . . . because art isn't something out there…It is not a "picture" of an artistic experience. It has to become experience itself, and in that sense it can only be earned by one's own body rhythms, one's own color sense, one's own sense of smell, of light, of texture being so automatically articulated there is no possibility not to make a work of art, in the sense that it is impossible to think of any other choice.  These youngsters have learned externally, the way one might learn French, impeccably, in a university.  But that is something very different from having lived in France and having had to survive through one's experiencing French as a necessary instrument of one's very existence.  It is like "book learning" . . .

BFC: I think that is one of the reasons I am so taken by the evolution of your art. It is so all of a piece. It is all so whole. The body of the work seems integrated. "The Homely Protestant," for example -- I really see it weave varyingly through your evolution. And when I saw that you called it "my single most important figure" and a self-portrait, I wondered . . . do you think it is a biological, you know, a physical self-image as well as an abstract image?

RM: (Long silence) I guess so.  I did have asthma as an adolescent, and was sent to a private school in dry central California, a part that was undeveloped and very arid, like the Madrid plateau. All fall and winter the hills were yellow ochre.  The earth was yellow ochre.  Lots of sunshine.  It was marvelous for my asthma.  More, I have always had a sense of being awkward, very clumsy.  I had a very poor musical ear.  When I was young, it was the era of the big bands, and on weekends you would take girls and hear Benny Goodman or whoever, and dance and dance.  And the girls were like air, they danced so well.  They would hum the words, and with my tin ear, I never could make out the words.  I did learn to dance reasonably well, but almost by rote, hearing poorly.

In that figure painting there is a sense of that stiffness, and of that California sunbaked earth, and also of a brooding figure.  And the work is clumsy; but, in another way, highly sophisticated . . . I think those contradictions do have to do with me . . . though I didn’t know it at the time . . . I was also, if I may say so, extremely handsome when I was in my twenties, and at the time I named "The Homely Protestant" still was; and thus it was partly a title perversely ironic . . . Only later did I learn that in "English" "homely" means "homebody," which also happens to be true of me . . . But at the time I named it I was referring to the American idiomatic use of being "not beautiful," not attractive . . . which I felt more about the picture than myself.  The relation between the self and its art is incredibly complex . . .

BFC: So you are saying yes: that that configuration did have a configuration and a figuration that was a physical sense of yourself.

RM: I think so.  Maybe.  Certainly it is a very tall picture.  It is on an eight foot tall piece of masonite, so the figure itself must be about a six foot one, which I happen to be.  But certainly I had no such idea in making it.  I was simply making a surface, what I would later somewhere call “the skin of the world,” a skin of paint, not thinking about what the subject was at all . . .  What I said previously about it I saw only much later.  At the time the image surprised me, the painting characteristics not.  The title came afterward.

BFC: I see the same subject in “Doorway with Figure.”

RM: I do too now, but I didn't at the time I made it either.  You see, in a way you have a mental picture, an amorphous impulse.  But when you actually start working on a canvas, there is no way for a person like me to draw it and then paint it and then have it.  You have a kind of dumb vision, and then you start working; and what you work on in turning it into paint so transforms it, it is basically unrecognizable from the original vision.  It takes on a life of its own.  The mind can't think abstractly in paint.  It only thinks in paint when there is actually paint in your hand.  But that is the whole problem: how to convert beingness into brushstrokes; and so long as you succeed in that, it doesn't matter what the ostensible subject is.

BFC: In one painting in the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, in retrospect you prefer not the final version, but a state that was less finished.  You thought that the really finished version came before the actual final finished version as it now exists.

RM: It takes a long time to understand oneself in the sense of . . .What is most valuable in one’s beingness.  I have written somewhere, years ago, that hardly any artist, I think hardly any modern artist, ends up with the style that he thought when he began he would.  I say that to students all the time.  Some students naturally . . .  let’s say an “expressionist,” loves Vermeer, and tries to do a contemporary version of Vermeer, or whatever.  And it is only by beating your head out that you fully discover that your talent may be not at all for what you loved to begin with, but for something else altogether.  And that self analysis goes on a whole lifetime . . . I have been very lucky in having many more huge shows than most artists are given, and a chance to really look: especially in the past five years at the same pictures in different countries, different spaces . . . the ones that stand and why, and the ones, attractive as they are, that don’t stand as well.  And to put it simply, I think at times I have been too inhibited or too Apollonian.  Naturally socially I am a civilized person, but I think there is really something Viking fierce in me that I sit on a lot, and that in recent years I am letting get out much more.  I don't know.  I just wish I had 15 more years, so I could really get at it.  It takes so damn long . . .

BFC: You seem never to have needed to refer to forms outside. Your forms are forms that seem to have emerged from within.  It is a trust.  In a sense, what you are saying is when you look back, you know you can extrapolate what is true from your own previous works.  But it didn't come from some outside grid.

RM: Yes, definitely.  You are profoundly right.  I don't know how to account for it.  It is what I was trying to explain about art education.  The history of art is taught, both in studios and in lecture courses, as though there is such a thing as "art," the way there is such a thing as mathematics; and that a man who knows it very well can teach it to other people so that they know it very well.  I don't think there is such a thing as "art" in that generalized sense.  I think what there is is the articulation of beingness, and in different periods people have a different conception of what beingness is.  But every good artist, whether he is from the Congo or is from Piero della Francesca or a child in kindergarten . . . all the ones who are good . . . simply, so to speak, directly set down their sense of beingness of the world.  So that the history of art is actually a history of different contexts for human beingness, and not history in the sense of kings or emperors or . . . you know, the way the chronology of the world from Egypt to now is written by a historian.

BFC: Well, is it beingness of "self" in terms of the context of the world. . .

RM: Yes, but the form of beingness that they are expressing is to them "objective," yet it is really "subjective." I mean, Renaissance perspective is a more subjective thing than they ever dreamt of, in the same way that, if one had a model of an atom made fifty years ago which they were quite sure of -- the way atoms are -- a present model doesn't look anything like it.  It is very different.  It becomes very clear that the physical sciences themselves are as much metaphors for reality as painting or poetry is.  Nothing is solid.  Nothing is ahistorical.

BFC: That was the nature of the discovery that made me write you that letter.  The metaphor in art . . . or in Einstein.  I don’t think he was simply discovering something out there.

RM: I dare agree.  There is an early speech by him around 1917 or 1918, a brief one, a eulogy to one of his colleagues.  There is a paragraph in it where he says that he thinks scientists and artists are all very alike, and what they particularly have in common is that, in the beginning looking at the world, it doesn't make much sense.  And the struggle in either case is to find organizing principles so it does make sense.  And in that view, it doesn't even matter whether the organizing principles are "true" or not, so long as they organize one's experience in a way that is meaningful to oneself . . .  Presumably oneself is not so unique that, if one organizes it so it is meaningful to oneself, there won't be some other people who will also find it meaningful to look at and experience that way.  And Einstein . . . I feel a very deep affinity for him in specific things.  I don’t understand physics, I have no knowledge of the physical sciences.  But running all through…I have read a lot of him and about him, Einstein keeps to the child in man . . .  says that he sees visually what he is trying to do, the way a child artist might, and that his great difficulty is not in making the discovery, but finding the mathematical language to put down what he sees in his mind's eye.  And that is almost an exact description of what a painter or a poet is doing.  But he sticks very much to that child direct-perception.  And I think Matisse and Fauvism are built similarly. German Expressionism, which comes almost entirely from early Matisse, is not "German" or "Gothic" at all, but is a coarser or cruder version of Fauvism . . .is using exactly, in a more sophisticated way, a procedure that children do: painting by after-images, and using color arbitrarily.  Might you say, using color in relation to itself and not in relation to the actual local color of whatever the objects are in the picture?

BFC: Yes.  It creates its own value in terms of itself.

RM: Yes. What I am trying to say is in that sense . . . I think my work is quite sophisticated, but I will not stray from that something very earthy and childlike in its directness of materials, though the symbols are more subtle and indirect.

BFC: Einstein had numbers as a language.  Abstract art has forms that might not have preceded that particular piece.  They are not a convention.  You create the convention.  And in some way there is difficulty with that.  Why is it that people can come into a museum and spot an art piece that means, makes feel . . . but it is not languaged through a recognizable convention as Einstein had?

RM: I don't know . . .One puzzling thing about mathematics which is an art, but seems to have some objective correlative too . . .  I mean, in the same way that the musical scale is a definite mathematical formula.  Painting for some reason is impermeable to mathematics. Or nobody has been able to apply mathematics to it.  But there is something funny about mathematics -- about which I also know nothing -- except that in some way the world does behave mathematically.  Mathematics work.  And yet nobody can demonstrate that the world is mathematical, or that mathematics represent the true nature of reality, and is not as arbitrary a system as art.  It is unique, so far as I know, in that peculiar quality of being abstract, but also functioning practically in the real world . . . mathematically you work out how heavy the steel on a bridge has to be, or whatever . . .

BFC: But how does that relate to abstract art in terms of the form and the convention?  Your forms are your own convention.

RM: Hopefully more.  You know, there are certain modern artists, like Torres-Garcia, or the pictographs of Gottlieb, where artists have tried to make a kind of hieroglyphic sign language.  And yet still the signs are basically meaningless in a way that a hieroglyph is not, or a Chinese ideogram . . . which have very specific social meanings.  I have tried to make a language that is not a meaningless symbol, a pretend language, but which at the same time cannot be as specific as a symbol for, say, a hurricane, or a house, or whatever…  Sometimes I think it is all subjective, in the sense of intensity . . . but it is so real to me that it feels "real."  (You know Mondrian used to be attacked all the time as just being a decorator … that his pictures were no different from the tiles in a kitchen floor, and how could he defend them as not being decorative.  And he said, only on the grounds that they are more intense. And for me, they are as intense as van Gogh’s are; but if people don't see that, then they are indeed like kitchen floors.)  It depends on the inner sensory discriminations and life of whoever is looking.  It is impossible to be argued about in the case of any artist that he has it or hasn't it.  But in the end somehow, artists choose the ones who do.  It was the artists who held Cezanne alive.  Nobody could talk them out of Cezanne, once they had seen one; though I don't think anybody understood them to begin with ... I don't know how to put it, it is the kind of thing that . . .  the kind of thing I am trying to say, if I were trying to say it accurately, I would spend a month of false starts re-writing, and somewhere come across, finally evolve the paragraph that would be what I mean.  But it is . . . (long silence) . . . very few people see . . . The other day I was talking to an art historian who is writing a big book about Matisse, and I said to him, "You know there is a Frenchman who has control of all the Matisse papers and so on, and has been working for fifteen years on Matisse, and has material that nobody else can get at."  The art historian is a close friend, so I was saying this benignly:  "How do you dare write such a tome knowing that another man has much more evidence than you do?"  And he said, "Because I trust my eye more.  I think I have a better eye."  And that seemed to me absolutely valid, and I had been really a little bit worried. The guy was spending several years on a task that would ultimately be superseded by a man who had more source material.  But if my man has a much better eye, then, though with less source material, he will probably write a better book . . . This doesn't happen with words. There are thousands of people who recognize something well-written or well-said. There are millions of people who recognize music, on whatever level they do, and have very strong feelings about it.  It never occurs to anybody to read the history of music in order to go and buy a record.  They hear something somewhere and whatever it is, whether it is country music or Johann Sebastian Bach, they discover they respond.  And the same, to a considerable extent, with writing.  But in painting it is so rare, that it makes the whole thing a Tower of Babel.  And yet a handful of people really do see, see just as accurately as musicians hear. Musicians can tell, if somebody plays four bars, how good he is, where he is coming from, whether he is tricky or pure, etc.  I think real painters can tell that too. And in the end, that is the real communication.  But there is no way to argue it to somebody who doesn't see it or hear it.  If some eighteen year old says, "I think Johann Sebastian Bach is a bunch of shit," there is no way to persuade him . . .

BFC: Do you think in some way it is based on some kind of self-knowledge, and I don't mean that in the cliche term, but in the sense of self-excavation . . .  that one relates to forms and composition because they are relating to something deeply human and that there is a language that, as you say, can't really be talked about, but that can speak because of our commonness, our common humanity?

RM: Definitely.  I think all these expressions are language structures.  But I would say that the visual (which is surprising because scientists say that ninety per cent of our information comes from visual perception), I would say the visual is the language that people are most confused about and, for the most part, the more insensitive to.  I know dozens of intellectuals whose, let's say, libraries you look at and see -- of course he has this, that and the other books. Then you look at some dumb picture on the wall, or the chair in front of his desk, and realize that, if he had an eye, he would blush at the visual kitsch that he is living in, though he is also living with the world's literary masterpieces, and would throw out Edgar Guest if his book appeared in the library.  And so he is at home in one of the languages; absolutely blind in another one of the "languages."  Certainly education in general is designed to develop verbal language as the dominant mode, because it is the most practical and useful one . . . I used to be very in favor of universities of general education.  But in the last few years, when I visit universities, or musical conservatories or real art schools like the Boston Museum School or Cooper Union, I now begin to feel much happier in the conservatory or art school than in the general university. The general universities seem to be much more prosaic, much more academic, much more pretentious; to mistake factual "knowledge" for intelligence, and so on. And both music and painting cut right through that, if one can read them or hear them . . .

BFC: Do you think that modern art can be seen by the uneducated viewer?

RM: Rarely.  In fact, that is a constant struggle from the beginning with modern art: various people trying to make it intelligible, you know, like Dali -- you know, various people trying to make it readable in the sense that Norman Rockwell is constantly "readable."  At this moment abstract art is besieged by pathetic "realisms."  I mean, I agree with Robert Hughes the other day writing in "Time" that anybody trying to be a new Realist or a Neo-Realist should be taken by the scruff of the neck to Philadelphia to see the Thomas Eakins. Contemporary "realism" is pitiful in that context.  A first rate abstract painter in his way is as good as Eakins.  Most people can't see that, because they are not properly prepared. Or it may be that people don't discriminate in terms of feeling/seeing: that they use the eye simply practically to, you know, to see "well, where did I leave my purse ... oh there it is over there on the chair . . ." but never contemplate either the purse or the chair as a visual thing.

BFC: But do you think that those who have the ability to do so have something in common?  In other words, that those forms are accessible. When you spoke of intensity – that is one element.  Then there are the forms themselves in the composition, and the coloration . . .  is there something that they touch on that is intrinsically human?

RM: Yes.  All the arts are forms of human body language.  If you hear Menuhin pluck a violin string, or if . . . I am looking now at a white summer wicker chair . . . must have been done in Thailand . . . I can feel whoever wove all those reeds together patiently moving them in and out and so on in a way that if one made a plastic mold of it, it would feel all wrong, though it might be “accurate.”   In that sense, in all painting or all sculpture, all music, all words, all singing, one feels the human hand, the human eye, the human touch and tone of voice, the human estimating of weights and whiteness and airiness and darkness and massiveness and solidity and etherealism and concreteness . . . Everything that is in a human being, in working something, has to come out. . .

BFC: Then in a way it wouldn't have to be spoken at all.  Do you think abstract art had to be talked about as well as seen?  In other words, did critics or artists have to talk about it?  Did that play a part in people's being able to receive it?

RM: I think so. But I think talk also distorted a lot. What I hope is that someday in the future there will be more people who can see the way most people can hear music. You know, that it won't be necessary to explain.  People could just listen or see, and immediately dig it, the way they do Mozart or the Beatles.  I hope that certain abstract art will reach that stage some day; and it has, among a specific few people . . . You know, as Americans we always have this underlying premise that somehow everything should be accessible to everybody.  As I grow older, I am not so sure that is true.  Maybe art is not a democratic thing any more than advanced mathematics is.  There are a few people who have a natural feel for it, and it is for them.  Not everybody is an Olympic athlete, or a great cook, or a fine tailor, or a good automobile driver.  Somehow people take for granted that everybody has an equal right to judge a work of art, in a way that they don't feel about other things that are obviously just as specialized, and, in fact, in their specialization, relatively simple minded compared to art.

BFC: But in the same way that you said maybe someday it will be more accessible ... almost like it -- abstract art or certain music -- is before its time, I was thinking about when Arnason said in his book on your art, how if Matisse's "experiment" of "Open Window, Collioure (1914)" had "been continued to actual abstraction," he might have arrived at something very much like your "Open" series.  As if in time an evolution unravels along a track.  As if there might be a vision of humankind that is a broader version of each artist's individual vision.  In a way, that suggests the communality I am trying to get to.  I mean, to find out if that is true .

RM: Oh sure, it is true . . . but among special groups.  I mean there are groups of people who do see very clearly, and they are who one lives with, and who one paints for.  The problems only come when one tries to extend the group, in the same way that in a dancing class, you know "social dancing," which I guess doesn't exist any more, but when it used to, there would be people who didn't hear the music very well or who were naturally clumsy, while other people who would take to dancing like a duck to water; and at a certain moment, certain of the people who didn't have a bent for it would disappear or manage to graduate, so that in certain social situations they could go through the motions if necessary, but obviously it was basically meaningless to them.  In the same way that thousands of people graduate from universities with degrees, having gone through the motions; then you ask them two years later a pointed question about maybe the subject they majored in, and they don't know.  If one can get rid of all the people who don't care, the whole situation would be much cleaner. That is why we old people sort of look back with a certain amount of nostalgia to the “thirties” and “forties” when there was a small audience, self-selected, that really cared . . .There was another whole set of artists for the big audience.  Neither side paid attention to the other. I like that division.  Much less confusion. 

BFC: What about art history ?

RM: I think it is a devilish invention. (Laughs)

BFC: Do you think that what is of substance, what is true . . .  do you think greatness emerges anyway?

RM: Yes . . .

BFC: And the rest falls by the wayside?

RM: Yes, as art.  I think one does have to have a historical sense, but not in the sense that art history is taught.  I think the premises of art history the way it is generally taught are wrong in the sense that they came into being with an entirely different set of problems and kinds of art from the kind of art and problems we have now.  So that it is a wrong methodology for what we need now . . .You know it is partly . . . a lot of art history is simply who influences who, or who's in the school of whatever.  I imagine in the 18th century and early 19th century where nobody knew who had painted some of the world's art, it was a real detective problem to separate out various Renaissance painters from each other, and all the rest of it.  And also they were dealing with art that was filled with public iconography, and that is one of the ways they made attributions.  Also a lot of the iconography had been forgotten and it was a legitimate enterprise to try to recover some of the half-forgotten or nearly forgotten iconography.  But in the case of modern art, everybody knows who painted what.  And in most of the best modern art, iconography in the traditional sense of, you know, of “The Baptism," or so on, is relatively unimportant.  One of my favorite pictures by Manet is of a stalk of asparagus on a plate (laughs).  You don't need to bring art history to bear in its traditional way on either. The subject is obvious.  Who painted it is obvious. Though why it is a masterpiece -- neither of those concerns can lead you to it at all.

BFC: Then there is even hope that certain styles that have emerged for less than art reasons, might submerge.

RM: Hopefully!

BFC: Do you know what I mean?

RM: I think so. I recently read in "The New Yorker" a piece on Robert Irwin and I thought that it really captured, as much as anything I have read, an artist, one who doesn't particularly interest me.  He came to life in the pages: what he was doing, why he was doing it, all his free associations, how it was rooted in a particular kind of California life, and so on and so on and so on.  And just yesterday I heard about a book about Gorky that apparently is marvelous in digging out Gorky's own iconography or his real "language," so to speak, and how he had used it, instead of the sort of blurred sense we have of a superb painter in the surrealist tradition, and so on.  But it appears his language is not nearly as enigmatic as it seems.  (Interruption.)  But I think this was also true of the past.  I mean in a way the brush is the instrument; and I think every artist lives for those moments when the brush sort of takes off by itself and has a life of its own.  And I mean that quite literally, in that in simply moving your hand and your arm, they do things you haven't thought of that you recognize as being exactly right.  But this doesn't answer your question.  Lots of bad art will continue to be preserved for its other-than-art reasons; for sentiment, nostalgia, historical documentation, rarity, triviality.

BFC: Could you take what you said at the beginning to the opposite extreme…those students who didn't go to art school and didn't learn all the overlay of what is taught and in some way have that naivete . . . could the primitivism itself speak?

RM: I think so. In a sense, education, in the broadest sense, is to socialize people. Most people want to be socialized, and are embarrassed at not knowing the conventions.  So not only is the teacher teaching conventions, the student really wants to learn the conventions, and to be one of the boys.  And it is obvious that, if there are many types of human characters, the convention becomes artificial basically for the majority of them, even if it is necessary socially.  But I would think one of the functions of modern art is to break through conventions to what is the ultimate truth of a given person’s beingness.  And it is what every artist, musician, poet is constantly analyzing in himself and in his work.  And what's marvelous about having one of those languages is you can look at the language, and in that sense get outside of yourself.  The objective correlative, not having to be content with sheer beingness, without an objective correlative for it.  But to answer your question more directly.  "Primitivism" cannot be repressed, but it can be diverted.  If it is not allowed to come out in art, it will somewhere else; and its vitality is essential to very great art.