THE SPIRITUAL UNDERGROUND: Motherwell’s ‘Primal Sign II’ (1980)

Nothing as drastic an innovation as abstract art could have come into existence, save as the consequence to a most profound, relentless, unquenchable need

Robert Motherwell

In his 1944 essay, In the Modern Artist’s World, Robert Motherwell defines modern art by its “remoteness from all the symbols and values of the majority of men,” and that, “In this modern world artists form a kind of spiritual underground…”   In the remoteness of this spiritual underground, so Miltonic in its poetry, Motherwell replaces religion with abstractness as the structural foundation of modern art, while at the same time replaces the politics of the middle class with the politics of the ego: solitude sometimes is best society. It is in this solitude that Motherwell’s Primal Sign II (1980) exists. It is an image of the spiritual underground, sitting in front of us as more as a Rorshach than an etching. Instead of representing something ancient and opaque, as the title implies, it reflects back what the viewer, uncontrollably, invests into it, exposing our own subconscious, automatic associations with the piece. The primal sign means nothing. It is only the architecture of abstractness staring back at us.

the history of modern art tends at certain moments to become the history of modern freedom

Robert Motherwell

For Motherwell, the spiritual underground in Primal Sign II is just as much about the rejection of bourgeois artistic values as it is about finding an artistic space in which to freely operate, or to be more precise, in which the ego of both artist and viewer can freely operate. Motherwell says that, “the history of modern art tends at certain moments to become the history of modern freedom,” and in doing so implies that modern art continues into the future only when it finds open spaces in which to occupy. In this work, our primal past becomes one of those spaces.

Text by Ashley Luna

Above: detail from Robert Motherwell. Primal Sign II (1980) (19/45) Colour etching and aquatint. (23 x 9.5″)  Provenance: Art Treasures, Great Neck, NY. Acquired 1981.

Part of the Valerie Furth Collection

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