Talking about our feelings: On masculinity, Nirvana, and Robert Motherwell's 'Africa' at the BMA

Robert Motherwell's 'Africa' is a large black-and-white painting of a bridge from the point of view of something much smaller, such as a wading bird. Or maybe, with its sinewy shapes, 'Africa' is more like a very abstracted body, with swinging genitalia. On another glance, the painting is a few large swaths of black and white acrylic paint. Sweeping gestures in black paint start at the lower left corner and form one unified shape, which occasionally bulges as it stretches diagonally across the canvas's 222-and-a-half-inch width. White paint floods in from the sides, butting up to and slightly covering up some of the black edges. It can be hard to really see the painting in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Contemporary Wing upstairs; when I get as far back as I can, standing up against the wall opposite from where this painting hangs, my eye just keeps searching from one side to the other, following that arched shape that droops down in the middle.

Whatever it "is," from its size and scale, its proportion of shapes, I get this sense of something monumental, something much larger than me, something strong, powerful, and loud. I think a lot about abstraction and how we can ascribe any meaning we want when we look at it. I've written before that when I look at art, I characterize shapes, so that the whole work is like a relationship, or a series of relationships. I'm not alone here. In a 1964 MoMA publication about Motherwell, the poet Frank O'Hara describes one of Motherwell's paintings: "The sexual atmosphere of 'Two Figures with Cerulean Blue Stripe,' for example, has a specific tenderness and a poignancy which has nothing to do with 'figure' painting or with handling; it is dependent on the direct diagrammatic relation in a pictorial sense of the two forms, where the blue stripe is a curtain drawn away from the intimacy of the scene." There are areas of this painting 'Africa' that puzzle me because I haven't figured out for myself what purpose they serve, how they affect the other parts—namely, the splotchy little nubs on the left that kind of grow out of the sweeping black shape, the swinging ball shape in the middle, and the little patch of white within the black shape on the right-hand side. I go back and forth on what the marks mean to me, and maybe I'm just blowing hot air, and they don't mean anything—they're incidental marks.

In his writings, though, Motherwell can't stop talking about "feeling." In a beautiful essay called "What Abstract Art Means to Me," originally published in the Museum of Modern Art Bulletin in 1951, he says, "The emergence of abstract art is a sign that there are still men of feeling in the world. Men who know how to respect and follow their inner feelings, no matter how irrational or absurd they may first appear." There's always been a weird stigma about men having feelings in general (still exists today, no doubt), and certain vocations which require certain levels of sensitivity were often thought of as "feminine." And I'd just like to take a minute now to remind us to stop thinking in such divided and specific terms because gender can be pretty fluid and I'm gonna wear "boy" clothes if I wanna and if boys wanna paint their nails that's fine by me, and, you know, all humans have feelings and creative potential, and it's really stifling us and our interpersonal relationships with one another when we think ourselves into such sharp corners. OK.

It's a boring association to make distinctions between what seems like "masculine" or "feminine" painting, but abstract expressionism was often associated with masculinity because, at its time, it was largely a boys' club. But Helen Frankenthaler (who was married to Motherwell for some time) invented the staining technique that is seen as a precursor to color field painting. And Lee Krasner, whose work is amazing, visually diverse, and aggressive, was overshadowed by her husband, Jackson Pollock. There was no mention of them or Grace Hartigan or Elaine de Kooning or any of the other women from this time in my basic-ass art history classes in college, but they were producing work that was just as important as (and often more impressive than) work by the men of that movement.

When I read Motherwell's writing, I'm lulled into this distorted and weirdly romanticized view of painting, feeling, and movement. "The greater the precision of feeling, the more personal the work will be," Motherwell wrote in a letter to O'Hara. "The more anonymous a work, the less universal, because in some paradoxical way, we understand the universal through the personal." Motherwell's comments feel sincere because the work that came out of this time was directly related to the body, the artist's movements around a canvas—a visceral expression through paint.

Amid this chaos of thinking and reading and searching and expressing feelings, I was thinking about Kurt Cobain, as I often do. Ab-ex paintings are bold, thrashing, visceral, and angry, and so was Nirvana, in lyric and sound. Now, I know, I was like 3 years old when Kurt died, but I had older siblings and a radio when I was growing up (and the internet!), so I kinda got to know what was up. I discovered Nirvana during some very turbulent, angsty times when I was about 12 or 13 years old. And there was something in Kurt's guttural growl and mumbling, and the grating, fuzzy guitars that—wait for it—spoke to me. It's interesting how music that's loud and all about anxiety and horrible things can make you feel better about all the inner loudness and anxiety and horrible things. Paintings can do that too; they can capture insecurity and frustration and transform those feelings, making them relatable.

O'Hara wrote about 'Africa's' ability to be open-ended but also "to communicate human passion in a truly abstract way, while never losing its specific identity as a pictorial statement. The exposure is one of sensibility, rather than of literal imagistic intent, and therefore engages the viewer in its meaning rather than declaring it." O'Hara himself was great at that in his poetry, choosing small, simple moments such as watching the sun set behind someone he loved and writing about it in a way that makes you feel like you’re the one who gets to watch this lovely thing unfold.

That's what powerful art can do. The artist takes something personal and finds a way to shape it and share it, and make the viewer feel something too, letting the viewer engage in its meaning, as O'Hara says. Motherwell says abstract art is driven by what he called an "unquenchable need": "The need is for felt experience—intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic." These words, which at times oppose each other, are apt descriptors for the monumental 'Africa,' whose shapes and gestures feel animated and mobile, even while they are most certainly flat.

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