Robert Motherwell’s Reconciliation Elegy


Reconciliation Elegy, 1978, acrylic on canvas

Robert Motherwell, 1915-1991, American 





Robert Motherwell – at the height of his maturity – was commissioned to create a piece of art by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC for the June 1978 opening of the East Building. 


This vast painting follows you around even after the 2016 re-opening of an even more extensive exhibition space.  It cannot be seen close to.  Nevertheless, it engulfs you and is intensely moving. 





Large, irregular, organic shapes moving through a closed rectangle in which there are internal barriers to be negotiated.  Inviting organic shapes, strong, cruciform,  dense, and as graceful as the body in motion.


Small fragments have broken off and some have, it seems, left an irregular and pale trajectory within the rectangle.


There are some ominous patches and traces of dark red -the colour of blood after it has been spilt – underneath the pristine white.


Equally ominous are smudges where something has not been allowed to come to the surface.


There are vertical barriers also under the white, like the barely visible lines of twine we used to set up, as children, to trip each other up.


The artist painted this on the floor of his studio with the help of one or more assistants.  That is to say that he painted it with the involvement of his whole body.






The artist called this painting Reconciliation Elegy. 


He said that what he was trying to show was the burden of an individual’s life in the midst of the architectural splendor of this building:  a building whose collections were initiated by the accumulated wealth of its wealthiest citizens.


The word elegy denotes a tragic cast of mind; that is: neither optimistic nor pessimistic.

Some might use the term realistic instead of elegaic:

that is to say a rational response to the reality in front of us.







This was 1978 and the country had been transformed in one decade by massive changes orchestrated by millions of individuals organizing, marching, chanting, fighting in concert. 


I take it that the artist is saying that, of course, we have no choice but to reconcile ourselves to the world,


but that the fight is unequal because that world – our socio-political world embedded in and powered by the particular forms of our economy – is inimical to us (many of us) as individuals. 


And thus an elegy which the artist plays in this institutional space paid for by the masters of the American economy and by the Federal Government 

in the hope that his recognition is a support to us.







There are days – and those days have come once again – when I wonder how well I will survive without the sentiment which underlies this magnificent work.



Its sustaining effect on my American sojourn has been equal to that of

One, Number 31, (1950) of Jackson Pollock

who was Robert Motherwell’s exact contemporary,

the afterlight of whose insight, courage, warning, and meteoric life remain with us.



One, Number 31, 1950, oil and enamel paint on canvas

Jackson Pollock, 1912-1956, American.  MOMA, NY