artnet Asks: Art Dealer and Robert Motherwell Champion Bernard Jacobson

Why has the Motherwell market suddenly exploded?

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Bernard Jacobson
Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 130 (1974-75).
Photo: Courtesy of Bernard Jacobson Gallery.
Robert Motherwell, Beside the Sea No. 3 (1962).
Photo: Courtesy of Bernard Jacobson Gallery.
Robert Motherwell, The Homely Protestant II (1988-90).
Photo: Courtesy of Bernard Jacobson Gallery.
Robert Motherwell, A View Number 1 (1958).
Photo: Courtesy of Bernard Jacobson Gallery.
Robert Motherwell, Untitled (New England Elegy No.5) (1967).
Photo: Courtesy of Bernard Jacobson Gallery.
Robert Motherwell, Open No.22 (1968).
Photo: Courtesy of Bernard Jacobson Gallery.

The Bernard Jacobson Gallery is something of a London institution. Opened in 1969, it has showcased the work of such illustrious 20th-century figures as Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, and Helen Frankenthaler, to name but a few. Over the last decade, Bernard Jacobson has also become a staunch supporter of Robert Motherwell, building one of the world’s most significant collections of his work.

To celebrate the centenary of the artist’s birth on January 24th, Jacobson will inaugurate new premises on Duke Street in London’s St. James’s with a major retrospective of Motherwell’s work. Ahead of the show, the dealer caught up with artnet News to explain why he feels Motherwell is the most important American artist of his generation.

When Robert Motherwell died in 1991, Clement Greenberg said he was “underrated.” Do you feel that it’s still the case now?
I think Motherwell is the greatest of that group. Actually, the real greats for me are Motherwell and de Kooning. I know Pollock was also great—de Kooning said he broke the ice—but basically Motherwell’s paintings are better. And I think it’s about pictures in the end. I was talking to the guard at the Met last year. There’s a Pollock there and a Motherwell Elegy there. They’re not fools those guards, you know. So I said to him: “Why is there a crowd around that painting [Pollock], and there’s nobody looking at that one.” He said: “Because that’s very valuable.” I said, “Which do you think is better”? He said [pointing at the Motherwell], “Oh, that!”

So why is he still undervalued compared to some of his better-known contemporaries?
It’s all to do with what Harold Rosenberg called: “the herd of independent minds.” People don’t know anything about art. And here, in England, they are worse, they are not comfortable with modern art at all.

Still today?
Absolutely. They like country scenes and Damien Hirst. Country scenes because it’s what they really like, and Damien Hirst because he’s in the Evening Standard every night. They have no idea what Pablo Picasso is about, they think it’s a joke, and Henry Moore—who is probably our greatest artist since Turner and Constable—they don’t get it, they think they’ve been had.

The thing is, my market is not here. I am the biggest dealer in the world in certain artists, and that’s the way I like to do it. And finally, after all those years, the Motherwell market exploded last month. I’ve waited ten years for that moment. Christie’s sold a Motherwell for $2.4 million. Another painting, a big red Elegy we were very worried was going to be stuck, went up to $2.7 million. I only managed to get one piece out of the whole auction season, and I normally get the whole lot. I’m out now. Two days ago, I was offered an Open for $2 million, and I have one pretty much identical, although much bigger and better, for which we paid a fraction of the price 18 months ago.

My feeling is when the market collapses—and it always does, I’ve seen four recessions—God help you for sitting on Rothko or Barnett Newman, but Motherwell will be fine. Pollock doesn’t matter, because there are no Pollocks. They are all spoken for, he didn’t do many paintings and he died so young […] the market won’t be tested at all. Rothko was prolific, and his prices could be halved. Who knows, but I really don’t think those wise guys will be sticking their hands out saying: “$80 million? Nothing! Cheap!”

How did you get into art?
I went to LA to write a novel about surfers. I had just interviewed a pop group called the Beach Boys—are you aware of them?—and they made a big impression on me. I left journalism—I was at a paper called the Daily Mail—and dropped out to write this novel in LA about the free spirit of the surfers. As I was going to LA, I stopped off on the way in New York to see some skyscrapers and things like that, and I stayed a year. My first week in New York I did a happening with [Claes] Oldenburg, I got very friendly with Andy Warhol immediately, Jim Rosenquist, Lichtenstein, it was fun. I got my head turned from Picasso, Matisse, and European stuff to that, because New York was the center of the world in the 1960s. I came back an art dealer. Never saw LA that time around.

I was basically a publisher for the first 10 years: Ed Ruscha, William Tillyer, David Hockney, Richard Hamilton, you name it. Then I found myself drifting more and more into paintings and unique works. Then I became the world’s biggest dealer in Modern British art. And then, after 17 years, when I really felt like I’d done that, I moved away. After my best year ever, 1989—we had the crash in 1990—I was with my friend Joe Hellman. I was sitting in his office, and I was talking and talking. And I said, “How much is that painting?” It was a big Stella. He said “$200,000.” I thought it was the cheapest painting there was. This was the great Frank Stella! So I went, “Can I get together with Frank?”’ I got together with Frank, became Frank’s worldwide dealer and I put him back on the map. His market was like (gives thumb down sign). And then I became a huge dealer in Frankenthaler, Noland, Rauschenberg. Then I found myself moving away even from that, but I decided to keep Motherwell. He was dead, I never knew him, and I thought he was unbelievably underrated. I thought, “This is one of the great Americans.” And I chucked all my time, energy, money, passion, into Motherwell.

When did you take him on?

At that point you felt that there was no interest in his work, or very little.
Virtually none at all. I was buying paintings from all the dealers across America for retail. I didn’t even ask for discount. I had done the same thing for Modern British. There were a lot of lazy dealers in Modern British. They would have three-hour lunches. And I found the same thing with the Motherwell dealers: very lazy, didn’t get it, weren’t thinking. So I bought and bought and bought, and now have an enormous collection, which runs into the hundreds.

2015 is going to be a good year.
Yeah, I’m very excited. This January, we are opening our new space with Motherwell, a retrospective show of works from 1944 to 1991. Motherwell is a giant. Motherwell is like tapping into a gold mine that hasn’t been really dealt with. He was an intellectual. When he invented the Elegies, they were passionate; they were sexually loaded; they were politically loaded; they were powerful; they were everything. If he hid everything else and said that, after his death, he only allowed the Elegies to be shown, he would be bigger than anyone in the New York School. You can read the Elegies again, and again, and again. It’s the same with the Opens, you can revisit, and revisit, and revisit. Like a Cézanne, you can never get to the bottom of a Cézanne.

Motherwell was also instrumental as a theoretician for the group, wasn’t he?
Yes, and he named the New York School. Although Rothko was almost 20 years older, he thought the world of Motherwell. They all thought the world of Motherwell. He used Mondrian. He used Piero della Francesca. He used Cézanne. He absorbed it all, and it’s all hidden in there. If you look inside a Rothko or a Pollock or a Barnett Newman, there’s so little there compared to Motherwell. Although I love their work too.

What about the other artists in the gallery?
Well, I think I have the best artist in France, [Pierre] Soulages. I personally think I have the best artist in England, by far, William Tillyer. I spend a lot of time learning, reading, writing, thinking. I intend to produce a ballet with William Tillyer. I would rather devote the next 20 years to doing what I really believe in, and I’ve lost millions by doing that. I could have flipped Koonses and Schnabels and whatever, but I just thought, “How much money do I need?” I’ve made a bit of money. I’m not hungry. And you know what? I’m gonna die. So why don’t I do something that I’m really proud of?

On a final note, what are you most looking forward to this year?
We’ve been inundated with people who want to do Motherwell shows. We can’t do them all. So we are doing them strategically. I could do them in Australia, in South Africa, every state in America, every country in Europe. I just use each card very carefully. I am a dealer. I enjoy dealing. But I prefer dealer-to-dealer dealings. Although, I have a few friends who are collectors. I went to New York first in the 1960s, and I would go to see Pierre Matisse Gallery. He was a grumpy old git. He was always grumbling, and I was like, “Come on, you are Pierre Matisse, you are so important, you have all these wonderful artists.” And of course, now I know what he meant!

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