Wave II (Caprice #4)

Treasures of the Swope

Wave II (Caprice #4)


Robert Motherwell (1915 Aberdeen, Washington– 1991 Provincetown, Massachusetts)

Oil on canvas

72” x 36”

Museum purchase and gift of the Dedalus Foundation



The horizon lies restlessly below the absolute center of the canvas: its upper demarcation a wavering penumbra that hovers above a sea of vigorous brushstrokes forming an oily black square. The shape sinks to the bottom of the painting like an anchor. Erupting from the oily mass is an exuberant swash of spattered black paint. It springs into the upper void in a charged opposition to gravity. Like a dancer’s arching leap, it is the elegant expression of a primal force. Indeed, the painting Wave II (Caprice #4), was inspired by waves crashing on the bulkhead outside Robert Motherwell’s Provincetown studio, which sits on the top floor of the home he built called “Sea Barn.”


At a height of six feet, the tall, narrow, rectangular canvas evokes the proportions of a human figure more than a seascape. A sense of human scale, like the physics integral to the creation of this work, is embodied within the gestural technique Motherwell used to make the painting. Similar to the drip technique employed by his fellow Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock, Motherwell loaded his brushes with paint and flung them towards the canvas, allowing the force of gravity and chance to influence the painting. Abstract Expressionists believed that the physical act of painting was as meaningful as its content. And Motherwell knew that to paint nature; it was essential to mimic its movement.


Robert Motherwell studied philosophy at Stanford, Harvard, and Columbia Universities. He wrote extensively about art, as well. His work was influenced by Zen calligraphy and the paintings of Piero della Francesca, Goya, and the Van Eycks—brothers he considered to be “miraculous” painters. He felt he belonged to a family of “black” painters—that is, painters who created masterpieces using black painting pigment: Manet, Goya, and Matisse.


Art that persists into a new era is interpreted through experiences of new generations. In an interview in Artforum, September 1965, he states: “I don’t think history is only serial, I think events exist side by side, and that various generations are simultaneous, to some extent.” Wave II (Caprice #4) is here with us now, waiting to be interpreted through the lens of our 21st century experience.


A transparent white veil fills most of the upper space of the composition. The extravagant swash exists within a carefully delineated bubble in the veil, as if both black and white could not breathe the same air. Along the perimeter of the rising form, white paint has been brushed into the still malleable black, creating spatial depth and a third harmony with marks that amplify the spirit of the form.

Wave II (Caprice #4) is on display at the Swope Art Museum.



–Amy MacLennan, Curator