631 Commercial Street

631 Commercial Street, Sea Barn, by David W. Dunlap (2010).

631 Commercial Street, Sea Barn, by David W. Dunlap (2010).

There is no more conspicuous studio in town than Sea Barn. Its builder, Robert Motherwell, was a pillar of Abstract Expressionism, the last artist of international stature to live and work in town. His importance was underscored by a one-man show at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum in 2012, on the 70th anniversary of his arrival (to visit his art dealer, Peggy Guggenheim, and her husband, Max Ernst). Lise Motherwell, co-curator, and Jeannie Motherwell, a well-known artist, are his daughters with Betty Little, with whom he bought No. 622 in 1957.

631 Commercial Street, Robert Motherwell's studio, by David W. Dunlap (2012).

631 Commercial Street, Robert Motherwell’s studio, by David W. Dunlap (2012).

In 1961 and 1962, Motherwell shared the old barn at the Days Lumber Yard with his third wife, Helen Frankenthaler, an artist of high stature herself. Its arched loft door inspired the design of Sea Barn, the site of which he acquired in 1962. He considered Sea Barn complete in 1968, with Frankenthaler’s studio on the second floor and his on the third. “He produced more work than he did in any other of his studios or at any other time of year,” Jeannie wrote. In time, the floor was covered with drips and splatters that made it look like a 21-by-37-foot Motherwell.

631 Commercial Street, floor of Robert Motherwell's studio, by David W. Dunlap (2012).

631 Commercial Street, floor of Robert Motherwell’s studio, by David W. Dunlap (2012).

He died in 1991, survived by his fourth wife, the German photographer Renate Ponsold, and is buried in Town Cemetery. As for an epitaph, he told Grace Glueck of The New York Times: “I’ve spent my life self-employed, done what I wanted to do, had a couple of beautiful daughters — how many people can say that?” The building was acquired in 2012 by Kevin Shea and Judith Richland, proprietors of the Watermark Inn. “I was able to salvage Motherwell’s floor so that it could be reassembled as a whole piece,” he told me in 2014. It’s now in storage.


More than 2,000 buildings and vessels are searchable on buildingprovincetown.com. The Building Provincetown book is available for purchase ($20) at Town Hall, Office of the Town Clerk, 260 Commercial Street, Provincetown 02657.

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