631 Commercial Street

Sea Barn

There is no more conspicuous an artist’s studio in town than Sea Barn. (There are certainly architectural rivals, but none are located smack dab on Commercial Street.) And that prominence is appropriate — as are the perpetually shuttered barn doors — because its builder and occupant, Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), was not only a pillar of Abstract Expressionism but the last artist of international stature to have lived and worked in Provincetown. His undiminished importance was underscored in 2012, when the Provincetown Art Association and Museum mounted an ambitious one-man show of two dozen paintings and prints, “Robert Motherwell: Beside the Sea” [PDF].

The show was described by Christine McCarthy, executive director of the Art Association, as “the first comprehensive exhibition of Motherwell’s paintings to be shown in Provincetown, where he created them.” It commemorated the 70th anniversary of his arrival in Provincetown and the 50th anniversary of the beginning of his Beside the Sea series.

In 1942, on returning from Mexico with his new wife, María Emilia Ferreira y Moyers, Motherwell traveled to Provincetown to join his art dealer, Peggy Guggenheim, and her new husband, Max Ernst. He watched Ernst making “automatic” paintings as a paint bucket with a hole in it swung over a canvas, suspended from the ceiling. Within a month, Ernst was ordered to leave the Cape by the F.B.I. because of his German nationality (no matter the fact that he’d escaped the Nazis), as coastal areas were deemed high security risks. The Motherwells’ sense of isolation deepened during the mandatory blackouts that began at dusk, lest the glow of artificial light in the nighttime sky create a background against which U-boats off the coast could spot the silhouettes of Allied ships, otherwise running dark.

The claustrophobic silent dark of those World War II nights here remains with me like a black stone. So does the Depression poverty of the town then — peeling paint, askew shutters, holes in roofs, primitive stoves and occasional kerosene lamps — as well as my own poor means. I think we had $600 for the four-month summer. Going to the movies meant a tin of beans for supper. Most money went for rent and paint. But María happily sunbathed in the bay while I struggled with painting inside.

Motherwell would return from time to time in the 1940s; once as a participant in the legendary Forum 49 summer series. “I do remember being struck by the simplicity and physical closeness of Provincetown,” he wrote, “compared to the status-consciousness and spread-outness of East Hampton” — where many artists of the New York School spent their summers. In the 1950s, when his teaching gig at Hunter College on the Upper East Side of Manhattan provided a steady income, Motherwell began coming regularly to Provincetown. In 1957, with his second wife, Betty Little, Motherwell bought 622 Commercial Street. His two daughters from that marriage are Jeannie Motherwell (b 1953), a well-known Provincetown painter, and Lise Motherwell (b 1955), who was co-curator of the 2012 exhibition at the Art Association.

Motherwell and Little were divorced in 1958, whereupon he married Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), an artist of considerable stature in her own right. In the summers of 1961 and 1962, they shared the old barn at the Days’ Lumberyard on Pearl Street (which was to become the Fine Arts Work Center). As you can see to this day, the barn has an arched door on the second floor and, yes, that was a direct inspiration for the design of Sea Barn.

The barn was beautiful to behold then, shingled, with arched barn doors on each floor (which I incorporated on the side street of my present studio-houase at 631 Commercial Street), windows on all sides, with the radiant summer light of Provincetown that rivals the Greek islands, because, I have always supposed, like them, Provincetown is on a narrow spit of land surrounded by the sea, which reflects with d diffused brilliance that is subtly but crucially different from the dry, inland light of Tuscany, the Madrid plateau, of Arizona or the Sierra Madres of Mexico ….

Patience was demanded of Motherwell in his pursuit of the 631 Commercial street property, which then held a modest summer cottage from the turn of the century. “The price was reasonable enough ($13,000 I think, i.e., $4,500 down payment), but it was owned by numerous heirs, each of whose share would not amount to much, so there was much hesitation and consultation,” Motherwell recalled. (The grantors recorded on the deed in November 1962 were William J. Timson and Marie (Klein) Timson, husband and wife.) Since he was living just across the road, he would sometimes find himself sitting in a reverie on the steps of its concrete sea wall. “I used to be struck by the beauty, the force and the grace, at high tide with a strong southwest wind, of the sea spray spurting up, sometimes taller than a man, above the sea wall,” he wrote. “After a time I began experimenting with painting the sea spray, at Days barn.” Here was the beginning of the Beside the Sea series. 


To judge from Motherwell’s correspondence, he considered Sea Barn complete in 1968. Importantly, he told Emerson Woelffer in a letter written 26 August 1968, the complex included a mooring for a motor launch on which Motherwell would go out into the bay whenever the weather permitted. “Provincetown is very beautiful from the sea,” he wrote. “Then you can see very clearly its original character as a whaling and fishing port. The natives are largely Portuguese, so that it does not have that Yankee dryness that so much of New England does.” His attic studio was reached through a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland passageway on the second floor, long and narrow, terminating unexpectedly in a staircase leading to the upper floor, an almost completely undivided space except for a wall in front of the arched window, through which he could hoist the largest canvases, and a sleeping nook on the bay side. 

That third floor, in particular, did not put Motherwell in universally good favor. Sea Barn was one of the projects cited in The Advocate of 11 April 1963: “It has been expressed by those apprehensive over how far this will go that such revolutionary change encroaches upon the quality and character of the town which is the heritage of all, townspeeople and visitors alike.” Jeannie Motherwell recalled that all that remained of the cottage were stairs and the chimney. Just about everything else was new construction. “The house was built to look and feel like a ship,” she said. “In fact, he often referred to himself as the ‘captain of his ship.'” The second floor was originally intended as Frankenthaler’s studio exclusively, but when 622 Commercial was sold, Motherwell remodeled the place to include sleeping quarters and Frankenthaler moved her studio back [?] to Days’ Lumberyard. “Dad was most prolific in his Provincetown studio,” Jeannie Motherwell wrote. “Spending only four months of the year there, he produced more work than he did in any other of his studios or at any other time of year.” 


Frankenthaler and Motherwell were divorced in 1971. His marriage to the German photographer Renate Ponsold (b 1935), which began the next year, was the longest of any of his unions. She survived him. Among Posnold’s works are the book Eye to Eye: The Camera Remembers, with Dore Ashton, a collection of portraits published in 1988 by the Hudson Hills Press. In the late ’70s, Motherwell joined with other notable Cape end artists to form a co-operative called the Long Point Gallery in the old Eastern School House at 492-494 Commercial Street. He established the Dedalus Foundation in 1981. Among its functions is the compilation of a catalogue raisonné and what it describes as a “gift/purchase program which allowed over 60 museums to acquire works of art by Motherwell at significant savings.” Dedalus owns the copyrights to all of Motherwell’s works in all media.

On 16 July 1991, Motherwell suffered a stroke. He died in an ambulance on its way to Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. He is buried in the Town Cemetery, in a grave marked by a rough stone with a bronze plate bearing his unmistakable signature. There is no epitaph on the headstone. Many would be possible. At the time of his death, the critic Clement Greenberg said, “Although he is underrated today, in my opinion he was the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters. (Grace Glueck, “Robert Motherwell, Master of Abstract, Dies,” The New York Times, 18 July 1991.) That certainly wouldn’t be a bad one, but I’m also drawn to something Motherwell said to Glueck 15 years earlier: “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?”







4 thoughts on “631 Commercial Street

  1. I wonder about those barn doors every time I bike by. I love that I now know the story and see the inside and the beach view. Thanks, David.

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