Robert Motherwell


Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington on January 24, 1915, but he would spend much his childhood in the dry environs of central California, where he was sent in an effort to relieve his severe asthma. The son of a well-to-do and conservative bank chairman, Motherwell was expected to follow in his father's footsteps.1 From early on, though, Motherwell displayed an affinity for more intellectual and creative pursuits, and his early education included a scholarship to study at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.

Before he devoted himself entirely to art practice, Motherwell received an extensive education in philosophy, literature and art history. He began his studies at Stanford University, where he earned a BA in philosophy in 1937. There he encountered the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and the work of French symbolist poets, and these twin inspirations helped to open Motherwell's mind to the possibilities of abstraction in writing and art.

After graduation, he began a PhD program in philosophy at Harvard, but his studies were interrupted by a yearlong European trip which he embarked upon in 1938, and during which he fell in love with European modernism. It was only his at father's insistence that he chose a stable occupation that led him to study art history at Columbia University in 1940, instead of immediately beginning his career as an artist.2 Yet Motherwell's time at Columbia proved to be significant for his artistic development. Upon his arrival to New York, he fell in with the circle of painters who would make up the core of the Abstract Expressionist movement. And he was also powerfully influenced by Meyer Schapiro, who was then teaching at Columbia. Shapiro encouraged Motherwell's painting and introduced him to the group of European Surrealists living in New York at the time. He was deeply impressed by their notion of automatism - the idea that art might be a manifestation of the artist's subconscious - and it would become a central tenet of his work.

's first known works were composed during a 1941 trip to Mexico with the Surrealist painter Roberto Matta. These eleven pen and ink drawings, collectively called the "Mexican Sketchbook," show the influence of Surrealism, yet they are essentially abstract in nature and balance formal composition with spontaneous invention.3 Motherwell's career then received a jump-start in 1943 when Peggy Guggenheim offered him the opportunity to create new work for a show of collages by several European modernists. He took to collage immediately and would continue to utilize the technique throughout his career. The pieces included in the show featured a mixture of torn paper, expressively applied paint, and violent themes relating to the Second World War. The show proved successful for Motherwell, and it was followed by a solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery in New York in 1944, and a contract with the dealer Sam Kootz in 1945.

In the 1940s, Motherwell also began parallel careers in teaching, editing and writing. Over the next two decades, he taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina; he helped to establish an art school, Subjects of the Artist, in New York's Greenwich Village; and he also taught at Hunter College. He wrote for the Surrealist publication VVV in 1941, and later edited the extremely influential Documents of Modern Art series, the publication Possibilities, and The Dada Painters and Poets anthology. He would continue to lecture and write about art throughout his long career.

Elegies to the Spanish Republic series - the career-spanning group of over 140 works for which the artist is perhaps best known - began as a small drawing created in 1948 to accompany a poem in Possibilities. A year later, Motherwell reworked the sketch as a painting called At Five in the Afternoon, so named for a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, a poet who was executed during the Spanish Civil War. The Elegies paintings use the tragedy of the war as a metaphor for all human suffering; and with their stark black and white palette, gestural brushwork, and tense relationships between ovoid and rectilinear forms, they also attempt to symbolically represent the human cycles of life, death, oppression and resistance.

In1961, Motherwell began to reinvent his collages as limited editions of lithographic prints. He would become the only artist in the first generation of Abstract Expressionists to utilize printmaking as a major part of his artistic practice. Motherwell's collages from this period also started to incorporate the detritus (cigarette wrappers, etc.) of his daily life. These autobiographical references hint again at the artist's interest not only in formal and intellectual concerns, but also his continued engagement with the external world and his own emotions.

began his third major series, the Opens, in 1968, after the dissolution of his marriage to the artist Helen Frankenthaler. As with his earlier series, these works are organized around a relatively simple formal construct - in this case, a two or three-sided rectilinear box on a mostly monochromatic field - in which Motherwell would find almost infinite room for variation and extrapolation.

Unlike many of his friends and contemporaries in the Abstract Expressionist movement, whose lives and careers burned brightly but for far too short a time, Motherwell would continue to work productively throughout the next thirty years. He spent these years painting, printmaking, lecturing and further expanding upon the themes that had occupied his entire life. After a long and prolific career, the artist died in 1991 at his home in Provincetown, Massachusetts.