Robert Motherwell

American artist Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) was one of the founders and last surviving members of the path-breaking Abstract Expressionist movement in painting.

Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington, in January 1915. He pursued an extensive liberal arts education before he fully committed himself to painting. He received his bachelor of arts degree in philosophy from Stanford University, where he studied between 1932 and 1937, with a year away at the California School of Fine Arts. He did graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University in 1937-1938; he attended the University of Grenoble in the summer of 1938 and did more graduate work at Columbia University in 1940-1941, this time in art history. His interest in painting persisted through these years. He was largely self-taught.

Motherwell began painting only after completing his academic studies. Early in his career, he was attracted to Surrealist notions of tapping into the unconscious as a source of imagery, a method called "psychic automatism." As he put it, "You don't have to paint a figure to express human feelings. The game is not what things look like. The game is organizing as accurately and with as deep discrimination as one can, states of feeling, and states of feeling … become questions of light, color, weight, solidity, airiness, lyricism, whatever." He shared with other founders of Abstract Expressionism (Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko) the conviction that the source of art was in untrammeled inner reality, rather than in observed actuality. Painting was a process of self-discovery and self-revelation, and a picture was evidence of that search. This new movement in art was highly successful, and because of his ease with matters intellectual, Motherwell served as Abstract Expressionism's unofficial spokesman.

While in the 1940's ex-patriate Surrealists in New York took young Motherwell's work seriously, and while he was friends with the Chilean Surrealist Matta, he wasn't interested in the look of Surrealist art. Motherwell's heros were Céezanne, Picasso, Mondrian, and especially Matisse. He regarded these influences as inevitable. "My father had a vineyard in the Napa Valley [in California]. I grew up in a landscape not at all dissimilar to Provence, or to the central plateau of Spain, or to parts of Italy and the Mediterranean basin."

In drawing, Motherwell invented his own elegant calligraphy fluid diagrams of emotional states as well as testimony to a faultless sense of placement. Drawing was primary; color was but a means of carrying content. "Generally, I use few colors," he said, "yellow ochre, ver-million, orange, cadmium green, ultramarine blue. Mainly I use each color as simply symbolic: ochre for the earth, green for the grass, blue for the sky and sea. I guess that black and white, which I use most often, tend to be protagonists."

In his collages there is vivid evidence of his life-long love of things French, and of his delight in anything Mediterranean. They show clearly the basis of his art in French modernism, his enthusiasm for French poetry, food, even for the color of French cigarette wrappers (Gauloise blue). For Motherwell, the collages "are a kind of private diary, not made with an actual autobiographical intention, but one that functions in an associative way for me."

Motherwell enjoyed a long and successful career of national and international exhibitions. His first one-man show took place at Peggy Guggenheim's adventurous "Art of This Century" gallery in New York. He exhibited at the Kootz Gallery during the late 1940's, at the Sidney Janis Gallery through the 1950's and early 1960's, and at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in the late 1960's. His work also was featured in important international exhibitions, including the São Paulo and Venice biennials and the Brussels World's Fair. In the 1990's his works were on exhibition in New York galleries, in several other American states, and in other countries.

Motherwell's best known images are probably the Spanish Elegies, the first of which appeared in 1948. Originally, he intended them as a tribute to the short-lived Spanish Republic, but they preoccupied him off and on until his death. He said the Elegies were "also general metaphors of the contract between life and death, and their interrelation." Most of these works were executed in black and white. Another series of paintings called the Opens came from seeing a small canvas in the studio leaning against a larger one; the series is "severely geometric."

Motherwell's rich intellectual background consistently found expression outside the studio. In 1947-1948 he co-edited the cultural magazine Possibilities. With William Baziotes, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, he founded an art school, "Subjects of the Artist," in 1948. In 1951 he edited The Dada Painters and Poets, a major anthology of the early 20th-century movement, which helped to inspire the revival of Dada during the late 1950's and early 1960's. (Harvard University issued a second edition of this work in 1989.) Between 1951 and 1957 he taught at Hunter College, and in the mid-1960s he served as art director for the Partisan Review. He was also a brilliant speaker and lectured at colleges and universities throughout the United States.

In 1961 Motherwell began making limited editions of his work. He was the only one of the original abstract expressionists to take up printmaking. He combined his unique abstract style with the materials and technical requirements of printmaking to create more than 200 editions over the next 30 years. Robert Motherwell died in July, 1991.


Further Reading on Robert Motherwell

For works by Motherwell, see The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, which he edited in 1951 (second edition, 1989) and Stephanie Terenzio, ed., The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell (1992). For recent collections of his work, with commentaries, see Stephanie Terenzio, The Prints of Robert Motherwell, David Rosand (ed.) Robert Motherwell on Paper: Drawing, Prints, Collages (1997), Stephanie Terenzio, Robert Motherwell and Black (1980); for critical works, see Robert S. Mattison, Robert Motherwell: The Formative Years (1987), Mary Ann Caws, Robert Motherwell: What Art Holds (1996).