Robert Motherwell (1915–1991) played a pivotal role in the development of Abstract Expressionism and Post-War American art. In addition to painting, printmaking and his work in collage, he also wrote extensively on his own art, the art of his contemporaries, and the European Modernist movements more broadly.
Born in Aberdeen, Washington in 1915, Motherwell spent most of his childhood in Central California — a landscape that significantly influenced the color and atmosphere of this early paintings and collages. He studied at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and earned his BA in philosophy from Stanford University in 1937. After briefly studying at Harvard, Motherwell started graduate studies in 1940 at Columbia University in art history. While there, he became involved with artists who would become the main members of the Abstract Expressionist movement, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Motherwell also studied under influential art historian Meyer Schapiro, who introduced him to émigré Surrealist artists and encouraged him to pursue being an artist. Motherwell’s early work was especially influenced by the Surrealists’ concept of “automatism,” based on the act of creating out of the subconscious.
By 1941, Motherwell began creating his first mature works and showing his work in New York. In 1944 he had his first solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s “Art of this Century” gallery and would go on to show at Samuel M. Kootz Gallery and Sidney Janis Gallery during this early period. In 1948, he began working with his most notable and wide-ranging motif, Elegy to the Spanish Republic. This series, which he revisited for the next several decades, dealt with the fall of the democratic Spanish Republic, the repercussions of which can still be felt today. Through abstraction, gestural brushwork and an often stark black and white palette, Motherwell created a cyclical re-telling of this historical event, a site through which other public mournings and the role of art in society could be addressed. While the early Elegy canvases were small, later works in the series, such as Reconciliation Elegy were monumental in scale.
Throughout the 1950s Motherwell also taught painting at Hunter College, showed widely in America and Europe, and married the artist Helen Frankenthaler in 1958. In 1965, he was the subject of a major mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. After the ending of his marriage in 1968, Motherwell began another major series, the Open paintings. These works are a notable departure from the Elegies, with their focus on color fields and simple compositions of three or four lines. These works reflect Motherwell’s interest in Eastern philosophies like Zen Buddhism, as well as his explorations in creating pictorial harmony, rather than discord and tension.
Collage and, later in the 1970s, printmaking, were major bodies of work that ran parallel to Motherwell’s paintings. In contrast to his paintings, which are largely seen by both Motherwell and his commentators as intellectual, public pursuits, his collages are more rooted in feeling and autobiography. These works usually combine detritus of mass culture — magazine clippings, advertisements, cigarette and liquor packaging — with gestural marks and a masterful, expressive use of color.
As one of the longest living artists associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement, Motherwell’s body of work expanded beyond the confines of this style and bridged early European and American modernism. He brought to abstraction a deep empathy for humanity and a constant reassessment of the intellectual dialogues between art and philosophy, as well as his own personally developed motifs and use of materials. His writings on art were also influential in giving weight and context to an emerging American art form. Throughout his five-decade career, Motherwell’s work came to reflect and stand in for the intellectual, political and cultural upheavals of the 20th century.
Motherwell’s works are held in major public collections around the world, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA; Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain; Art Institute of Chicago, IL and many others worldwide.