The youngest member of the circle of first generation Abstract Expressionist painters, Robert Motherwell was unique in this group for his extensive writings on art as well as his prolific printmaking. Born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1915, Motherwell grew up intending to become a philosopher and received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Stanford University before heading east for graduate study at Harvard. As a child Motherwell’s artistic talent was encouraged with a scholarship for study at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, but he did not begin painting seriously until embarking on a year of European travel in 1938.
In 1941, after traveling to Mexico with Chilean surrealist Matta Echaurren, Motherwell decided to paint full time and moved to Greenwich Village. During this decade, he was most influenced by European surrealists, including Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and André Masson. Interested in the unconscious mind, Motherwell explored theories of automatism by creating free-association collages that he sometimes used as underpinnings for future painting compositions. Automatism also offered Motherwell “an active principle for painting, specifically designed to explore unknown possibilities.”(1) Experimenting with this technique, Motherwell developed a loose yet vigorous brushwork that resonated with emotion.
Motherwell’s art displayed his passion for history, literature, and the human condition. From the beginning he strove to evoke a moral and political experience through his art. As an example, the artist drew on the writing of James Joyce for titles to his paintings, drawings, and prints throughout his career. A poem by Spanish poet Frederico García Lorca gave him the theme of the Elegy to the Spanish Republic, which Motherwell explored in over 200 works.
Motherwell met William Baziotes in 1942 and quickly gained entry to the group of New York artists who would become known as Abstract Expressionists. In 1943, art collector and patron Peggy Guggenheim invited Motherwell, along with Jackson Pollock and Baziotes, to contribute work to an all-collage group show. The following year, Motherwell had his first one-man show at Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery.
In the late 1960s, Motherwell began his Open series, a striking departure from his gestural paintings. Typically fields of color marked with faint charcoal lines suggesting a door or a window, the Open paintings were originally inspired by the sight of a small canvas leaning against a larger one. For the rest of his career, Motherwell painted in both expressive and austere modes, in addition to creating collages and collaborating with printmakers to make limited edition prints.
Motherwell died suddenly at his home in Provincetown in the summer of 1991 and worked productively up to the end. By this time, his career had been widely celebrated and examined with exhibitions not only at Museum of Modern Art in New York, but also at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., the Royal Academy in London, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and the Tamayo Museum in Mexico City (this opened posthumously).
1) David Rosand, ed. Robert Motherwell on Paper. (New York: Abrams, 1977), p.14.
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