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Robert Motherwell

American painter and printmaker Robert Motherwell was a foundational figure of Abstract Expressionism, integrating aspects of action painting, color field painting, and European traditions of decorative abstraction into his own work. Motherwell was also one of the youngest artists associated with the New York School in the 1950s and ‘60s, a group that included Philip Guston, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.  Born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1915, Motherwell spent much of his childhood on California’s Pacific Coast to combat his severe asthma attacks. Robert Motherwell PhotoBeginning in 1932, he entered the California School of Fine Arts and then Stanford University, where he studied philosophy and was introduced to Modernism by reading Symbolist and other important literature including the works of Stéphane Mallarmé, James Joyce, and Edgar Allan Poe. As part of a conditional agreement with his father, Motherwell, who wanted to study painting, eventually decided to pursue a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard. It was there that he began to develop his own ideas about abstraction, inspired by the writings of John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, and David Prall.

While studying at Harvard, Motherwell met American composer Arthur Berger, who encouraged Motherwell to pursue painting. Berger suggested that Motherwell move to New York to study at Columbia University with Meyer Shapiro; he finally did so in 1940, devoting himself fully to art rather than scholarship. Through Shaprio, he met the coterie of Parisian Surrealist artists who were in exile in New York at the time—Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and André Masson. This yielded a major influence on Motherwell’s artistic development, particularly in his adoption of the Surrealist tactic of “automatic drawing,” using mark-making as a way to tap into and express the unconscious mind. For Motherwell as well as for the artists he came to know in New York, including Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, this idea played a major role in the development of a distinctly American style of abstraction, known as Abstract Expressionism, which emphasized spontaneous mark-making as the expression of the artist’s subliminal emotions and mind. 

The style, and the artists associated with it, began to receive international attention in the 1940s, when Motherwell started regularly exhibiting his work in New York. In 1944, he had a solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery Art of this Century, and, the same year, the Museum of Modern Art purchased one of his works. Meanwhile, his artistic circle grew. He also became the editor of the Documents of Modern Art book series and contributed regularly to the literature surrounding developments in Modern art. In the 1950s, Motherwell taught at both Hunter College in New York and Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where soon-to-be major artists like Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Kenneth Noland were students. In 1962, he began spending the summers in Provincetown on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, a landscape that inspired many of his paintings. From 1968 on, his work became more contemplative, as in the "Open" series, his response to the Color Field painting of that decade.  

Motherwell died in Provincetown in 1991. His work has been shown in major retrospective exhibitions at Barcelona’s Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Mexico City’s Museo Rufino Tamayo, Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, among many others, and is in major collections worldwide. 

Robert Motherwell, 1915-1991
Elegy to the Spanish Republic, No. 57,
84 x 108 inches
Oil on canvas
Collection: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

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