Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell

I’d like to introduce you to one of my very favorite artists, Robert Motherwell. Though you may know his work, it is the breadth of his accomplishment and influence that is also quite remarkable. To me, Motherwell reads as confident and precise, and I appreciate that most of his work is openly evocative; when you approach a Motherwell piece, before there is time for analysis, it immediately turns something on inside of you. This very reaction is how Motherwell excelled in the format of Abstract Expressionism, through human connection, and the ability to tap into an emotional channel without the need for familiar imagery.

Robert Motherwell came to New York in 1940. Of the New York School (a name he bestowed upon his group of artist peers), Motherwell was in the fine company of artists like Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, and Franz Kline, artists that changed the idea of modern art by exploring the deeper sense of reality beyond recognizable image. This format was Abstract Expressionism, and Motherwell created some of the most evocative, and most iconic examples.

Born in Aberdeen Washington, in 1915, Robert Motherwell suffered frail health as a child, spending much of his developmental period in California. As an adult, he held interest in many fields and was a well-versed man that studied at California School of Fine Arts, Stanford, Harvard, and finally Columbia. Motherwell received a BA in Philosophy from Stanford University, where he was introduced to modernism through his studies of symbolist literature.

In 1940, when Motherwell relocated to study at Columbia, he was encouraged by Meyer Schapiro to instead devote himself to painting. Through this relationship, Motherwell was introduced to a group of exiled Parisian Surrealists (including Duchamp, Masson, and Max Ernst). After a voyage to Mexico with Roberto Matta (a trip where he met Maria, his first wife), Motherwell made the decision to dedicate himself to painting. Matta introduced him to the concept of “automatic” drawings, a process in which abstract “automatic” responses are used to visually represent the unconscious. This technique has been employed by many of the greats.

In 1944, Motherwell had his first one-man show at Peggy Guggenheim’s “Art of This Century” gallery, and that same year, MoMA was the first museum to purchase one of his works.

As part of the Abstract Expressionist movement, the New York School received harsh criticism from the establishment, as they explored new ways of visualizing a political and personal voice. Motherwell produced in a wide range of media, including painting, print, and collage. He was able to experiment with both American and European ideas of Modernism, and his work is most valued for its energetic imagery, combined with a minimalist approach. Motherwell produced several prominent series and was quite prolific as an artist. His influence was very important in the intellectual and artistic development of the underground New York art world of that time, as Motherwell seemed to serve as the leading spokesman of the movement.

Throughout the 1950s, Motherwell was also a teacher of painting, some of his students included Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Kenneth Noland. Motherwell was also a prolific writer and lecturer, and also directed the Documents of Modern Art Series and edited The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, which was published in 1951.

As Pop art saturated the scene, Abstract Expressionism became an accepted and respected form. In those early years of the work being appreciated by a wider audience, many of the greats were lost to a young death or suicide.

Motherwell continued to produce experimental and praiseworthy work throughout his life. He died in 1991, the last of the great Abstract Expressionists.

Shown, from top: Untitled; Motherwell in his studio, 1952; “Q,” 1968.

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