One of the founders and principal artists of Abstract Expressionism, Robert Motherwell was an intellectual who became a painter and printmaker and a leading theorist of the New York School – a term he coined. For him, the point of art was ‘to have an aesthetic experience’; painting should ‘find what one’s own essence is’ and seem ‘a true expression of one’s self’.
Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington, on 24 January 1915 and spent most of his childhood in California. Gifted even as an infant, he dated his first interest in drawing and painting to his kindergarten years, recalling that when he was three his teacher’s weather diagrams revealed to him that forms could be symbolic. From the age of seven until 27, he read a book every day, and at 11 he won a scholarship to the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.
Motherwell studied philosophy, psychology and literature at Stanford University from 1932 to 1937. After graduation, despite already wanting to be a painter, he acceded to his father’s wishes and began a PhD in philosophy at Harvard. Leaving in 1938, he spent a year in France which included a brief period at the University of Grenoble, and he had his first solo exhibition at the Raymond Duncan Gallery in Paris. On his return to America, Motherwell settled in New York and enrolled at Columbia University. There he studied art history with Meyer Schapiro, who sensed that his destiny was to be a painter and introduced him to the group of Surrealist artists who had fled wartime Europe. One of them, Roberto Matta, travelled to Mexico with Motherwell for six months in 1941, and it was there that he started painting seriously and decided to become a full-time painter. He also met the actress Maria Emilia Ferreira y Moyers, who would be his wife from 1942 to 1949.
In the early 1940s Motherwell began to search for a new ‘creative principle’ that would mobilise the American artists in New York to move beyond copying Picasso; he developed the theory of automatism based on free association. Describing the sort of art that took hold from the mid 1940s as ‘both abstract and highly emotional’, he painted in an expressive but structured style that relied on the interplay of shape and colour. During the 1940s he started to exhibit in New York, and in 1944 he was invited to hold his first American one-man show at the Peggy Guggenheim ‘Art of This Century’ gallery in New York. Motherwell emerged as the principal spokesman of avant-garde art in America, lecturing widely and writing extensively on the subject. He helped found the ‘Documents of Modern Art’ book series in 1944 and edited it until 1953; in addition, he edited Possibilities magazine (1947) and co-authored Modern Artists in America (New York, 1951). His teaching included setting up an informal school with several other painters (The Subjects of the Artist, 1948–1949) and commitments at Black Mountain College, North Carolina (1951), and Hunter College, New York (1950–1958).
Motherwell created his first collages in 1943, explaining: ‘For a painter as abstract as myself, the collages offer a way of incorporating bits of the everyday world into pictures’. Many of his paintings were conceived in series, exploring a particular configuration to discover its full potential. The most significant of these is ‘Elegy to the Spanish Republic’, which originated in 1948 in a piece of calligraphy he made of a brutal Harold Rosenberg poem; it evolved into some 150 monumental canvases, painted between 1949 and 1990. The series title refers to the refrain of a poem by Federico García Lorca. Motherwell chose it for its universality as ‘a funeral song for someone one cared about’ to encapsulate his black-and-white meditation on life and death, expressed in calligraphic ovals and bars.
In 1950, Motherwell married Betty Little, with whom he had two daughters. However, the marriage began to fail and the ‘Je t’aime’ (‘I Love You’) series (1954–1958) reflects his unhappiness. In an interview with Paul Cummings he explained, ‘People used to think I must have fallen in love and that's why I was painting these. It was the exact opposite; it was really a cry that I would like to love.’ Following divorce, Motherwell married the painter Helen Frankenthaler in spring 1958 and spent the summer in Spain and France. While there, he painted the ‘Iberia’ series, which uses black shapes laid over grounds of golds and ambers. These shades are repeatedly used throughout his oeuvre; as he commented, ‘There are certain colors that have become my colors; they're yellow ochre, black and white, a certain ultramarine blue (in fact some people in New York call it "Motherwell blue")’.
Motherwell had made his first prints in 1943 and returned to printmaking in 1961 with such works as Poet I. Alone among the original Abstract Expressionist group to embrace printmaking enthusiastically, he subsequently produced a body of graphic work that includes A la pintura (1972), a limited edition book of aquatints with letterpress texts, and more than 500 editions made in collaboration with workshops and printers in the United States and Europe. He explained, ‘In printmaking, I essentially use the same process as in painting with one important exception ... to try, with sensitivity to the medium, to emphasize what printing can do best ... better than, say, painting or collaging or watercolor or drawing.’
Further major series of paintings include 64 ‘Beside the Sea’ canvases (1962–1968), in which Motherwell mirrored the spray of the sea by splashing oil paint onto rag paper with great force; and ‘Open’ (1967–1972), his response to the colour-field painters of the 1960s, described by him as ‘a painted plane beautifully divided by minimal means, the essence of line drawing’. Kathy Halbreich, director of Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, writes about the range of influences he absorbed: ‘From his early drawings rooted in a European Surrealist tradition to his monumental abstract canvases, Motherwell’s visual language synthesizes a veritable history of modern painting, reflecting ties to Picasso’s early collages, Matisse’s color-rich paintings, and the development of American Abstract Expressionism in which he played such a pivotal role’.
In 1965, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, mounted a large retrospective for Motherwell that subsequently travelled to five European countries, and from the 1970s exhibitions in his honour proliferated internationally. In 1972 he married his fourth wife, the photographer Renate Ponsold. Motherwell was the recipient of numerous fellowships, honorary doctorates and awards, including the Grande Medaille de Vermeil de la Ville de Paris (1977), the Medallo d’Oro de Bellas Artes, Madrid (1986), and America’s National Medal of Arts (1990). In 1982, a permanent Motherwell Gallery was installed at the Bavarian State Museum of Modern Art in Munich, the only one of its kind for a living artist. Towards the end of his life he set up the Dedalus Foundation in order to foster public understanding of modern art by facilitating research, education, publications and exhibitions. He died in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on 16 July 1991.