Robert Motherwell
Biography of Abstract Expressionist Gesturalist Painter.

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Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 70
(1961) Metropolitan Museum of Art NY

Robert Motherwell (1915-91)


Early Studies
First Important Abstract Paintings
Solo Exhibition: Art of this Century Exhibition
Elegy to the Spanish Republic
Experimentation and Collages

Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 110
(1971) Guggenheim Museum, New York.

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The American painter and printmaker Robert Motherwell was part of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, which also encompassed a range of other artists including Mark Rothko (1903-70), Barnett Newman (1905-70), Philip Guston (1913-80) and Willem de Kooning (1904-97). Stylistically Motherwell was highly changeable, and explored several different modern art movements, including Cubism, Collage, Primitivism, Surrealism and Minimalism. Although attracted to abstract art from the beginning, his work contains traces of figuration, as well as an intellectual narrative inspired by history, philosophy and personal biography. Motherwell began by studying philosophy at Harvard before taking up painting. Unlike the shy Rothko, Motherwell was highly communicative: in addition to a prolific painting career he also wrote essays and books which discussed non-objective art. Switching from oil to acrylic painting in the 1960s, he often painted large areas of canvas in his distinctive blue or black. His long-running series of abstract paintings, entitled Elegy to the Spanish Republic are considered to be his most important work, although he is also noted for his collage art and prints. He is regarded as one of the finest narrator-type abstract painters, and one of the great modern artists of the American school.



Early Studies

Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1915. At first he hoped to become a philosopher, and studied philosophy at Stanford and Harvard. Here, he came into contact with the American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) who encouraged Motherwell's interest in abstraction. Motherwell then went on to study the history of art at Stanford, where he learned about Surrealism, and was strongly influenced by the oil painting of Roberto Matta. Born in Chile, Matta's Surrealist paintings and writings formed a connection between the Surrealist exiles and the School of Abstract Expressionism, which was more dominant in America at the time. Another early influence on Motherwell was the French poet Stephane Mallarme, whose writings were adopted by the revolutionary art schools of Dadaism, Surrealism and Futurism. Motherwell's sense of abstract art developed early, his desire was to peel away what he viewed as inessential, leaving behind the bare essential. He said: "without ethical consciousness, a painter is only a decorator".


First Important Abstract Paintings

In 1938, Motherwell visited Europe, where he was profoundly affected by the human casualities and atrocities incurred during the Spanish Civil War. The theme of this civil conflict would re-occur throughout his working career. In 1941, he painted the Little Spanish Prison (Museum of Modern Art), a crude, brutalised painting. Though abstract in nature, the vertical bands suggest prison bars, while the rectangle, suggests the outline of a window. Aware that the Surrealists favoured automatic brush strokes (see automatism in art), Motherwell began by tipping thinned paint onto the canvas. He changed the painting many times over the years, recalling twenty years later that it was the first work in which he "hit something that is deep" in his character. His use of free running paint affected his friends Jackson Pollock (1912-56) and his wife Lee Krasner (1908-84) as well as the Pittsburgh master William Baziotes (1912-63). Pollock was inspired later to create his own style of gesturalism, known as action painting. (For more on his methodology, see Jackson Pollock's paintings 1940-56.) While spending some time in Mexico, Motherwell created his first important sketches - Mexican Sketchbook - a series of pen and ink drawings, which with their simple shapes and flat areas of colour displayed, influences of Piet Mondrian, Henri Matisse and Picasso.

Solo Exhibition: Art of this Century Gallery

During the 1940s, like most of his friends, Motherwell remained true to recognisable imagery. In 1943, he created a series of dark, torn paper collages called Surprise and Inspiration (Guggenheim, Venice). The torn, paint-stained paper was meant to symbolize blood soaked bandages. He was to return to collage many times over his life, although he regarded it a personal pleasure, using materials and collections of things he might like to have around him. The Surprise and Inspiration collages were the main focal point of his solo exhibition, organised by Peggy Guggenheim at the Art of This Century Gallery, New York in 1943. During the 1940s, Motherwell often chose subject matters of a literary and political nature. A fine example is his gouache and oil with collage entitled Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive (1943, Museum of Modern Art).

Elegy to the Spanish Republic

During the 1940s and 1950s Motherwell spent much of his time lecturing at various colleges in New York. He also worked on three important literary contributions to modern art: The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology (New York, 1951); Possibilities magazine (from 1947); and Modern Artists in America (New York, 1951), co-authored with the abstract painter Ad Reinhardt (1913-67). Motherwell's best known early abstract painting from 1953 is Elegy to the Spanish Republic XXXIV (Albright-Knox, Buffalo). Motherwell's visit to civil war-torn Spain when he was 21, made such a lasting impression, that he devoted more than 200 paintings to the theme. His Elegys to Spain were meant to commemorate human suffering in an abstract form and were symbolic of the cycle of life and death. Motherwell said, "After a period of painting them, I discovered Black as one of my subjects - and with black, the contrasting white, a sense of life and death, which to me is quite Spanish. They are essentially the Spanish black of death contrasted with the dazzle of a Matisse-like sunlight." Motherwell continued to make Elegys until the 1980s, another example is Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110, Easter Day (1971, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum).

Experimentation and Collages

Motherwell returned to his painting full-time in the late 1950s, producing more of his Elegys series, on larger and larger canvases. He also produced a series of smaller oil paintings called Je t'aime (1954-8, mostly in private collections). In 1958 he married Helen Frankenthaler (b.1928), the inventor of colour stain painting. He continued to create collages, introduced lithographic methods and incorporated materials like cigarette-packets and artists supplies. From 1962 on he began to spend summers at an artist colony in Provincetown, which inspired a series of 64 works in which he splashed oil paint, mimicking the action of sea spray on canvas. During the period 1968-1972 Motherwell created a series of paintings called Open in response to the colour field painting movement. An example is Open No.17: In Ultramarine with Charcoal Line (1968), which consists of one area of a single colour, onto which he has drawn a rectangle in charcoal. It was an abstract related to the traditional views through open windows, a view employed by representational European artists such as Henri Matisse. From the mid 1960s the artist made the final and full switch from oil paints to acrylic, enjoying the liberating effects of the speedy drying time. He used Magma, a brand of acrylic paint which was known for its concentration of pigments, which retained its intensity of colour when thinned.


Motherwell was also actively involved in printmaking. He created a body of printed works, the first important one was called Lithograph Poet I (Tate Modern, London, 1961). In 1972 he created A La Pintura, a limited edition book of 24 unbound pages of etchings and colour aquatint. Throughout his life Motherwell endeavoured to find a personal and political voice in his abstraction. He died in 1991, one of the last remaining members of the great American abstract expressionist painting movement.


Today his paintings can be found in the best art museums throughout America, including the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney and San Francisco Museum of Art. In Europe his work can be seen at the Tate Modern in London, and the French National Museum of Modern Art, in the Pompidou Centre, Paris.

• For more biographies of American abstract artists, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For more information about Abstract Expressionism, see: Homepage.

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