(b. 24 January 1915 in Aberdeen, Washington; d. 16 July 1991 in Provincetown, Massachusetts), painter, printmaker, writer, and educator who was a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement.
Motherwell was the first of two children born to Robert Burns Motherwell and Margaret Hogan Motherwell and raised on the Pacific Coast. His father was a prominent banker and provided educational opportunities largely unknown to the other abstract expressionist artists. As a child, Motherwell suffered from severe asthmatic attacks and was sent to Moran Preparatory School in Atascadero in the dry climate of southern California, where he developed a love for the broad spaces and bright colors that later characterized some of his abstract paintings. His later concerns with themes of mortality can also be traced to frail health as a child. From 1932 until 1937 he studied literature, philosophy, and psychology at Stanford University in California, and discovered in French symbolist poetry an expression of moods dispensing with traditional narrative that he believed to be the fountainhead of modern art. A number of his later paintings are tributes to such writers as Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé. As a postgraduate student of philosophy at Harvard University from 1937 to 1939, Motherwell found further justification for abstraction in the writings of John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, and David Prall. Motherwell decided to become an artist after seeing modern French painting during a trip to Paris in 1938 and 1939, but in order to satisfy his father’s demands for a secure career, he first studied art history from 1940 to 1941 under Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University in New York. Through Schapiro, he met the European surrealist artists exiled in New York during World War II. Their use of automatic techniques as a means of registering subconscious impulses had a lasting effect on Motherwell and coordinated with his interest in Freudian psychology and symbolist poetics. Motherwell also developed a profound interest in the previous generation of modern artists, particularly Hans Arp, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and Pablo Picasso.
In 1941 Motherwell traveled with the surrealist Roberto Matta to Mexico, where he developed a lifelong interest in Hispanic cultures. In Mexico, Motherwell created his first preserved works and married the Mexican actress María Emilia Ferreira y Moyers in 1941. Returning to New York City, which remained his home base for the next twenty-eight years, Motherwell met his fellow abstract expressionist artists, including William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, and Hans Hofmann. Motherwell was invited along with Baziotes and Pollock as the only Americans to submit works to an international collage exhibition by Peggy Guggenheim, founder of the Art of This Century Gallery, the most important gallery to show early works of the abstract expressionists. This event began Motherwell’s lifelong interest in collage, a medium in which he was one of the major practitioners since Picasso. Motherwell had his first one-person exhibition at Art of This Century Gallery in 1944. That same year he began to edit the Documents of Modern Art series, volumes published over the next four decades that brought the writings of modern artists to the American public and thus expressed Motherwell’s belief in the ideational basis of modern art.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Motherwell’s works were exhibited with increasing frequency, including the seminal “Fourteen Americans” show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Motherwell also spent much of his time lecturing and teaching, becoming the unofficial spokesperson for the abstract expressionists, a position for which his educational background and broad understanding of modern art had prepared him. His involvement in teaching included the founding of an informal art school in a loft on East Eighth Street in New York City (with Baziotes, David Hare, and Mark Rothko) called “The Subjects of the Artist,” which closed in 1949. He also held positions at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1950 and Hunter College in New York City from 1950 to 1958 and from 1971 to 1972.
In 1948, Motherwell made a decisive discovery for his career in the course of creating his Elegies to the Spanish Republic. The design of the Elegies consists typically of black organic ovals squeezed by stiff vertical bars against a white ground, and Motherwell invented it in the context of a small black-and-white ink drawing to accompany a poem by the art critic and poet Harold Rosenberg. The motif, which Motherwell subsequently explored in approximately 140 large canvases, maintains the spontaneity of the original ink sketch even when enlarged to an enormous scale. In the chance discovery of the Elegy forms, constituting the paintings for which he is best known, Motherwell felt that he had uncovered elements essential to his personality and to the condition of the modern world. The Elegies, whose black-and-white tonalities suggest life-and-death contrasts, are rich in associations of archetypal imagery that include figures, body parts, architecture, and forms in nature, but they are sufficiently generalized to create a somber and mournful mood rather than yield specific representation. The Elegies express a nostalgia experienced by many of Motherwell’s generation for the lost cause of the Spanish Civil War, which had come to represent a loss of innocence in the world. The series was further inspired by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca’s powerful poetic meditation on death, Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías.
Motherwell divorced his first wife in 1949. During the 1950s, as Motherwell developed the Elegies, he married Betty Little. Their two daughters, Jeannie and Lise, were born in 1953 and 1955. In this decade, Motherwell’s work received increasing international exposure, including the seminal exhibition “Modern Art in the United States: Selections from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.” During this period, Motherwell developed different types of art to embody various moods. The Elegies, severe in their concentration on black and white and in their ever-growing scale, were the vehicles for his most profound emotions, while small oil paintings occasioned by the birth of his daughters, the Je t’aime series, expressed more intimate feelings. His collages from the 1960s began to incorporate such materials from studio life as cigarette packets and labels from artists’ supplies, so as to become records of daily experiences. The coastline near the artists’ colony of Provincetown, where Motherwell began to spend his summers in 1962, inspired works such as Beside the Sea, a suite of sixty-four pictures in which he splashed oil paint against rag paper with the full force of his arm—a physical equivalent of the action of sea spray on the bulkhead in front of his studio.
In 1957 Motherwell divorced Betty Little and in 1958 married the color-field painter Helen Frankenthaler, a marriage that formed one of the best-known artistic couples of the era until their 1971 divorce. In 1967 Motherwell began a series of paintings with the generic title Opens as a personal response to the color-field paintings made by younger abstract painters during the 1960s. Representing the more contemplative strain of his art, an “open” typically consists of a surface of a single color onto which Motherwell drew three sides of a rectangle in charcoal lines, a motif he used frequently until 1974. The Opens responded to the graceful simplicity of Chinese calligraphy, which profoundly interested Motherwell. These paintings also provided abstract equivalents to the views-through-open-windows favored by European painters like Matisse as metaphors for the relationship between the interior world of feelings and the exterior world of the senses. In addition to his paintings, drawings, and collages, Motherwell’s first important print was published in 1961 by Tatyana Grossman’s Universal Limited Art Editions and marked him as one of the leaders of the American printmaking renaissance of the 1960s. Motherwell subsequently produced an important body of printed work, notably A la pintura (1972), a limited-edition book of twenty-four unbound pages printed in letterpress, etching, and color aquatint, the imagery of which was inspired by the poetry of Raphael Alberti—thus uniting Motherwell’s longstanding interest in the relationship between modern art and literature.
Beginning in the 1960s, Motherwell was given numerous retrospective exhibitions of his art. The first, at the Säo Paulo Bienal and Pasadena Art Museum in 1961, was followed by a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, which traveled to museums throughout Europe. Other retrospective exhibitions occurred in Mexico City (1975); Düsseldorf and Stockholm (1976); Vienna, Paris, and Edinburgh (1977); London (1978); Barcelona and Madrid (1980); Buffalo, New York; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; and New York City (1983); and Mexico City and Fort Worth, Texas (1991). In 1970 Motherwell moved his studio from New York to a stone carriage house in suburban Greenwich, Connecticut, and in 1972 married photographer Renate Ponsold. During this same period, Motherwell received significant international awards that indicated his leadership in the cultural community. These include the Grande Medaille de Vermeil de la Ville de Paris (1978); the Gold Medal of Honor, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1979); the Medal of Merit from the University of Salamanca (1980); the Mayor’s Award for Art and Culture from the City of New York; the MacDowell Colony Medal of Honor (1985); election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1986); the Medalla de Oro de Bellas Artes in Madrid (1985); and the National Medal of Arts at the White House (1990).
In 1977 Motherwell received a commission for the largest painting of his career, the Reconciliation Elegy (3.05 X 8.27 meters) for the lobby of the East Wing at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. While the work is grand in conception, the execution is somewhat stiff. Because of the extremely large size of the work, Motherwell could not create it spontaneously on the canvas surface but rather was compelled to scale-up the design from smaller studies. In contrast to the stylized Reconciliation Elegy, one of Motherwell’s most significant series of late paintings and drawings was the Hollow Men. While the title of these works was taken from T. S. Eliot’s poem of despair for Cassius’s plight in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Motherwell’s paintings evoke a different spirit: the artist’s desire to slice through superficiality and reveal the essence of his art. As such, the Hollow Men incorporates both the style of the Elegies and that of the Opens. The organic forms of the Elegies are now translucent rather than solid, and consequently more exposed. The somber black tonalities that had dominated these forms have been pushed into the background. Thus, in the shapes of the Hollow Men, Mother-well revealed more of his fragile automatic drawing, which he believed was the essence of his artistic personality. Despite the changes that the art world underwent at the end of the century in the context of movements that ranged from pop art to neo-expressionism, Motherwell continued to trust in the power of modern abstraction to communicate the artist’s deepest feelings, and the Hollow Men stands as one of his final assertions of that belief.
Motherwell died of a stroke on Cape Cod. He is buried in Provincetown.
Motherwell’s papers are in the Dedalus Foundation, New York City. Motherwell’s writings are gathered in The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, edited by Stephanie Terenzio (1992). Books on Motherwell include H. H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell (rev. ed. 1982); Mary Ann Caws, Robert Motherwell: What Art Holds (1996); Jack Flam, Motherwell (1991); and Robert Saltonstall Mattison, Robert Motherwell: The Formative Years (1987). An obituary is in the New York Times (18 July 1991).
Robert Saltonstall Mattison
American artist Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) was one of the founders and last surviving members of the path-breaking Abstract Expressionist movement in painting.
Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington, in January 1915. He pursued an extensive liberal arts education before he fully committed himself to painting. He received his bachelor of arts degree in philosophy from Stanford University, where he studied between 1932 and 1937, with a year away at the California School of Fine Arts. He did graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University in 1937-1938; he attended the University of Grenoble in the summer of 1938 and did more graduate work at Columbia University in 1940-1941, this time in art history. His interest in painting persisted through these years. He was largely self-taught.
Motherwell began painting only after completing his academic studies. Early in his career, he was attracted to Surrealist notions of tapping into the unconscious as a source of imagery, a method called "psychic automatism." As he put it, "You don't have to paint a figure to express human feelings. The game is not what things look like. The game is organizing as accurately and with as deep discrimination as one can, states of feeling, and states of feeling … become questions of light, color, weight, solidity, airiness, lyricism, whatever." He shared with other founders of Abstract Expressionism (Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko) the conviction that the source of art was in untrammeled inner reality, rather than in observed actuality. Painting was a process of self-discovery and self-revelation, and a picture was evidence of that search. This new movement in art was highly successful, and because of his ease with matters intellectual, Motherwell served as Abstract Expressionism's unofficial spokesman.
While in the 1940's ex-patriate Surrealists in New York took young Motherwell's work seriously, and while he was friends with the Chilean Surrealist Matta, he wasn't interested in the look of Surrealist art. Motherwell's heros were Céezanne, Picasso, Mondrian, and especially Matisse. He regarded these influences as inevitable. "My father had a vineyard in the Napa Valley [in California]. I grew up in a landscape not at all dissimilar to Provence, or to the central plateau of Spain, or to parts of Italy and the Mediterranean basin."
In drawing, Motherwell invented his own elegant calligraphy fluid diagrams of emotional states as well as testimony to a faultless sense of placement. Drawing was primary; color was but a means of carrying content. "Generally, I use few colors," he said, "yellow ochre, ver-million, orange, cadmium green, ultramarine blue. Mainly I use each color as simply symbolic: ochre for the earth, green for the grass, blue for the sky and sea. I guess that black and white, which I use most often, tend to be protagonists."
In his collages there is vivid evidence of his life-long love of things French, and of his delight in anything Mediterranean. They show clearly the basis of his art in French modernism, his enthusiasm for French poetry, food, even for the color of French cigarette wrappers (Gauloise blue). For Motherwell, the collages "are a kind of private diary, not made with an actual autobiographical intention, but one that functions in an associative way for me."
Motherwell enjoyed a long and successful career of national and international exhibitions. His first one-man show took place at Peggy Guggenheim's adventurous "Art of This Century" gallery in New York. He exhibited at the Kootz Gallery during the late 1940's, at the Sidney Janis Gallery through the 1950's and early 1960's, and at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in the late 1960's. His work also was featured in important international exhibitions, including the São Paulo and Venice biennials and the Brussels World's Fair. In the 1990's his works were on exhibition in New York galleries, in several other American states, and in other countries.
Motherwell's best known images are probably the Spanish Elegies, the first of which appeared in 1948. Originally, he intended them as a tribute to the short-lived Spanish Republic, but they preoccupied him off and on until his death. He said the Elegies were "also general metaphors of the contract between life and death, and their interrelation." Most of these works were executed in black and white. Another series of paintings called the Opens came from seeing a small canvas in the studio leaning against a larger one; the series is "severely geometric."
Motherwell's rich intellectual background consistently found expression outside the studio. In 1947-1948 he co-edited the cultural magazine Possibilities. With William Baziotes, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, he founded an art school, "Subjects of the Artist," in 1948. In 1951 he edited The Dada Painters and Poets, a major anthology of the early 20th-century movement, which helped to inspire the revival of Dada during the late 1950's and early 1960's. (Harvard University issued a second edition of this work in 1989.) Between 1951 and 1957 he taught at Hunter College, and in the mid-1960s he served as art director for the Partisan Review. He was also a brilliant speaker and lectured at colleges and universities throughout the United States.
In 1961 Motherwell began making limited editions of his work. He was the only one of the original abstract expressionists to take up printmaking. He combined his unique abstract style with the materials and technical requirements of printmaking to create more than 200 editions over the next 30 years. Robert Motherwell died in July, 1991.
For works by Motherwell, see The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, which he edited in 1951 (second edition, 1989) and Stephanie Terenzio, ed., The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell (1992). For recent collections of his work, with commentaries, see Stephanie Terenzio, The Prints of Robert Motherwell, David Rosand (ed.) Robert Motherwell on Paper: Drawing, Prints, Collages (1997), Stephanie Terenzio, Robert Motherwell and Black (1980); for critical works, see Robert S. Mattison, Robert Motherwell: The Formative Years (1987), Mary Ann Caws, Robert Motherwell: What Art Holds (1996). □