Robert Motherwell

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Robert Motherwell

Birthdate: (76)
Birthplace: Aberdeen, WA, United States
Death: July 16, 1991 (76)
MA, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Robert Burns Motherwell, II and Margaret N. Motherwell
Husband of Betty Little and Private
Ex-husband of María Emilia Ferreira Moyers and Helen Frankenthaler
Father of Private and Private
Brother of Mary Stuart Bosschart (Motherwell)

Occupation: painter, printmaker, editor, Painter
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell (January 24, 1915 – July 16, 1991) American painter, printmaker and editor. He was one of the youngest of the New York School (a phrase he coined), which also included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Philip Guston.

Early life and education

Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington, on January 24, 1915, the first child of Robert Burns Motherwell II and Margaret Hogan Motherwell. The family later moved to San Francisco, where Motherwell's father served as president of Wells Fargo Bank. Due to the artist's asthmatic condition, Motherwell was reared largely on the Pacific Coast and spent most of his school years in California. There he developed a love for the broad spaces and bright colours that later emerged as essential characteristics of his abstract paintings (ultramarine blue of the sky and ochre yellow of Californian hills). His later concern with themes of mortality can likewise be traced to his frail health as a child.

Between 1932 and 1937 Motherwell briefly studied painting at California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco and received a BA in philosophy from Stanford University. At Stanford Motherwell was introduced to modernism through his extensive reading of symbolist literature, especially Mallarmé, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe and Octavio Paz. This passion stayed with Motherwell for the rest of his life and became a major theme of his later paintings and drawings.

At the age of 20 Motherwell traveled to Europe with his father and sister. They made a Grand Tour starting in Paris, then going to Amalfi, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, The Netherlands, London and ended in Motherwell, Scotland.

From Motherwell's own words, the reason he went to Harvard was because he wanted to be a painter while his father urged him pursue a more secure career: "And finally after months of really a cold war he made a very generous agreement with me that if I would get a Ph.D. so that I would be equipped to teach in a college as an economic insurance, he would give me fifty dollars a week for the rest of my life to do whatever I wanted to do on the assumption that with fifty dollars I could not starve but it would be no inducement to last. So with that agreed on Harvard then—it was actually the last year—Harvard still had the best philosophy school in the world. And since I had taken my degree at Stanford in philosophy, and since he didn't care what the Ph.D. was in, I went on to Harvard."

In Harvard Motherwell studied under Arthur Oncken Lovejoy and David White Prall; to research the writings of Eugène Delacroix he spent a year in Paris where he met an American composer Arthur Berger. In fact, it was Berger who advised Motherwell to continue his education in Columbia University under Meyer Shapiro.

The New York School and the Surrealists

In 1940 Motherwell moved to New York to study at Columbia University, where he was encouraged by Meyer Schapiro to devote himself to painting rather than scholarship. Shapiro introduced the young artist to a group of exiled Parisian Surrealists (Max Ernst, Duchamp, Masson) and arranged for Motherwell to study with Kurt Seligmann. The time that Motherwell spent with the Surrealists proved to be influential on his artistic process. After a 1941 voyage with Roberto Matta to Mexico—on a boat where he met Maria, an actress and his future wife—Motherwell decided to make painting his primary vocation.[5] The sketches Motherwell made in Mexico later evolved into his first important paintings, such as Little Spanish Prison, 1941, and Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive, 1943 (both in MoMA collection).

It was Matta who introduced Motherwell to the concept of “automatic” drawings. The Surrealists often deployed the process of automatism, or abstract “automatic” doodling to tap into their unconscious.[6] This concept had a lasting effect on Motherwell and on other American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and William Baziotes, whom he befriended in New York after a trip to Mexico.

Upon return from Mexico Motherwell spent time developing his creative principle based on automatism: "what I realized was that Americans potentially could paint like angels but that there was no creative principle around, so that everybody who liked modern art was copying it. Gorky was copying Picasso. Pollock was copying Picasso. De Kooning was copying Picasso. I mean I say this unqualifiedly. I was painting French intimate pictures or whatever. And all we needed was a creative principle, I mean something that would mobilize this capacity to paint in a creative way, and that's what Europe had that we hadn't had; we had always followed in their wake. And I thought of all the possibilities of free association—because I also had a psychoanalytic background and I understood the implications—might be the best chance to really make something entirely new which everybody agreed was the thing to do."

Thus, in the early 1940s Robert Motherwell played a significant role in laying the foundations for the new movement of Abstract Expressionism (or the New York School): "Matta wanted to start a revolution, a movement, within Surrealism. He asked me to find some other American artists that would help start a new movement. It was then that Baziotes and I went to see Pollock and de Kooning and Hofmann and Kamrowski and Busa and several other people. And if we could come with something. Peggy Guggenheim who liked us said that she would put on a show of this new business. And so I went around explaining the theory of automatism to everybody because the only way that you could have a movement was that it had some common principle. It sort of all began that way."

In 1942 Motherwell began to exhibit his work in New York and in 1944 he had his first one-man show at Peggy Guggenheim’s “Art of This Century” gallery; that same year the MoMA was the first museum to purchase one of his works. From the mid-1940s, Motherwell became the leading spokesman for avant-garde art in America. His circle came to include William Baziotes, David Hare, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, with whom he eventually started the Subjects of the Artist School (1948–49). In 1949 Motherwell divorced Maria Emilia Ferreira y Moyeros and in 1950 he married Betty Little, with whom he had two daughters.

In 1948, he began to work with his celebrated Elegy to the Spanish Republic theme, which he continued to develop throughout his life. Motherwell intended his Elegies to the Spanish Republic (over 100 paintings, completed between 1948 and 1967) as a "lamentation or funeral song" after the Spanish Civil War. His recurring motif here is a rough black oval, repeated in varying sizes and degrees of compression and distortion. Instead of appearing as holes leading into a deeper space, these light-absorbent blots stand out against a ground of relatively even, predominantly white upright rectangles. They have various associations, but Motherwell himself related them to the display of the dead bull's testicles in the Spanish bullfighting ring.

Throughout the 1950s Motherwell also taught painting at Hunter College in New York and at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland studied under and were influenced by Motherwell. At this time, he was a prolific writer and lecturer, and in addition to directing the influential Documents of Modern Art Series, he edited The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, which was published in 1951.

From 1954 to 1958, during the break-up of his second marriage, he worked on a small series of paintings which incorporated the words Je t’aime, expressing his most intimate and private feelings. His collages began to incorporate material from his studio such as cigarette packets and labels becoming records of his daily life. He was married for the third time, from 1958 to 1971, to Helen Frankenthaler, a successful abstract painter.

Mature years

In 1958–59, Motherwell was included in “The New American Painting” exhibition, initiated by the Museum of Modern Art, which traveled across Europe. That year he traveled in Spain and France, where he started his Iberia series. During the 1960s, Motherwell exhibited widely in both America and Europe and in 1965 he was given a major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art; this show subsequently traveled to Amsterdam, London, Brussels, Essen, and Turin.

In 1962 Motherwell and Frankenthaler spent the summer at the artists’ colony at Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the coastline inspired the "Beside the Sea" series of 64 paintings, the oil paint splashed with full force against rag paper imitating the sea crashing on the shore in front of his studio.

In 1965 Motherwell worked on another prominent series called the The "Lyric Suite", named after Alban Berg’s string quartet. Motherwell recalled, “I went to a Japanese store to buy a toy for a friend’s kid, and I saw this beautiful Japanese paper and I bought a thousand sheets. And made up my mind, this was in the beginning of April 1965, that I would do the thousand sheets without correction. I’d make an absolute rule for myself. And I got to 600 in April and May, when one night my wife and I were having dinner and the telephone rang. And it was Kenneth Noland in Vermont saying that I should come immediately. And I said, ‘what’s happened?’ And he said, ‘David Smith’s been in an accident’.” Smith, the sculptor, was Motherwell and Frankenthaler’s great friend. Jumping into their Mercedes they sped to Vermont but arrived 15 minutes after Smith had died. Motherwell stopped work on the series. He said of them: “And then one year I had them all framed, and I like them very much now. I should also say that I half painted them and they half painted themselves. I’d never used rice paper before except occasionally as an element in a collage. And most of these were made with very small, I mean very thin lines. And then I would look at amazement on the floor after I’d finished. It would spread like spots of oil and fill all kinds of strange dimensions.”

In 1967, Motherwell began to work on his Open series. Inspired by a chance juxtaposition of a large and small canvas, the Open paintings occupied Motherwell for nearly two decades. Intimate and meditative, the Opens consist of limited planes of colour, broken up by minimally rendered lines in loosely rectangular configurations. As the series progressed, the works became more complex and more obviously painterly, as Motherwell worked through the possible permutations of such reduced means.

In 1970, Motherwell moved to Greenwich, Connecticut. During the 1970s, he had important retrospective exhibitions in a number of European cities, including Düsseldorf, Stockholm, Vienna, Paris, Edinburgh, and London. In 1977, Motherwell was given a major mural commission for the new wing of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In 1983, a major retrospective exhibition of Motherwell’s work was mounted at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York; this exhibition was subsequently shown in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Another retrospective was shown in Mexico City, Monterey, and Fort Worth, Texas, in 1991.

Robert Motherwell died in Provincetown, Massachusetts on July 16, 1991. On Motherwell's death, Clement Greenberg, the great champion of the New York School, left in little doubt his esteem for the artist, commenting that, "although he is underrated today, in my opinion he was the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters".

Motherwell was a member of the editorial board of the surrealist magazine VVV and a contributor of Wolfgang Paalens journal DYN, which was edited 1942-44 in six numbers. He also edited Paalens collected essays Form and Sense in 1945 as the first Number of Problems of Contemporary Art.

Dedalus Foundation was set up by Robert Motherwell in 1981 to educate the public by fostering public understanding of modern art and modernism through its support of research, education, publications, and exhibitions in this field.

Selected solo exhibitions

Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada (2011); Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen, Germany (2004–05); Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, Spain (1996–97, traveled); Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City, Mexico (1991–92, traveled); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota (1985); Albright-Knox At Gallery, Buffalo, New York (1983, traveled); Fundación Juan March, Madrid, Spain (1980); The William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, Storrs (1979); Royal Academy of Art, London, England (1978); Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, France (1977); Stadtisches Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, Germany (1976); Museo de Arte Moderna, Mexico City, Mexico (1975); Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey (1973); David Mirvish Gallery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (1973); The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas (1972–73, traveled); The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1965); The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. (1965); Smith College Museum of Art (1963); Pasadena Art Museum, California (1962); Galerie Heinz Berggruen, Paris, France (1961); Bennington College, Bennington, Vermont (1957); Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery, New York (1944).

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Recollections of Robert Motherwell


Jeannie Motherwell

My earliest recollections of Dad in his studio date back to when he was married to my mother, Betty Little. When I was born in 1953, he purchased a five-story brownstone townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Dad designated the basement as his studio and worked mostly at night. I remember a sliding glass door leading to a patio outside where my sisters and I liked to play. I learned by the early age of four, Dad's studio space was sacred territory and off limits to us without adult supervision. We were never allowed to run outside to the patio by ourselves. It may have been the first recollection I have of the importance of this space to him.

In 1957, my parents divorced and Dad married Helen Frankenthaler the following year. My sister and I now summered with my father and Helen in a 100 year old captain's house on the corner of Allerton & Commercial Streets in Provincetown, MA (currently owned by the artist Cynthia Packard). One summer, an old cottage across the street on the water side went on the market because the long-time owner died. I remember Dad spending days sitting on its vacant deck hoping one day he would be able to buy it. However, now that he had this opportunity, the deal almost went sour because the owner's family didn't want to part with it. Eventually he was able to purchase the house by the end of the following summer. He tore the whole structure down except for the stairs and chimney as per code and rebuilt it calling it the "Sea Barn". The house was built to look and feel like a ship. In fact, he often referred to himself as the "Captain of his ship". Originally the Sea Barn was supposed to be our "beach house" - the bottom floor for my sister Lise and me to play, and the top two floors designated studios for Helen and Dad.

Dad fell in love with living on the water almost immediately, perhaps reminding him of his roots in California. Soon after, he sold our house on Allerton Street to the renowned chef Michael Field and restructured the Sea Barn so we could all sleep on the second floor where Helen's studio was located. Helen subsequently rented a studio at Days Lumber Yard (now the Fine Arts Work Center), while Dad used the top floor of the Sea Barn as his studio. I remember the barn doors opening from his third floor studio to hoist large paintings up and down, using a pulley system, because the original stairs were too narrow to accommodate moving larger objects.

Dad moved to his Greenwich, CT studio (from New York City) shortly after divorcing Helen in 1970. I was just entering Bard College in upstate New York at the time, so I often visited him on weekends. My friends and I would drive down to Greenwich, conveniently park my car at Dad's house and then head via train to NYC for art openings and to visit museums. During these trips it was not unusual for me to visit Dad in his studio. He seemed to respect my eye and he often asked me what I thought about paintings he was working on at the time. Since I had just begun to paint myself, I eagerly looked forward to our discussions. He made me believe I had a keen eye for identifying "authenticity" in his work.

The Greenwich studio is where he spent the rest of the year painting. It was more organized by "zone". He had separate studios for each medium - seven in all, including a large print studio, a collage studio, a painting studio, and so on. The large expanse of the main studio, a former Carriage House, had sliding racks that seemed to come out of the walls from nowhere. On each rack he hung his largest paintings for easy viewing from a distance. When he no longer wanted the distraction of these pictures, and so he could focus more on making new paintings, he simply slid them back into the wall. This was also a very efficient way for curators, collectors, and visitors like me to view his larger work.

Another factor about this particular studio, was the daily routine he developed working with his three-person "crew" to help run his business. Sometimes he would entertain friends, colleagues, and critics at lunch where he often told marvelously eloquent stories about artists he knew, the state of the art world in relation to modern art, etc. By night, he would paint after dinner until 2 a.m. or so before retiring for bed.

Today I can see how Dad's work ethic is clearly influencing mine. While I am employed full-time at Boston University by day, each night I religiously retreat to the bottom floor of my townhouse to be in my studio. It is my sanctuary where I can drown out the stresses of the day and be in my own uninterrupted world. I have a television and a music box which I paint by; I let the answering machine take my phone messages; I have clippings and works by favorite artists hanging on my walls, and I work on several paintings at a time. I often work in series. All these things I learned from having visited my father's studios so often.

Dad was most prolific in his Provincetown studio. Spending only 4 months of the year there, he produced more work than he did in any other of his studios or at any other time of year. As was the case in his work, my painting is often influenced by Provincetown and the views we shared from our respective studios on the water - with a profound love of the ever-changing Provincetown Bay. Though I have not had a studio in Provincetown for years, my work still reflects the strong impact it had on me.

Jeannie Motherwell, Cambridge, MA 2008 Courtesy Provincetown Arts

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Robert Motherwell's Timeline

January 24, 1915
Aberdeen, WA, United States
July 16, 1991
Age 76
MA, United States