Robert Motherwell’s paintings are the epitome of Abstract Expressionism: non-representational, powerful, and monumental. As the editor of Documents of Modern Art, he helped to shape the theory and practice of the movement. His keen intellect and deep passion made him an ideal advocate, during his lifetime and posthumously. Despite recurring injuries to his shoulder and a stroke, Motherwell remained active and prolific until his death of heart failure in July 1991. A few months beforehand, he had established the Dedalus Foundation to oversee his legacy and “to foster, cultivate, develop and support public understanding and appreciation of the principles of modern art.”
Motherwell was born in 1915 in Aberdeen, Washington, but as a child moved frequently because of his father’s job with the Federal Reserve Bank. His art education began early and then blossomed during his teenage years in California. Between October 1932 and spring 1937, he attended Stanford University, focusing primarily on literature and philosophy. Following his graduation, Motherwell spent the next academic year enrolled in Harvard University’s Department of Philosophy. During the summer of 1938, he studied at the Université de Grenoble in France, then moved to Paris to work on his thesis topic: Eugene Delacroix and Romanticism. He also took classes at the Académie Julian, but was frustrated by its traditional curriculum. With the threat of war looming, Motherwell returned to the United States and took a position teaching art at the University of Oregon.
The autumn of 1940 saw Motherwell in New York City, pursuing an advanced degree through Columbia University’s Department of Art History and Archaeology, while also studying privately with Surrealist Kurt Seligmann. His exploration of Surrealism advanced during a trip the next summer to Mexico along with Chilean painter Roberto Matta, who emphasized automatism—making art without conscious intention. Upon his return to New York, Motherwell befriended other Surrealists and became an editor of their journal VVV. During the winter of 1943, Motherwell worked with Jackson Pollock to produce collages for an upcoming exhibition hosted by Peggy Guggenheim at her Art of This Century gallery. The following fall, Guggenheim mounted Motherwell’s first solo exhibition.
Motherwell spent two summers as an instructor at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina. He first arrived in 1945 at the invitation of Josef Albers who had advocated for a less structured curriculum; his lecture subjects that summer included “Art and Society,” and “Mondrian and Henry Moore.” When he returned in August 1951, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly were among his students. While there, he worked on the design for his sixteen-foot wide mural for the Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, New Jersey.
During this time, Motherwell lived largely in East Hampton, New York, and along with making art was very active editing and writing. He widened his circle of fellow artists to include other Abstract Expressionists and showed thirteen pieces of his work alongside theirs at the Museum of Modern Art’s pivotal 1946 exhibition, Fourteen Americans. From this time forward, the pace of Motherwell’s career quickened, through regular involvement with other artists, museum group shows and gallery exhibitions, active leadership in a lecture series, writing articles, and the creation of major bodies of work including his most famous, a series entitled Elegy (To the Spanish Republic). From 1952 until 1960, he taught art at Hunter College in midtown Manhattan.
Motherwell reached the pinnacle of his career in the 1960s. He represented the United States at the 1961 São Paulo Art Biennial with a retrospective exhibition, a signal of growing international interest in his work. In 1965, the Museum of Modern Art organized a career survey of eighty-seven pieces that traveled to five European cities, and that same year the museum circulated an exhibition of his works of art on paper to eighteen venues. His large-scale paintings typically featured emphatically brushed organic shapes punctuated with bold black verticals. His works of art on paper—collages and lithographs—tend to be simpler and more intimate. Throughout the early 1970s, Motherwell stayed busy with exhibitions, lectures, publications by and about him, and printmaking, a newly developed interest. The first full-scale retrospective of his work in eighteen years opened at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, in 1983. Six years later, President George H. W. Bush awarded Motherwell the National Medal of Arts.