Biography of Robert Motherwell
Finding his place in the Abstract Expressionism hall of fame alongside Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell is best known for his Elegy to the Spanish Republic series which he worked on throughout his life—over 140 paintings memorializing the injustices of the Spanish Civil War featuring bold black shapes on a white background.
Borrowing the idea of tapping into the unconscious for artistic inspiration from the exiled European Surrealists he met in New York in the 1940s, Robert Motherwell began to use “automatic” techniques of painting in his work, using instinct instead of intellect in order to grasp at something under the surface. His intuitive approach to art-making is epitomized in the expressive black forms on white surfaces mentioned above which are almost calligraphic in nature and akin to this Asian practice in their emphasis on gesture—both are forms of writing that transmit sense visually. Robert Motherwell saw abstract art as fulfilling “the need for felt experience—intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic.”
Academically brilliant, Robert Motherwell completed his B.A. at Stanford University in 1937 and subsequently enrolled in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University after which he become a student of legendary art historian Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University New York. It was Schapiro who advised Robert Motherwell to paint, yet the latter remained an avid theorist, writer, and editor for the rest of his life. Due to his eloquence, Robert Motherwell became the unofficial spokesperson for the Abstract Expressionist movement and founded the New York School. He also was a professor at the famous Black Mountain College and was a mentor to Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. His keen interest in and extensive knowledge of philosophy and poetry never abated during the course of his extraordinary life.
Born in 1915, Robert Motherwell exhibited widely during his lifetime, notably at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, and the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts, Vienna. His work can be found in the most important museum collections in the world. Robert Motherwell passed away in 1991, leaving behind a wealth of paintings and prints, as well as an extensive body of theoretical writings.