Childhood & Early Life
Robert Motherwell was born on 24 January 1915, at Aberdeen, Washington. He was the oldest child of Robert Burns Motherwell II and Margaret Hogan Motherwell. His family shifted to San Francisco, a few years after his birth. As a child, he suffered from asthma and spent most of his school education in California.
Between the years 1932 and 1937, he studied painting at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco along with completing his B.A in philosophy from the Stanford University.
At Stanford University, he was exposed to various ideologies like modernism and concept of symbolism in art, and was influenced deeply by the works of James Joyce, Mallarmé, Edgar Allan Poe and Octavio Paz.
He later went on to do PhD in Philosophy from Harvard University, upon the insistence of his father. In 1940, he shifted to New York to study Art History in Columbia University under the guidance of artist Meyer Schapiro, upon the advice of composer Arthur Berger.
Meyer Schapiro urged Robert Motherwell to pursue art and arranged for his studies under painter Kurt Seligmann. He also got introduced to a group of exiled surrealist painters, and this proved to be extremely helpful for nurturing his art.
In 1941, he got the opportunity to travel to Mexico with painter Roberto Matta, and following this experience he decided to pursue painting as an occupation.
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During his Mexico tour he made sketches that later became part of his initial major art works, like the ‘Little Spanish Prison’ (1941), ‘Dead and Alive’ (1943) etc.
Robert Motherwell was influenced by Roberto Matta’s style of automatic drawing and this was evident in the initial sketches he made at Mexico. However, during his travel he met painter Wolfgang Paalen, and his association with the painter led to Robert Motherwell altering his style to include ‘Abstract Expressionism’.
After returning to New York in 1942, he befriended well-known artists Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann and William Baziotes. However, he observed that though American artists could paint exceptionally well, there was no creative principle involved in the art.
In the early years of 1940s, Robert Motherwell was instrumental in beginning the movement of Abstract Expressionism. He was supported by several other artists like Roberto Matta, Pollock, de Kooning, Hofmann, Kamrowski and Busa.
In 1942, he was included in the ‘First Papers of Surrealism’ exhibition held at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion at New York.
Between 1942 and 1944, he was a member of the board of editors for magazine ‘VVV’ along with contributing towards art magazine ‘DYN’.
In 1944, he was appointed as the editor of Documents of Modern Art Series of Books. While holding this position, he contributed to the literature regarding Modern Art. The same year, his solo exhibition was showcased at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in New York.
Within the next few years, Robert Motherwell evolved as a spokesperson for avant- garde art in America. His friends circle included popular artists like Barnett Newman, Herbert Ferber, and Mark Rothko with whom he initiated the ‘Subjects of Artist School’ between 1948 and 1949.
In this period, he also conducted his solo exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Arts Club of Chicago, along with taking part in the exhibition ‘Fourteen Americans’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
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In 1948, he began his work on the development of the theme ‘Elegy to the Spanish Republic’, which he described as a lamentation post the Spanish civil war. He continued developing this theme until his death.
In the 1950s Robert Motherwell pursued teaching at colleges like the Hunter College in New York and Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Artists and painters, such as, Cy Twombly, Kenneth Noland and Robert Rauschenberg were taught and influenced by him. He also continued his literary contributions to the Documents of Modern Art Series, as well as worked on the ‘The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology’ (1951).
Between 1954 and 1958, he worked on paintings that depicted his most private feelings, and is known to have included the words ‘Je t’aime’ in his works.
Between 1958 and 1959, he was included in the exhibition initiated by the Museum of Modern Art named ‘The New American painting;’ and he travelled to Spain and France.
During the 1960s his exhibitions were showcased in America and Europe. In 1962 he spent months at the artists’ colony at Massachusetts, the coastline being an inspiration for the 64 paintings created as part of the ‘Beside the Sea’ series.
In 1965 as part of the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, he travelled to places like Brussels, London, Essen, Turin and Amsterdam. The same year he also worked on the ‘Lyric Suite’, where he used Japanese paper also called Rice paper.
In 1967, he initiated work on ‘Open series’, which was inspired by the chance proximity of large and small canvas. This work occupied him for almost two decades and included limited planes of colour. As the series progressed, they became more complex.
During the 1970s Robert Motherwell attended several retrospective exhibitions in many parts of Europe like Stockholm, Düsseldorf, Vienna, Edinburgh, Paris and London.
In 1977, he received a mural commission for the new wing of the National Gallery of Art at Washington, D.C.
Retrospective exhibitions of his works were held in the United States of America in 1983, beginning in New York and progressing to other places like Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington D.C and San Francisco.
In 1988, Robert Motherwell worked in collaboration with publisher Andrew Hoyem of Arion Press on a limited edition of novel ‘ Ulysses’ authored by James Joyce; he created 40 etchings for the project.
Personal Life & Legacy
Robert Motherwell met aspiring actress and writer Maria Emilia Ferreira y Moyeros in 1941 and they got married the same year. The couple separated in 1949.
In 1950, he married Betty Little and the couple had two daughters. However, the relationship ended in a divorce.
In 1958, he married painter Helen Frankenthaler, and this relationship lasted till 1971, once again ending in a divorce.
In 1970, he married photographer and artist Renate Pensold.
Robert Motherwell died on 16 July 1991 at Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the age of 76.