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Robert Motherwell (American, 1915–1991)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American painter, printmaker and editor. A major figure of the Abstract Expressionist generation (see Abstract Expressionism), in his mature work he encompassed both the expressive brushwork of action painting and the breadth of scale and saturated hues of colour field painting, often with a marked emphasis on European traditions of decorative abstraction.

Motherwell was sent to school in the dry climate of central California to combat severe asthmatic attacks and developed a love for the broad spaces and bright colours that later emerged as essential characteristics of his abstract paintings. His later concern with themes of mortality can likewise be traced to his frail health as a child. From 1932 he studied literature, psychology and philosophy at Stanford University, CA, and encountered in the poetry of the French Symbolists an expression of moods that dispensed with traditional narrative. He paid tribute to these writers in later paintings such as Mallarmé’s Swan (1944; Cleveland, OH, Mus. A.) and The Voyage (1949; New York, MOMA), named after Baudelaire’s poem. As a postgraduate student of philosophy at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, in 1937–8, he found further justification for abstraction in writings by John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead and David Prall, later relating their views on the expression of individual identity through immediate experiences to his own urge to reveal his personality through the gestures of his brushwork (see Action Painting).

Motherwell decided to become an artist after seeing modern French painting during a trip to Paris in 1938–9, 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, NY. Through Schapiro he met Roberto Matta and other exiled European artists associated with Surrealism; their use of automatism as a means of registering subconscious impulses was to have 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 in 1941 with Matta.

While in Mexico, Motherwell executed his first known works, the Mexican Sketchbook of 11 pen-and-ink drawings in black and white (artist’s col.; for first page, see Arnason, 1982, p. 29). These were influenced by Matta but were more abstract and spontaneous in appearance. The appeal of automatist spontaneity, however, was complemented for him by the clear structure, simple shapes and broad areas of flat colour in paintings by Piet Mondrian, Picasso and Matisse.

The interaction of emotionally charged brushwork with severity of structure began to emerge in paintings such as the Little Spanish Prison (1941–4; New York, MOMA), a deceptively simple composition of slightly undulating vertical stripes in yellow and white interrupted by a single horizontal bar.

In 1943 Motherwell produced a series of dark, menacing works of torn and paint-stained paper in response to the wartime atmosphere. Surprise and Inspiration (Venice, Guggenheim), originally called Wounded Personage, equated the act of tearing with killing and the paint-soaked paper with bandages. These collages, which heralded his lifelong commitment to the medium, were presented as the focal point of his first one-man exhibition held in 1944 at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery, New York.

During the 1940s, like many of his colleagues in the New York School, Motherwell remained devoted to recognizable imagery, to the expressive potential of calligraphic marks and to subject-matter of a literary and of a political nature, as in Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive (gouache and oil with collage on cardboard, 1943; New York, MOMA). The abstract paintings for which he is best known, such as Elegy to the Spanish Republic XXXIV (1953–4; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.), one of a series of more than 140 large canvases initiated in 1949, expressed a nostalgia that he shared with many of his generation for the lost cause of the Spanish Civil War. The works in this series typically consist of black, organic ovals squeezed by stiff, vertical bars against a white ground, retaining the unpremeditated quality of an ink sketch even when enlarged to enormous dimensions, as in the much later Reconciliation Elegy . He conceived of the shapes as elements within an almost musical rhythm, rich in associations with archetypal imagery of figures or body parts but sufficiently generalized to convey a mood rather than a specific representation.

During the late 1940s and 1950s Motherwell spent much of his time lecturing and teaching; he taught at Black Mountain College, NC, in 1950, and from 1951 to 1959 at Hunter College, New York. He also worked on three influential editorial projects: the Documents of Modern Art series, which he initiated in 1944 and which included his most important literary contribution to the history of modern art, The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology (New York, 1951); Possibilities magazine, from 1947; and Modern Artists in America (New York, 1951), which he co-authored with Ad Reinhardt.

By the time that he returned fully to his art in the late 1950s, Motherwell had developed various different series. The Elegies, severe in their concentration on black and white and in their ever-growing scale, were the vehicle of his most profound emotions, while the small oil paintings occasioned by the decay of his second marriage, the Je t’aime series of 1954–8 (e.g. Je t’aime IIA, 1955; New York, Grossman priv. col., see Sandler, 1970, p. 246), expressed more intimate and private feelings. His collages, which he began to reproduce also by lithographic means in the 1960s, began to incorporate material from his studio life, such as cigarette packets and labels from artists’ supplies, so as to become records of his daily experiences (e.g. Summer Lights Series published by Gemini GEL in 1973; see Arnason, 1982, pp. 203–6). The coastline near the artists’ colony of Provincetown, MA, where Motherwell began to spend his summers in 1962, inspired works such as Beside the Sea No. 5 (1962; artist’s col., see Sandler, 1970, p. 209), a series of 64 pictures in which he splashed oil paint against rag paper with the full force of his arm as a physical equivalent for the action of sea spray on the bulkhead in front of his studio.

From 1968 to 1972 Motherwell worked on a series of paintings with the generic title Open as a personal response to the colour field painting made by younger abstract painters in the 1960s. Typical of this more contemplative strain of his art is Open No. 17: In Ultramarine with Charcoal Line (polymer paint and charcoal on canvas, 1968; artist’s col., see H. Geldzahler: New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970, New York, 1969, p. 236), which consists of a surface of a single colour on to which he has drawn three sides of a rectangle in charcoal lines: an abstract equivalent to the views through open windows favoured by European painters such as Matisse as metaphors for the relationship between the interior world of the emotions and the external world of the senses.

Motherwell’s first important print, the lithograph Poet I (London, Tate), was published by Tatyana Grossman’s Universal Art Editions in 1961. He subsequently produced an important body of printed work, notably A la pintura (1972; London, BM), a limited edition book of 24 unbound pages printed in letterpress, etching and colour aquatint, in which he exploited the medium’s capacity for combinations of rich colour and exacting line to approximate the sensuous effects of his paintings. One of Motherwell’s most significant, late series of paintings and drawings was the Hollow Men. While the title of these works is taken from T. S. Eliot’s poem of despair for Cassius 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; they are set against a threatening black ground. In these shapes, Motherwell has also revealed more of his automatic drawing, which he believed was the essence of his artistic personality, than in any large-scale works since the 1950s. The Hollow Men stands as one of Motherwell’s final attempts to assert the authenticity of his Abstract Expressionist art.

Robert Saltonstall Mattison
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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