The youngest and most academically inclined member of the Abstract Expressionist group, Robert Motherwell had received degrees from Stamford and Harvard when he began studying art history under famed art historian and critic Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University. Motherwell did not become a full-time artist until 1941 and, with his academic background, was often cast in the role of the intellectual of the New York School. In that year, at Schapiro’s behest, artist Kurt Seligmann invited Motherwell to study etching in his studio. So began Motherwell’s long and fruitful printmaking career, which consisted of more than four hundred editioned prints, and established him as Abstract Expressionism’s most prolific and dedicated printmaker.
Through Seligmann, who had come to America in 1939, Motherwell met other exiled European artists, many of them Surrealists, and began to adopt their idea of “pure psychic automatism,” the process of letting uncontrolled drawing initiate the structure of a composition. Working in this intuitive mode led to the creation of a vocabulary of recurring abstract motifs, most often executed in black and white, that Motherwell would draw upon throughout his career. One such motif, two ovals compressed within a triangle, was first used by the artist in 1943 and appears in this plate from Madrid Suite, one of twenty-five prints created by the artist during a 1965–66 collaboration with printer Irwin Hollander.
For this series, one of many works with a Spanish theme, Motherwell recalled an experience he had while honeymooning in Madrid with Helen Frankenthaler in 1958. He had pinned drawing paper on the hotel walls and liked the way the texture of the wall transferred itself to the sheets as he drew. To re-create this experience, Motherwell taped transfer paper to the spackled walls of Hollander’s studio and rubbed the sheets with lithographic crayons to achieve the desired transfer of texture.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Sarah Suzuki, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 130.