One of the most fascinating aspects of working in the Museum Archives is uncovering how iconic artists engaged with MoMA beyond their artwork in the galleries. As one of the most celebrated Abstract Expressionist painters, Robert Motherwell has a rich exhibition history at the Museum that is traceable all the way back to 1944, when MoMA acquired its first work by Motherwell. The piece was the collage Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive (1943), and Motherwell was a mere 30 years old.
By 1946, curator Dorothy C. Miller had selected the same piece for the exhibition Fourteen Americans. It was around this time that our records show Motherwell popping up at various MoMA symposia and public events. The Archives holds recordings and transcripts of his participation in these programs, and a quick perusal explains why quotations by the artist adorn paraphernalia in the MoMA Store. Motherwell was an incredibly engaging, infinitely quotable public speaker.
In 1949, Motherwell was invited to give a lecture at the symposium “The Artist’s Point of View” held during the Committee on Art Education’s conference “Art Education 1949—Focus for World Unity.” Scholars often identify Motherwell as a key spokesperson for the Abstract Expressionist movement, in addition to being one of its most prominent painters. A transcript of his lecture at this symposium hints that even in 1949, the New York art community considered him to be one of its leading thinkers and speakers. Motherwell only hoped that this did not detract from his reputation as a painter.
“I suppose I was asked to speak here today because I am sometimes taken for an ‘intellectual’ among the artists,” he said, by way of introduction. He went on to outline his activities as editor of modern art publications and as a teacher of art. “I suppose it is these various activities that have given me the name of being an ‘intellectual,’” he continued. “Perhaps they make me so indeed. But I resent the invidious implications of the word in American Society, the belief that an artist must be a feeling imbecile or probably not an artist.”
A few years later, in 1951, Motherwell participated in the “Symposium on American Abstract Art” held at MoMA, where he again used his remarks to voice his opinion on the arts. The event, moderated by Andrew C. Ritchie, Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, featured a star-studded list of speakers: Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, Fritz Glarner, and George L.K. Morris. Each briefly addressed the topic “What Abstract Art Means to Me.”
Motherwell’s eloquent musings at this symposium focused on abstract art as a reflection of modern times. “I should say that it is a fundamentally romantic response to modern life—rebellious, individualistic, unconventional, sensitive, irritable,” he explained. “…One might truthfully say that abstract art is stripped bare of other things in order to intensify it, its rhythms, spatial intervals, and color structure. Abstraction is a process of emphasis, and emphasis vivifies life.”
In 1965, the poet and curator Frank O’Hara organized Motherwell’s first MoMA retrospective. Documents of the period before and after this landmark year in his career reflect Motherwell’s continued presence at the Museum. His voice can be heard on a recording of a 1974 symposium on printmaking held in conjunction with the exhibition American Prints 1913–1963. Other participants included Tatyana Grosman, founder of the United Limited Art Editions print publisher, and William S. Lieberman, Director of the Department of Drawings.
Motherwell stole the show (or in this case, discussion) by emphasizing how Atelier 17, Stanley William Hayter’s print shop in Greenwich Village, catalyzed American printmaking. In post-World War II New York, it was, he explained, “a beehive of professional activity, of optimism, of accomplishment, of sheer human decency, of the will to continue.” He also notably articulated his first inspirations to paint: “I realized, after I saw my first Matisses and first other modern works that I fell in love with, that there was something more than a capacity simply to paint, that they represented a state of mind…and I was determined to learn it for myself.” 
 George Wittenborn, Inc. Papers, I.B.23. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
 Dedalus Motherwell Scrapbooks, mf 1;0117. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
 Sound Recordings of Museum-Related Events, 74.27. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.