Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Robert Motherwell Photo

Robert Motherwell - Biography and Legacy

American Painter and Printmaker

Born: January 24, 1915 - Aberdeen, Washington
Died: July 16, 1991 - Provincetown, Massachusetts
Movements and Styles:
Abstract Expressionism

Biography of Robert Motherwell


Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1915, but he would spend much of his childhood in the dry environs of central California, where he was sent in an effort to relieve his severe asthma. The son of a well-to-do and conservative bank chairman, Motherwell was expected to follow in his father's footsteps. From early on, though, Motherwell displayed an affinity for more intellectual and creative pursuits, and his early education included a scholarship to study at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.

Early Training

Before he devoted himself entirely to art practice, Motherwell received an extensive education in philosophy, literature and art history. He began his studies at Stanford University, where he earned a BA in philosophy in 1937. There he encountered the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and the work of French symbolist poets, and these twin inspirations helped to open Motherwell's mind to the possibilities of abstraction in writing and art.

After graduation, he began a PhD program in philosophy at Harvard, but his studies were interrupted by a yearlong European trip which he embarked upon in 1938, and during which he fell in love with European modernism. It was only at his father's insistence that he chose a stable occupation which led him to study art history at Columbia University in 1940, instead of immediately beginning his career as an artist. Motherwell's time at Columbia, however, proved to be significant for his artistic development. Upon his arrival to New York, he fell in with the circle of painters who would make up the core of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Another powerful influence was art historian Meyer Schapiro, who was then teaching at Columbia. Schapiro encouraged Motherwell's painting and introduced him to the group of European Surrealists living in New York at the time. He was deeply impressed by their notion of automatism - the idea that art might be a manifestation of the artist's subconscious - and it would become a central tenet of his work.

Mature Period

Robert Motherwell Photo

Motherwell's first known works were composed during a 1941 trip to Mexico with the Surrealist painter Roberto Matta. These eleven pen and ink drawings, collectively called the "Mexican Sketchbook," show the influence of Surrealism, yet they are essentially abstract in nature and balance formal composition with spontaneous invention. Motherwell's career then received a jump-start in 1943 when Peggy Guggenheim offered him the opportunity to create new work for a show of collages by several European modernists. He took to collage immediately and would continue to utilize the technique throughout his career. The pieces included in the show featured a mixture of torn paper, expressively applied paint, and violent themes relating to the Second World War. The show proved successful for Motherwell, and it was followed by a solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery in New York in 1944, and a contract with the dealer Sam Kootz in 1945.

In the 1940s, Motherwell also began parallel careers in teaching, editing and writing. Over the next two decades, he taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina; he helped to establish an art school, Subjects of the Artist, in New York's Greenwich Village; and he also taught at Hunter College. He wrote for the Surrealist publication VVV in 1941, and later edited the extremely influential Documents of Modern Art series, the publication Possibilities, and The Dada Painters and Poets anthology. He would continue to lecture and write about art throughout his long career.

The Elegies to the Spanish Republic series - the career-spanning group of over 140 works for which the artist is perhaps best known - began as a small drawing created in 1948 to accompany a poem in Possibilities. A year later, Motherwell reworked the sketch as a painting called At Five in the Afternoon, so named for a poem by Frederico Garcia Lorca, a poet who was executed during the Spanish Civil War. The Elegies paintings use the tragedy of the war as a metaphor for all human suffering; and with their stark black and white palette, gestural brushwork, and tense relationships between ovoid and rectilinear forms, they also attempt to symbolically represent the human cycles of life, death, oppression and resistance.

Composed between 1953-1957, the artist's second major group of work is called the Je t'aime series, after the French phrase that appears on each canvas. These works feature a brighter and broader palette than the Elegies paintings, yet they maintain the same dialogue between the strictly formal compositions of European modernism and the more spontaneous, emotionally expressive methods of the Abstract Expressionist movement.

In 1961, Motherwell began to reinvent his collages as limited editions of lithographic prints. He would become the only artist in the first generation of Abstract Expressionists to utilize printmaking as a major part of his artistic practice. Motherwell's collages from this period also started to incorporate the detritus (cigarette wrappers, etc.) of his daily life. These autobiographical references hint again at the artist's interest not only in formal and intellectual concerns, but also his continued engagement with the external world and his own emotions.

Motherwell began his third major series, the Opens, in 1968, after the dissolution of his marriage to the artist Helen Frankenthaler. As with his earlier series, these works are organized around a relatively simple formal construct - in this case, a two or three-sided rectilinear box on a mostly monochromatic field - in which Motherwell would find almost infinite room for variation and extrapolation.

Late Period

Unlike many of his friends and contemporaries in the Abstract Expressionist movement, whose lives and careers burned brightly but for far too short a time, Motherwell would continue to work productively throughout the next thirty years. He spent these years painting, printmaking, lecturing and further expanding upon the themes that had occupied his entire life. After a long and prolific career, the artist died in 1991 at his home in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

The Legacy of Robert Motherwell

As arguably the most eloquent and intellectually accomplished of all the New York School painters, Robert Motherwell's legacy is significant not only for the importance of his paintings, but also for the breadth and influence of his writing, editing and teaching. Yet, it is first and foremost in the artist's work - which both bridged and challenged the duel influences of European and American Modernism, and which, despite its interest in formal dialogues, never neglected the necessity of human empathy - that Motherwell's legacy will continue to endure.

Writings and Ideas

Motherwell was undoubtedly one of the more prolific and celebrated artists included in the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. As a writer, however, he was something of a mystery - critic Dore Ashton said his writing contained a "rueful, pessimistic undertone."

A unique feature of his criticism was that it would often question the validity and usefulness of art criticism itself. "Great art is never extreme," he wrote in 1944. "Criticism moves in a false direction, as does art, when it aspires to be a social science." This was a subtle slight directed at critics who, according to Motherwell, wanted to derive certain meaning from, and attach significance to art, when all that existed, essentially, was an artist and a canvas. Much in the tradition of other artist/critics like Fairfield Porter, Motherwell sought to simplify the process of art criticism by offering a very basic, albeit somewhat unorthodox, explanation. According to Motherwell, there were no concrete answers, only questions, discussions and conflicts. Within all modern and abstract art, there was one unifying factor: the Modern artist rejected, in one form or another, the standards of society. Motherwell wrote, "In this world modern artists form a kind of spiritual underground."


"The Modern Painter's World"
November 1944
Originally delivered as lecture at Mount Holyoke College, August 1944
Originally given as a speech, this essay was published in the short-lived magazine Dyn, edited by the Austrian-Mexican Surrealist painter Wolfgang Paalen, who released only six issues. In it Motherwell addressed the Modern artist's predicament of creating in a world obsessed with material values. He argued that the 20th century had been characterized by a series of crises, yet its art reflected what he called a "classic age." Abstract art, which stemmed directly from Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism, was "classic" because it reflected artists' need to wholly express themselves on canvas. This expressiveness did not reflect any larger social or cultural crisis, but rather the spiritual breakdown of the individual.

Motherwell went on to discuss the modern artist as "by definition the felt expression of modern reality." Within this rather unfavorable reality, he argued, the artist must progress and create something new. If he failed to do so, then history could not move forward.

"A Tour of the Sublime"
Tiger's Eye
December 15, 1948
Originally delivered as lecture at Mount Holyoke College, August 1944
In this essay Motherwell attempted to explore the exact components that comprised the history of modern art, and in so doing likened it to "a military campaign, as a civil war that has lasted more than a hundred years - if movements of the spirit can be dated - since Baudelaire first requested a painting that was to be specifically modern in subject and style."

According to Motherwell, this history was essentially a series of rejections. Much as the Impressionists in France rejected the harsh standards established by the Salon, artists of his own generation rejected the standards of bourgeois society. The history of modern art was the story of certain peoples' "desire to get rid of what is dead in human experience, to get rid of concepts, whether aesthetic or metaphysical or ethical or social, that, being garbed in the costumes of the past, get in the way of their enjoyment."

Those who created modern art, he wrote, did so because they needed to create something utterly unprecedented, but in order to achieve this they had to reject certain rules and standards established by the outside world. The creation of modern art was basically a personal, internal struggle.

On Existentialism

Several philosophical viewpoints that informed Motherwell's writings, but none did so more than Existentialism. For him, the creation of abstract art was a personal journey and the result of a personal crisis. He viewed the conditions of modern society as having a direct consequence on the Abstract Expressionist's fundamental evolution. At the 1951 MoMA symposium, in which several artists were asked to respond to the prompt, "What Abstract Art Means to Me," Motherwell wrote, "The emergence of abstract art is a sign that there are still men of feeling in the world. Men who know how to respect and follow their inner feelings, no matter how irrational or absurd they may first appear. From their perspective, it is the social world that tends to appear irrational and absurd."

The Existentialist notions of alienation, absurdity, personal angst and meaninglessness, frequently found their way into Motherwell's writings, and he took great pleasure in keeping the company of likeminded artists and writers, including Harold Rosenberg, Barnett Newman, and Helen Frankenthaler.

"The social condition of the modern world which gives every experience its form is the spiritual breakdown which followed the collapse of religion," wrote Motherwell. "This condition has led to the isolation of the artist from the rest of society. The modern artist's social history is that of a spiritual being in a property-loving world." In the tradition of Marx, Motherwell wished to reject the constraints of living in bourgeois society, and he viewed modern social conditions as wholly adverse to those which nurtured abstract artists.

On the Function of the Modern Artist

The modern artist, according to Motherwell, was constantly in a state of questioning his own existence and his own role in the world. "The artist's problem is with what to identify himself," wrote Motherwell. "The middle-class is decaying, and as a conscious entity the working-class does not exist." The very creation of abstract art was the artist's only true means of establishing any personal connection with the world around him, but in reality, all he could do was establish a connection with other artists who understood his plight.

The modern artist's function, according to Motherwell, was a deceptively complex one: to exist in a constant readiness to create something new. This also meant that the artist had to be able to express the needs of modern society, which were exponentially shifting. "It is because reality has a historical character that we feel the need for new art," wrote Motherwell in 1944. "The past has bequeathed us great works of art; if they were wholly satisfying, we should not need new ones." This statement appears to laden the artist with enormous responsibility, but Motherwell relieved some of this burden by emphasizing that the modern artist (namely himself) was free from the bourgeois, "property-loving world" because he resided in this "kind of spiritual underground."

Harold Rosenberg and Possibilities

In the winter of 1947-1948, Motherwell and Rosenberg published the first (and only) issue of Possibilities: An Occasional Review. Their intention was to create an open-ended investigation into what constituted artistic "practice", and the political/academic arena in which it existed. Their philosophy was, in a sense, an anti-philosophy (much in the tradition of Existentialism), in which they attempted to debunk the notion that contemporary Modern artists had a preconceived and deliberate plan in producing their art.

In the issue's opening statement, Motherwell and Rosenberg wrote, "This is a magazine of artists and writers who 'practice' in their work their own experience without seeking to transcend it in academic, group or political formulas. Such practice implies the belief that through conversion of energy something valid may come out, whatever the situation one is forced to begin with." To support this claim, they also published a statement by Jackson Pollock: "When I'm in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through." Another published statement, made by William Baziotes, emphasized this point: "I cannot evolve any concrete theory about painting. What happens on the canvas is unpredictable and surprising to me."

While there would only be one issue of Possibilities, the single issue caused a stir in the New York art world. The idea of engaging in an open-ended discourse over the elusive nature of modern and abstract art, and the elusive minds that created it, defied the Greenbergian academic formalism that was dominant at the time. Possibilities is still considered a milestone for the development of mid-century art theory.

The Legacy of Robert Motherwell

There are echoes of both Rosenberg and Greenberg in Motherwell's writing. While he shared Rosenberg's idea of - and in his own art was even a prime example of - Action Painting, he also shared Greenberg's idea - albeit to a lesser extent - of using painting as a pure medium. "Painting is a medium in which the mind can actualize itself; it is a medium of thought. Thus painting, like music, tends to become its own content."

Motherwell was, as Dore Ashton suggested, a writer with "pessimistic" undertones, but this shouldn't be construed that he was a negative critic. On the contrary, his writings could be described as landmarks in a life-long search for the history of modern art. In his examinations of abstract art in the modern era, he observed artists stripping away symbolism, objects, propaganda, and anecdotes, until all that was left was the emphasis of color and form. Motherwell once said to a crowd gathered at The Museum of Modern Art in 1951, "Nothing as drastic an innovation as abstract art could have come in to existence, save as the consequence of a most profound, relentless, unquenchable need. The need is for felt experience - intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic."

Do more

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Robert Motherwell Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
First published on 21 Nov 2011. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]