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 Robert Burns Motherwell  (1915 - 1991)

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Lived/Active: New York/Connecticut/Massachusetts      Known for: abstract expressionist painting, collage

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
American painter, Robert Motherwell, was one of the founders and principal exponents of Abstract Expressionism*, who was among the first American artists to cultivate accidental elements in his work.  A precocious youth, Motherwell received a scholarship to study art when he was 11 years old.  He preferred academic studies, however, and eventually took degrees in aesthetics from Stanford and Harvard universities.

Motherwell decided to become a serious artist only in 1941.  Although he was especially influenced by the Surrealist* artists; Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, and André Masson; he remained largely self-taught.  His early work followed no single style, but already contained motifs from which much of his later art grew.  He received his first one-man show in 1944 at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery* in New York City.  In the mid-1940s, Motherwell painted abstract figurative works that showed the influence of Surrealism*.  But in 1949 he painted the first in a series of works collectively entitled "Elegy to the Spanish Republic."  He painted almost 150 versions of these "Elegies" in the next three decades.  These Abstract Expressionist paintings show his continuous development of a limited repertory of simple, serene, and massive forms that are applied in black paint to the picture plane in such a way that they generate a sense of slow, solemnly suggestive movement.

During the 1960s he painted in several different styles, so that such paintings as Africa (1964, 65; Baltimore Museum of Art) look like enlarged details of elegant calligraphy, while Indian Summer, #2 (1962, 64) combines the bravura brush-work typical of Abstract Expressionism with the broad areas of evenly applied color characteristic of the then-emerging Color Field* Painting style.  By the end of the decade, paintings in his Open series (1967, 69), he had abandoned Abstract Expressionism in favor of the new style.

From 1958 to 1971 Motherwell was married to the American painter Helen Frankenthaler.  He taught art at Hunter College (1951, 58, 1971, 72), directed the publication of the series "The Documents of Modern Art" (1944, 52), and wrote numerous essays on art and aesthetics.  He was generally regarded as the most articulate spokesman for Abstract Expressionism.

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see AskART.com Glossary http://www.askart.com/AskART/lists/Art_Definition.aspx




This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington, of Scotch-Irish ancestry; the son of a bank president who moved the family to San Francisco when Robert was a child. At the precocious age of eleven he received a scholarship to Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in philosophy from Stanford University and worked on his doctorate from Harvard, afterwards studying at the University of Grenoble in France and at Columbia University.

Motherwell was a man respected not only for his art but also for his writings, scholarship and personal presence. He was the last, the youngest, of the Abstract Expressionists which included Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb and Clyfford Still. He was an acknowledged master of the medium of collage. He painted in series, a group of paintings of similar technique and colors, like his Spanish Elegies.

From 1958 to 1971 he was married to his third wife, Helen Frankenthaler. His fourth wife was Renate Ponsold, an artist-photographer; they had two daughters and one grandchild. They lived in Greenwich, Connecticut in a carriage house with a hayloft aerie, a beautiful old barn and a guest cottage adjoining a one-hundred foot long studio.

He died on July 18, 1991. He had suffered a stroke at his summer home in Provincetown, Massachusetts and died on his way to the hospital.


Written and submitted by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.

Sources include:
Los Angeles Times obituary on July 18, 1991
Newsweek Magazine, January 2, 1984
Time Magazine, July 17, 1972



Biography from GallArt.com:
Robert Motherwell (January 24, 1915 – July 16, 1991) was an American painter, printmaker and editor. He was one of the youngest of the New York School (a phrase he coined), which also included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Philip Guston.

Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington, on January 24, 1915, the first child of Robert Burns Motherwell II and Margaret Hogan Motherwell. The family later moved to San Francisco, where Motherwell's father served as president of Wells Fargo Bank. Due to the artist's asthmatic condition, Motherwell was reared largely on the Pacific Coast and spent most of his school years in California. There he developed a love for the broad spaces and bright colours that later emerged as essential characteristics of his abstract paintings (ultramarine blue of the sky and ochre yellow of Californian hills). His later concern with themes of mortality can likewise be traced to his frail health as a child.

Between 1932 and 1937 Motherwell briefly studied painting at California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco and received a BA in philosophy from Stanford University.[2] At Stanford Motherwell was introduced to modernism through his extensive reading of symbolist literature, especially Mallarmé, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe and Octavio Paz. This passion stayed with Motherwell for the rest of his life and became a major theme of his later paintings and drawings.

At the age of 20 Motherwell traveled to Europe with his father and sister. They made a Grand Tour starting in Paris, then going to Amalfi, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, The Netherlands, London and ended in Motherwell, Scotland.

From Motherwell's own words, the reason he went to Harvard was because he wanted to be a painter while his father urged him to pursue a more secure career: "And finally after months of really a cold war he made a very generous agreement with me that if I would get a Ph.D. so that I would be equipped to teach in a college as an economic insurance, he would give me fifty dollars a week for the rest of my life to do whatever I wanted to do on the assumption that with fifty dollars I could not starve but it would be no inducement to last. So with that agreed on Harvard then—it was actually the last year—Harvard still had the best philosophy school in the world. And since I had taken my degree at Stanford in philosophy, and since he didn't care what the Ph.D. was in, I went on to Harvard."

At Harvard, Motherwell studied under Arthur Oncken Lovejoy and David White Prall; to research the writings of Eugène Delacroix he spent a year in Paris where he met an American composer Arthur Berger. In fact, it was Berger who advised Motherwell to continue his education at Columbia University under Meyer Shapiro.

In 1940 Motherwell moved to New York to study at Columbia University, where he was encouraged by Meyer Schapiro to devote himself to painting rather than scholarship. Shapiro introduced the young artist to a group of exiled Parisian Surrealists (Max Ernst, Duchamp, Masson) and arranged for Motherwell to study with Kurt Seligmann. The time that Motherwell spent with the Surrealists proved to be influential on his artistic process. After a 1941 voyage with Roberto Matta to Mexico—on a boat where he met Maria, an actress and his future wife—Motherwell decided to make painting his primary vocation. The sketches Motherwell made in Mexico later evolved into his first important paintings, such as Little Spanish Prison, 1941, and Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive, 1943 (both in MoMA collection).

It was Matta who introduced Motherwell to the concept of “automatic” drawings. The Surrealists often deployed the process of automatism, or abstract “automatic” doodling to tap into their unconscious.[6] This concept had 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.

Upon return from Mexico Motherwell spent time developing his creative principle based on automatism: "what I realized was that Americans potentially could paint like angels but that there was no creative principle around, so that everybody who liked modern art was copying it. Gorky was copying Picasso. Pollock was copying Picasso. De Kooning was copying Picasso. I mean I say this un-qualifiedly. I was painting French intimate pictures or whatever. And all we needed was a creative principle, I mean something that would mobilize this capacity to paint in a creative way, and that's what Europe had that we hadn't had; we had always followed in their wake. And I thought of all the possibilities of free association—because I also had a psychoanalytic background and I understood the implications—might be the best chance to really make something entirely new which everybody agreed was the thing to do."

Thus, in the early 1940s Robert Motherwell played a significant role in laying the foundations for the new movement of Abstract Expressionism (or the New York School): "Matta wanted to start a revolution, a movement, within Surrealism. He asked me to find some other American artists that would help start a new movement. It was then that Baziotes and I went to see Pollock and de Kooning and Hofmann and Kamrowski and Busa and several other people. And if we could come with something. Peggy Guggenheim who liked us said that she would put on a show of this new business. And so I went around explaining the theory of automatism to everybody because the only way that you could have a movement was that it had some common principle. It sort of all began that way."

In 1942 Motherwell began to exhibit his work in New York and in 1944 he had his first one-man show at Peggy Guggenheim’s “Art of This Century” gallery; that same year the MoMA was the first museum to purchase one of his works. From the mid-1940s, Motherwell became the leading spokesman for avant-garde art in America. His circle came to include William Baziotes, David Hare, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, with whom he eventually started the Subjects of the Artist School (1948–49). In 1949 Motherwell divorced Maria Emilia Ferreira y Moyeros, and in 1950 he married Betty Little, with whom he had two daughters.

In 1948, he began to work with his celebrated Elegy to the Spanish Republic theme, which he continued to develop throughout his life. Motherwell intended his Elegies to the Spanish Republic (over 100 paintings, completed between 1948 and 1967) as a "lamentation or funeral song" after the Spanish Civil War. His recurring motif here is a rough black oval, repeated in varying sizes and degrees of compression and distortion. Instead of appearing as holes leading into a deeper space, these light-absorbent blots stand out against a ground of relatively even, predominantly white upright rectangles. They have various associations, but Motherwell himself related them to the display of the dead bull's testicles in the Spanish bullfighting ring.

Throughout the 1950s Motherwell also taught painting at Hunter College in New York and at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland studied under and were influenced by Motherwell. At this time, he was a prolific writer and lecturer, and in addition to directing the influential Documents of Modern Art Series, he edited The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, which was published in 1951.

From 1954 to 1958, during the break-up of his second marriage, he worked on a small series of paintings which incorporated the words Je t’aime, expressing his most intimate and private feelings. His collages began to incorporate material from his studio such as cigarette packets and labels becoming records of his daily life. He was married for the third time, from 1958 to 1971, to Helen Frankenthaler, a successful abstract painter.

In 1958–59, Motherwell was included in “The New American Painting” exhibition, initiated by the Museum of Modern Art, which traveled across Europe. That year he traveled in Spain and France, where he started his Iberia series. During the 1960s, Motherwell exhibited widely in both America and Europe and in 1965 he was given a major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art; this show subsequently traveled to Amsterdam, London, Brussels, Essen, and Turin.

In 1962 Motherwell and Frankenthaler spent the summer at the artists’ colony at Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the coastline inspired the "Beside the Sea" series of 64 paintings, the oil paint splashed with full force against rag paper imitating the sea crashing on the shore in front of his studio.

In 1965 Motherwell worked on another prominent series called the The "Lyric Suite", named after Alban Berg’s string quartet. Motherwell recalled, “I went to a Japanese store to buy a toy for a friend’s kid, and I saw this beautiful Japanese paper and I bought a thousand sheets. And made up my mind, this was in the beginning of April 1965, that I would do the thousand sheets without correction. I’d make an absolute rule for myself. And I got to 600 in April and May, when one night my wife and I were having dinner and the telephone rang. And it was Kenneth Noland in Vermont saying that I should come immediately. And I said, ‘what’s happened?’ And he said, ‘David Smith’s been in an accident’.” Smith, the sculptor, was Motherwell and Frankenthaler’s great friend. Jumping into their Mercedes they sped to Vermont but arrived 15 minutes after Smith had died. Motherwell stopped work on the series. He said of them: “And then one year I had them all framed, and I like them very much now. I should also say that I half painted them and they half painted themselves. I’d never used rice paper before except occasionally as an element in a collage. And most of these were made with very small, I mean very thin lines. And then I would look at amazement on the floor after I’d finished. It would spread like spots of oil and fill all kinds of strange dimensions.”

In 1967, Motherwell began to work on his Open series. Inspired by a chance juxtaposition of a large and small canvas, the Open paintings occupied Motherwell for nearly two decades. Intimate and meditative, the Opens consist of limited planes of colour, broken up by minimally rendered lines in loosely rectangular configurations. As the series progressed, the works became more complex and more obviously painterly, as Motherwell worked through the possible permutations of such reduced means.

In 1970, Motherwell moved to Greenwich, Connecticut. During the 1970s, he had important retrospective exhibitions in a number of European cities, including Düsseldorf, Stockholm, Vienna, Paris, Edinburgh, and London. In 1977, Motherwell was given a major mural commission for the new wing of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In 1983, a major retrospective exhibition of Motherwell’s work was mounted at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York; this exhibition was subsequently shown in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Another retrospective was shown in Mexico City, Monterey, and Fort Worth, Texas, in 1991.

Robert Motherwell died in Provincetown, Massachusetts on July 16, 1991. On Motherwell's death, Clement Greenberg, the great champion of the New York School, left in little doubt his esteem for the artist, commenting that, "although he is underrated today, in my opinion he was one of the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters".

Motherwell was a member of the editorial board of the surrealist magazine VVV and a contributor of Wolfgang Paalens journal DYN, which was edited 1942-44 in six numbers. He also edited Paalens collected essays Form and Sense in 1945 as the first Number of Problems of Contemporary Art.

Dedalus Foundation was set up by Robert Motherwell in 1981 to educate the public by fostering public understanding of modern art and modernism through its support of research, education, publications, and exhibitions in this field. When Motherwell died on July 16, 1991, he left an estate then estimated at more than $25 million and more than 1,000 works of art, not including prints. His will was filed for probate in Greenwich and named as executors his widow, Renate Ponsold Motherwell, and longtime friend Richard Rubin, a professor of political science at Swarthmore College.

On July 20, 1991 several hundred people attended a memorial service for Motherwell on the beach outside his Provincetown home. Among them were the writer Norman Mailer and the photographer Joel Meyerowitz, both Provincetown summer residents. Speakers included the poet Stanley Kunitz, who read a poem that was a favorite of Motherwell's, William Butler Yeats's Sailing to Byzantium; Senator Howard M. Metzenbaum, Democrat of Ohio, an acquaintance of Motherwell's, and other artists, friends and family members.

Source:
"Robert Motherwell", Wikipedia

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, E-O):
The youngest member of the circle of first generation Abstract Expressionist painters, Robert Motherwell was unique in this group for his extensive writings on art as well as his prolific printmaking. Born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1915, Motherwell grew up intending to become a philosopher and received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Stanford University before heading east for graduate study at Harvard. As a child Motherwell’s artistic talent was encouraged with a scholarship for study at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, but he did not begin painting seriously until embarking on a year of European travel in 1938.

In 1941, after traveling to Mexico with Chilean surrealist Matta Echaurren, Motherwell decided to paint full time and moved to Greenwich Village. During this decade, he was most influenced by European surrealists, including Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and André Masson. Interested in the unconscious mind, Motherwell explored theories of automatism by creating free-association collages that he sometimes used as underpinnings for future painting compositions. Automatism also offered Motherwell “an active principle for painting, specifically designed to explore unknown possibilities.”(1) Experimenting with this technique, Motherwell developed a loose yet vigorous brushwork that resonated with emotion.

Motherwell’s art displayed his passion for history, literature, and the human condition. From the beginning he strove to evoke a moral and political experience through his art. As an example, the artist drew on the writing of James Joyce for titles to his paintings, drawings, and prints throughout his career. A poem by Spanish poet Frederico García Lorca gave him the theme of the "Elegy to the Spanish Republic," which Motherwell explored in over 200 works.

Motherwell met William Baziotes in 1942 and quickly gained entry to the group of New York artists who would become known as Abstract Expressionists. In 1943, art collector and patron Peggy Guggenheim invited Motherwell, along with Jackson Pollock and Baziotes, to contribute work to an all-collage group show. The following year, Motherwell had his first one-man show at Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery.

In the late 1960s, Motherwell began his Open series, a striking departure from his gestural paintings. Typically fields of color marked with faint charcoal lines suggesting a door or a window, the Open paintings were originally inspired by the sight of a small canvas leaning against a larger one. For the rest of his career, Motherwell painted in both expressive and austere modes, in addition to creating collages and collaborating with printmakers to make limited edition prints.

Motherwell died suddenly at his home in Provincetown in the summer of 1991 and worked productively up to the end. By this time, his career had been widely celebrated and examined with exhibitions not only at Museum of Modern Art in New York, but also at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., the Royal Academy in London, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and the Tamayo Museum in Mexico City (this opened posthumously).

1) David Rosand, ed. "Robert Motherwell on Paper." (New York: Abrams, 1977), p.14.

© Copyright 2007 Hollis Taggart Galleries

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, P-R):

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)

The youngest member of the circle of first generation Abstract Expressionist painters, Robert Motherwell was unique in this group for his extensive writings on art as well as his prolific printmaking. Born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1915, Motherwell grew up intending to become a philosopher and received a bachelor's degree in philosophy at Stanford University before heading east for graduate study at Harvard. As a child Motherwell’s artistic talent was encouraged with a scholarship for study at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, but he did not begin painting seriously until embarking on a year of European travel in 1938.

In 1941, after traveling to Mexico with Chilean surrealist Matta Echaurren, Motherwell decided to paint full time and moved to Greenwich Village. During this decade, he was most influenced by European surrealists, including Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and André Masson. Interested in the unconscious mind, Motherwell explored theories of automatism by creating free-association collages that he sometimes used as underpinnings for future painting compositions. Automatism also offered Motherwell “an active principle for painting, specifically designed to explore unknown possibilities.”(1) Experimenting with this technique, Motherwell developed a loose yet vigorous brushwork that resonated with emotion.

Motherwell’s art displayed his passion for history, literature, and the human condition. From the beginning he strove to evoke a moral and political experience through his art. As an example, the artist drew on the writing of James Joyce for titles to his paintings, drawings, and prints throughout his career. A poem by Spanish poet Frederico García Lorca gave him the theme of the Elegy to the Spanish Republic, which Motherwell explored in over 200 works.

Motherwell met William Baziotes in 1942 and quickly gained entry to the group of New York artists who would become known as Abstract Expressionists. In 1943, art collector and patron Peggy Guggenheim invited Motherwell, along with Jackson Pollock and Baziotes, to contribute work to an all-collage group show. The following year, Motherwell had his first one-man show at Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery.

In the late 1960s, Motherwell began his Open series, a striking departure from his gestural paintings. Typically fields of color marked with faint charcoal lines suggesting a door or a window, the Open paintings were originally inspired by the sight of a small canvas leaning against a larger one. For the rest of his career, Motherwell painted in both expressive and austere modes, in addition to creating collages and collaborating with printmakers to make limited edition prints.

Motherwell died suddenly at his home in Provincetown in the summer of 1991 and worked productively up to the end. By this time, his career had been widely celebrated and examined with exhibitions not only at Museum of Modern Art in New York, but also at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., the Royal Academy in London, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and the Tamayo Museum in Mexico City (this opened posthumously).

1) David Rosand, ed. Robert Motherwell on Paper. (New York: Abrams, 1977), p.14.


Biography from RoGallery.com:
A leading exponent of American Abstract Expressionism, Robert Motherwell has served as a vital spokesman for the avant-garde of the mid-twentieth century.  He introduced the term abstract expressionism into the United States, and helped crystallize the direction of the new movement with his painting and writing.

An abstractionist from the beginning of his career, Motherwell worked primarily in the medium of collages.  His best-known works-more than 100 canvases, including monumental oil paintings and small drawings-are represented under the series title Elegies to the Spanish Republic.

Born in Aberdeen, Washington, Motherwell studied at the Otis Institute and the California School of Fine Arts, before moving permanently to the Fast coast as a young man.  He studied philosophy at Harvard and art history at Columbia, deciding at age 26 to become a painter.  In 1942, following a trip to Mexico, he settled in New York City to begin professional painting.

Deeply influenced by the modernist European painters who gathered in New York during World War II, particularly Chilean surrealist Matta Echaurren, Motherwell began experimenting with surrealism and automatism, evolving his own unique style. With a technique he called "plastic automatism," Motherwell created images and collages by free association, on which he imposed a later formal composition. His early work, architecturally structured, is reminiscent of Mondrian; later productions were done with freer brushwork.

In the course of a long and prolific career, Motherwell tried his hand at a wide variety of styles, including drip-and-spatter expressionism and color-field combinations.  But, for the most part, his abstractionism remains carefully structured, with a tendency toward geometric images. The "elegies" theme, done almost exclusively in black and white, has black ovoid shapes suspended between vertical panels.

Motherwell found his medium in 1943 when noted art patron Peggy Guggenheim asked three American artists, including Motherwell, to contribute to the first all-collage show held in this country. Motherwell set to work with paper, scissors and paste, an experience that galvanized him to adopt collage as his continuing mode of expression.  One year later, he held his first one-man show at the Art of This Century Gallery.  Since then, he has been included in every major exhibition of American abstract art.

Biography from Jerald Melberg Gallery:
Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) is unquestionably one of the most significant American artists of the twentieth century.  Like the other Abstract Expressionists, Motherwell rejected conventional realism.  Instead he was interested in exploring a reality that went beyond the recognizable image.  Motherwell had a particular fascination and preference for working with paper.  He also felt that his involvement with printmaking was just as important and vital to his work as his collages or paintings on canvas.

Motherwell's first major retrospective was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965. Since then, he has been honored with retrospectives by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, among many others.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia:
Robert Motherwell was a pioneer in Abstract Expressionism, the first painting movement after World War II and the first to bring international attention to American artists.  He was born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1915, to Robert Burns Motherwell and Margaret Hogan Motherwell.  His family moved to California in 1918 and the following year to Salt Lake City, Utah.  In 1926, the family moved back to California where Motherwell attended the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles on a scholarship.  In 1929, he attended prep school in Atascadero, in central California, where the climate was less adverse to his asthma. 

After graduating from prep school, he studied for a brief period at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, although he received a BA in philosophy from Stanford University in 1937.  For the next year and a half, he attended the graduate school of philosophy at Harvard University.  In 1938, he left for France, where he studied French literature and devoted himself to painting.

Motherwell’s first solo exhibition was held at the Galerie Duncan in Paris. Motherwell returned to New York in 1940, where he studied art history at Columbia University before traveling to Mexico.  In 1944, Peggy Guggenheim granted him a solo exhibition at her Art of This Century Gallery in New York.  The following year Motherwell moved to East Hampton, on Long Island, New York, where set up a painting studio and at the same time began to write about Modern Art.  In 1950, Motherwell was appointed to the graduate faculty at Hunter College in New York.

He moved back to New York City in 1953, and began to spend summers painting in Provincetown, Massachusetts.  In 1970, he again moved, this time to Greenwich, Connecticut, but he continued to maintain a studio house in Provincetown.  Along with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clifford Still and William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell developed an expressionistic aesthetic that reflected the confusing and uncertain years during and immediately following World War II.  At that time, the American art scene was entwined in an assortment of realist, impressionist and abstract movements.  While European Modernism influenced many artists during the years following the Armory Show (the "International Exhibition of Modern Art" at the Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory) of 1913, "an impression of emptiness [and] despair prevailed."(1) 

In the mid-1940's Americans were confronted with an entirely new set of issues that called for an original—and uniquely American—style.  An innovative new movement—Abstract Expressionism—emerged, in which artists experimented with both large scale and explosive gesture.  They wedded the constructive and fluid elements of abstract form with the intensity and dynamism of the urban experience. Motherwell and his colleagues held to the conviction that a work of art serves as a vehicle for personal emancipation to which the artist is committed with his or her total character.  Motherwell painted in the early 1960s a series of works of sky and water as part of an experiment the artist conducted over several years, beginning with a group of small oil he completed in Provincetown in 1961, titled Beside the Sea.  He finished this episode with Lyric Suite, a monumental series of nearly six hundred ink drawings he painted on rice paper in 1965.  H.H. Arnason notes that in these works the artist begins exploring the possibilities of a spontaneous, intuitively conceived brush gesture.(2) 

The Provincetown studio location inspired Motherwell to recreate the spontaneity of the waves splashing on his back porch at high tide.  Outside his house, the waves crash violently against the lower wall causing streams of water to vault into the air, where they double back, creating large ovals in space.  As Dore Ashton observes, the artist's intention was to re-create and not specifically illustrate this water effect: "All of his paintings are oblique metaphors, and hold fast to the Mallarméan rule that things must be suggested or evoked, and not described."(3)  This body of the artist's work clearly demonstrates that Motherwell realized—and helped to define—the very heart of Modernism: that the artist is constantly re-discovering, re-inventing and re-creating the world. 

Jack Flam points out that the Renaissance notion of pictorial space, in which the canvas is seen as a window, is gradually "filled in" by the impressionists and early Modernists.  Paintings came to function as "a wall on which marks have been made… Motherwell's painting, right from the beginning of his career, was conceived of in this way, as a kind of wall."(4) 

Robert Motherwell was among the most literate and articulate of the Abstract Expressionists.  He wrote extensively about modern art and in his work he became an interpreter of Modern literature.  Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, by the great twentieth century writer James Joyce, have played a crucial role in the "subject" of his paintings.  Motherwell often painted in a monumental scale while exploring an intimate, personal expression.  His style altered between the strict, linear structure of Piet Mondrian and the more biomorpohic, amorphous expression evidenced in the work of Jean Miro. 

Robert Motherwell's work was included in the many important exhibitions of modern art during his lifetime, including Fourteen Americans; The New American Painting and Four Abstract Expressionists at the Museum of Modern Art.  His paintings, drawings, prints and collages were featured in retrospective exhibitions in Fort Worth; Buffalo; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Amsterdam; London; Brussels; Essen and Munich, Germany; Torino, Italy; Edinburgh; Mexico City and Monterey, Mexico; and Barcelona and Madrid.

Motherwell was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1969.  In 1979, he was awarded the Gold Medal of Honor from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a nd in 1980, he was granted the Medal of Merit from the University of Salamanca. He received the Mayor's Award for Arts and Culture from the City of New York in 1981.  In 1985, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was awarded the MacDowell Colony Medal of Honor and the Great Artists Series Award at New York University.  In the following year he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was awarded the Medalla de Ore de Belles Artes in Madrid, Spain.  The French Ministry of Culture elected him Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1988.  In 1989, Motherwell received the Harvard University Centennial Medal and in 1990 (the year before his death), President George H. Bush honored him by awarding him the National Medal of Arts.(5)

Footnotes:
1. Dore Ashton, quoted by Marcelin Pleynet, collection editor, Robert Motherwell: Histoire et Philosophie de l'Art, (Paris: Edition Daniel Papierski, 1989), 11, from Robert Motherwell, "Artistes parisiens en exil, New York 1939-45" in Paris-New York, catalogue Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1977. We are appreciative to the staff and trustees of the Dadelus Foundation for their support, generosity and assistance.
2. H. H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1982), 64. 3. Dore Ashton, "Robert Motherwell: The Painter and His Poets," introduction to H. H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1982), 8.
4. Jack Flam, Motherwell (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1991), 26.
5. Biographical information on Robert Motherwell was gathered from Jack Flam, Motherwell (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1991), 29-30.
Submitted by the Staff of the Columbus Museum

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