Robert Motherwell

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The Expressionist

Robert Motherwell (January 24, 1915 – July 16, 1991) was an American abstract expressionist painter and printmaker. 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.

His Life

Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington. The family later moved to San Francisco, where Motherwell's father served as president of Wells Fargo Bank. Robert Motherwell received his Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy from Stanford University in 1937 and completed one year of a philosophy Ph.D. at Harvard before shifting fields to art and art history, studying under Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University. His rigorous background in rhetoric would serve him and the abstract expressionists well, as he was able to tour the country giving speeches that articulated to the public what it was that he and his friends were doing in New York. Without his tireless devotion to communication (in addition to his prolific painting), well-known abstract expressionists like Rothko, who was extremely shy and rarely left his studio, might not have made it into the public eye. Motherwell's collected writings are a truly exceptional window into the abstract expressionist world. He was a lucid and engaging writer, and his essays are considered a bridge for those who want to learn more about non-representational art but who are put off by dense art criticism.

His Greatest Goal

Motherwell spent significant time in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Cy Twombly studied under him. Motherwell's greatest goal was to use the staging of his work to convey to the viewer the mental and physical engagement of the artist with the canvas. He preferred using the starkness of black paint as one of the basic elements of his paintings. He was known to frequently employ the technique of diluting his paint with turpentine to create a shadow effect. His long-running series of paintings "Elegies for the Spanish Republic" is generally considered his most significant project.

Elegies for the Spanish Republic.

VVV Magazine

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. VVV was the direct product of the leading Surrealists of the day. The magazine was edited by David Hare in collaboration with Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, and Max Ernst. VVV's editorial board also enlisted a number of associated thinkers and artists, including Aimé Césaire, Philip Lamantia, and Robert Motherwell. Each edition focused on "poetry, plastic arts, anthropology, sociology, (and) psychology," and was lavishly illustrated by a wide range of Surrealist artists, including Giorgio de Chirico, Claude Levi-Strauss, Roberto Matta, and Yves Tanguy. The magazine was experimental in format as well as in content. Editions of VVV contained fold-out pages, differently sized sheets and types of paper, and bold typography and color. The second magazine (which contained issues two and three) even featured one of Duchamp's "readymades" as the back cover: a cutout female figure "imprisoned" by a piece of actual chicken wire.

The Modern Art Museum Fort Worth

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth houses the largest collection of Motherwell's works. The Walker Art Center also has a nearly-complete collection of his prints. The Empire State Plaza holds some of his work. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1989.

Robert Motherwell Books


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