Robert Motherwell is considered one of the key figures of the movement Abstract Expressionism, alongside other great artists such as Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Helen Frankenthaler.
His bold, abstract, and often intuitive style and approach to painting not only enabled him to achieve international acclaim during his lifetime, but has also helped establish his influence in the art historical canon, with his art featured in many national and international museums and collections.
Born on January 24 in Aberdeen, Washington, Motherwell's artistic talent was recognised early on; at the tender age of 11 he was awarded a fellowship to the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.
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. 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.
Motherwell subsequently undertook graduate studies at both Harvard University in Cambridge, and in 1940, he moved to New York to study at Columbia University, where he was encouraged by Meyer Schapiro to devote himself to painting rather than scholarship. Schapiro introduced the young artist to a group of exiled Parisian Surrealists (Max Ernst, Duchamp, and Masson) and arranged for Motherwell to study with Kurt Seligmann. The time that Motherwell spent with the Surrealists proved to be influential to his artistic process.His extensive experience in academia reflects the intelligence and contemplativeness that he came to be known for, both in his personality and his painting.
Living in New York City in the 1940s allowed Motherwell to develop a strong artistic social circle, and he became close with fellow artists such as Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. His active role in the art scene of the city contributed to the production of a solo exhibition in 1944 at the celebrated Art of This Century gallery, operated by Peggy Guggenheim. From this moment onwards, he went on to show extensively both nationally and internationally as his career and work gained both attention and acclaim.
Robert Motherwell played a significant role in laying the foundations for the new movement of Abstract Expressionism (or the New York School), which was rooted in the concept of 'automatic' drawing or 'automatism', which the Surrealists used to tap into their unconscious. The concept had a lasting effect on Motherwell, later recounting that '[Robert] 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... 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.'
Like many artists from his generation, later in his life he sought out respite and inspiration away from New York City. In 1971 he relocated to Provincetown, Massachusetts. He lived and worked on Cape Cod for many years before his death on July 16, 1991.