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(1915 – 1991), USA

Robert Motherwell Biography

Producing an extensive body of abstract paintings, drawings, collages and prints between the 1930s and late-1980s, American artist Robert Motherwell was one of the leading figures of the Abstract Expressionist movement, alongside the likes of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. He was also known for his critical writings on subjects including Surrealism and Piet Mondrian.

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Born in 1915 to a wealthy family in Aberdeen, Washington, Motherwell initially studied art at the Otis Art Institute. Later, he attended Stanford University where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy. His aspirations to become an artist were stirred on a year-long European excursion during his graduate studies at Harvard in 1938. (While he wrote his thesis in Europe, it was later lost on his trip back to America.) Inspired by French Modernist painters in Paris, he began his career as an artist there and held his first show at the Raymond Duncan Gallery in 1939.

Motherwell arrived in Europe when the Spanish Civil War was reaching its bloody conclusion. This lost political cause left a strong impression on Motherwell; in 1948, he began his long-running, iconic 'Elegy to the Spanish Republic' series. In this series of hundreds of paintings produced between 1948 up until the artist's death in 1991, most canvases share the same abstract motif: oval black shapes trapped between black, vertical rectangular bars that rhythmically divide a white canvas—a metaphor for life, death, heroism and resistance.

Upon moving to New York in 1940, Motherwell studied art history—at his father's behest—at Columbia University under art historian Meyer Schapiro. In 1941, he began to meet various European Surrealists living in exile in New York including Roberto Matta. This exposure to Surrealist concepts of expressing subconscious through spontaneous movements had a lasting impact on his practice, and Motherwell suspended his academic studies to paint full-time.

These notions, too, had a lasting impact on the New York School clique of Abstract Expressionists, to whom Motherwell was introduced by artist William Baziotes. This pioneering group included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. Abstract Expressionism was an inward-looking style that emphasized the performative act of painting and artist as subject. In 1944, Motherwell was invited to hold a solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery in New York. This was a career-making moment for Motherwell, as it had been for Pollock and Baziotes before him.

Motherwell's paintings walked the line between the two main forms of Abstract Expressionism: colour field painting and action painting. While the former was about the contrasts between bold planes of colour, action painting sought to reveal paint texture and the movement of the artist. Motherwell's art-making process was emotional in its bold, expressive brushstrokes made from spontaneous movements. This style was combined with a formal system that was denoted by more restrained brushstrokes, considered structure, vivid colour contrasts and strong-but-simple shapes.

Besides being an artist, theorist and writer, Motherwell was also a widely read editor and teacher, though he was more heavily engaged in these pursuits during the late-1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s, his focus returned to producing art.

Collage was a fundamental aspect of Motherwell's practice. Key early experimentations such as Personage (Autoportrait) (1943) used a wide range of found materials. For the work, Motherwell glued various kinds of cut and torn paper to paperboard in rough but structured grid-like patterns, applying gouache and ink over them. Later collages, such as In White with Four Corners (1964), were more restrained, involving only a few select pieces of paper pasted onto a monochromatic background. While some of his contemporaries soon lost interest in the technique, Motherwell persisted throughout his career. From the 1960s onwards, Motherwell began incorporating materials of his studio life such as letters, labels from artist supplies, and cigarette packets, with planes of colour applied around and over.

Unlike the other Abstract Expressionists, Motherwell enthusiastically embraced printmaking, especially lithography as an extension of collage. From 1961, he made limited-edition prints, producing over 200 editions over the next 30 years. He particularly took advantage of the planes of vivid colour lithography could produce.

In the 1970s, while continuing to develop older black-and-white motifs, Motherwell expanded his use of colour in painting. The most well-known example of this expansion is his 'Opens' series, which features broad planes of colourful acrylic disrupted by simple linear geometric forms. In the decade preceding his death in 1991, the artist's works became more fluid and lucid. His 1980s series, 'The Hollow Men', placed greater emphasis on his expressive brush strokes and spontaneous subconscious drawing (all combined on one canvas), revisiting the core values of his Abstract Expressionist style.

John Hurrell | Ocula | 2019

Robert Motherwell Featured Artworks

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Untitled by Robert Motherwell contemporary artwork
Robert MotherwellUntitled, 1966Lithograph on Rives BFK paper
55.9 x 43.2 cm
Dellasposa Gallery Contact Gallery
Black Image with Ochre by Robert Motherwell contemporary artwork
Robert MotherwellBlack Image with Ochre, 1967Acrylic and ink on paper
77.5 x 55.9 cm
Gazelli Art House Contact Gallery
U.S Art New York N.Y. by Robert Motherwell contemporary artwork
Robert MotherwellU.S Art New York N.Y., 1962Oil and collage on paper
58.4 x 73.7 cm
Gazelli Art House Contact Gallery
Open with Elegy by Robert Motherwell contemporary artwork
Robert MotherwellOpen with Elegy, 1968Acrylic and graphite on Arches watercolour rag paper
15.2 x 19.4 cm
Gagosian Contact Gallery
Iberia No. 30 by Robert Motherwell contemporary artwork
Robert MotherwellIberia No. 30, 1969Acrylic on canvas board
20.3 x 25.4 cm
Barakat Contemporary Contact Gallery
Royal Dirge by Robert Motherwell contemporary artwork
Robert MotherwellRoyal Dirge, 1972Acrylic on canvas
182.2 x 137.2 cm
Templon Contact Gallery
Alternative Titles: Zig-Zag; American
Totem; American Indian Totem by Robert Motherwell contemporary artwork
Robert Motherwell{Totem} Alternative Titles: Zig-Zag; American Totem; American Indian Totem, 1974–1986Acrylic, pasted papers, and crayon on Upson board
66 x 50.8 cm
Miles McEnery Gallery Enquire
Arabesque by Robert Motherwell contemporary artwork
Robert MotherwellArabesque, 1989Oil on canvas
183 x 548.5 cm
Galerie Gmurzynska Contact Gallery

Robert Motherwell Recent Exhibitions

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Contemporary art exhibition, Group Exhibition, Do You Think It Needs a Cloud? at Miles McEnery Gallery, 511 West 22nd Street, New York
10 September–10 October 2020 Group Exhibition Do You Think It Needs a Cloud? Miles McEnery Gallery511 West 22nd Street
Contemporary art exhibition, Group Exhibition, Cross Atlantic at Gazelli Art House, Online Only, London
9 July–29 August 2020 Group Exhibition Cross Atlantic Gazelli Art HouseOnline Only
Contemporary art exhibition, Group Exhibition, A line (a)round an idea Selected Works on Paper at Gagosian, Geneva
2 May–27 July 2019 Group Exhibition A line (a)round an idea Selected Works on Paper GagosianGeneva

Robert Motherwell Represented By

Lévy Gorvy contemporary art gallery in New York, USA Lévy Gorvy New York, Palm Beach, London, Hong Kong, Paris

Robert Motherwell In Related Press

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Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell: The Art of Marriage Related Press Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell: The Art of Marriage 28 November 2019, The Brooklyn Rail

The cover photograph for the informative catalogue that accompanies this dazzling show was taken by Hans Namuth and catches Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler at their wedding lunch on April 6, 1958. Her look is all love; Motherwell, averting his gaze from Namuth, has a vacant, slightly ironic expression. Was it because he'd already been...

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Tumultuous Absorption Related Press Tumultuous Absorption 13 February 2017, Aesthetica Magazine

Two or three muted, but skillfully executed, pieces of portraiture slowly lead the viewer to paintings with the merest hint of figures, before dissolving entirely into realms of line, colour, light and rhythm. This is just the first room of the major Abstract Expressionism show at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, fresh from a groundbreaking run at...

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What Summer slowdown? Seattle Art Fair expands Related Press What Summer slowdown? Seattle Art Fair expands 4 August 2016, The Art Newspaper

Against the grain of the art market’s traditional summer slowdown, the Seattle Art Fair is growing after a successful launch last year. Forty-six newcomers, including New York’s Pace/MacGill and Marlborough galleries, are among more than 80 exhibitors (up from 62) participating in the second edition this August. Founded by the...

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The world is our home. A poem on abstraction Related Press The world is our home. A poem on abstraction 18 February 2016, Art Asia Pacific

At a time when the traversing of borders, by people, information and culture, is at the forefront of international consciousness and concern, Para Site, an independent art center in Hong Kong, is presenting an exhibition of four postwar artists whose outputs have shown just how fluid such boundaries can be. Held in Hong Kong’s North Point...

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