American Painter and Printmaker
Summary of Robert Motherwell
Possessing perhaps the best and most extensive formal education of all the New York School painters, Robert Motherwell was well versed in literature, philosophy and the European modernist traditions. His paintings, prints and collages feature simple shapes, bold color contrasts and a dynamic balance between restrained and boldly gestural brushstrokes. They reflect not only a dialogue with art history, philosophy and contemporary art, but also a sincere and considered engagement with autobiographical content, contemporary events and the essential human conditions of life, death, oppression and revolution.
- Motherwell was an accomplished writer and editor, as well as an eloquent speaker. Through his teaching, lectures and publications, he became an unofficial spokesman and interpreter for the Abstract Expressionist movement.
- Several key themes define Motherwell's work: the dialogue between repression and rebellion, between European modernism and a new American vision, and between formal and emotional approaches to art making.
- Motherwell was an accomplished printmaker and an avid collagist, and he often used these techniques to engage with and respond to the influences of European modernism.
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.
Important Art by Robert Motherwell
Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive is a direct reference to a photograph that Motherwell encountered of the murdered revolutionary, Pancho Villa. The work straddles the line between referential painting and the style that would become Abstract Expressionism, and includes several thematic relationships that appear throughout the artist's oeuvre. In its allusion to the Mexican revolution, this work also prefigures the themes that would drive Motherwell's seminal Elegy to the Spanish Republic series.
At Five in the Afternoon began as a small pen and ink drawing that Motherwell composed in 1948 to accompany a poem by Harold Rosenberg. A year later, Motherwell reinvented the drawing as a small painting and renamed the work after a line in the poem "Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias," by Federico Garcia Lorca. This work acts as the first entry in Motherwell's Elegies to the Spanish Republic series and sets up a formal and aesthetic system that would define the entire series.
Je t'aime No.2 serves as a prime example of Motherwell's second significant series of paintings, which he composed between 1953 and 1957, as his second marriage came to an end. The work exhibits energetic, emotionally charged brushwork, bright, evocative colors, and the artist's trademark ovoid and rectilinear forms. Written across the canvas is the French phrase "Je t'aime," ("I love you") an allusion to the lasting influence of Gallic culture on Motherwell's work, and, no doubt, a reference to the artist's personal anxieties during this time.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Robert Motherwell
- Robert Motherwell: With Pen and Brush (Essays in Art and Culture)By Mary Ann Caws
- Robert MotherwellOur PickBy Mary Ann Caws
- Robert MotherwellBy Dore Ashton and Robert Buck
- Robert Motherwell. Selected Prints: 1961-1974New York, Brooke Alexander, 1974
- Robert Motherwell: The Complete Prints 1940-1991: A Catalogue RaisonneOur PickManchester: Hudson Hills Press, 2003
- Robert Motherwell With Selections from the Artist's WritingsNew York: Museum of Modern Art, 1965
- Robert Motherwell on PaperNew York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997
- The Painter and the Printer. Robert Motherwell's Graphics 1943-1980New York: American Federation of Arts, 1980
- Robert Motherwell and BlackLondon: Petersburg Press, 1980
- The Collected Writings of Robert MotherwellNew York: University of California Press, 1992
- The Writings of Robert Motherwell (Documents of Twentieth-Century Art)Our PickNew York: University of California P, 2007
- The Dada Painters and Poets An Anthology, Second Edition
- Robert Motherwell Summer of 1971Our PickTrailer. Directed by Michael Blackwood
- Inside New York's Art World: Robert MotherwellOur Pick
- Slideshow of artwork, set to music
- Video of Five great Opens exhibition
- Robert Motherwell and the New York School: Storming the CitadelDocumentary about the artist and the New York School