Robert Motherwell (1915–1991) was a major twentieth-century Abstract Expressionist whose works range from large-scale oil on canvas to layered collages and intimate gestural works on paper. Perhaps best known for his series entitled Elegy to the Spanish Republic, Motherwell’s compositions draw upon his deep political awareness and literary erudition. Both through the immediacy of his calligraphic works and the spatial concerns of his Open series, Motherwell was at the center of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism with contemporaries and close friends including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. Motherwell’s gestures—whether recorded in sweeping, emotional brushwork or the hand-torn edges of collaged paper—express a search for universal forms.
Robert Motherwell was born in 1915 in Aberdeen, Washington, but moved to California as a child where he was influenced by the bright, open landscape. Motherwell studied literature and philosophy at Stanford University, receiving a B.A. in 1937. He then enrolled in graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University. After traveling through Europe for a year, Motherwell returned to New York in 1940 to study art history at Columbia University with Meyer Shapiro. This brought him into contact with the great American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who challenged Motherwell to work in abstraction. From Whitehead, Motherwell learned to approach abstraction as a process of finding the necessary by cutting through the excess.
In the early 1940s, Motherwell joined a group of artists active in New York including William Baziotes, Hans Hoffman, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock. In 1944 Peggy Guggenheim held a solo exhibition of Motherwell’s work at her New York gallery, Art of This Century. In the following years, Motherwell’s circle grew to include Abstract Expressionists Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Motherwell dedicated time to teaching and publishing. He worked on editorial projects on modern art and taught briefly at Black Mountain College, North Carolina before returning to New York to teach at Hunter College from 1951 to 1959.
Beginning in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Motherwell began working on his Open series, which explored the spatial concerns of the Color Field movement. In 1977, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. commissioned Motherwell to create a mural for their new wing and held a solo exhibition of the artist’s work the following year. That year also marked an exhibition held at the Royal Academy, London. In 1983, a major retrospective exhibition was installed at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York and subsequently traveled to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C.
Robert Motherwell died in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1991.
2015 – “Important Works on Paper” Jonathan Novak Contemporary Art
2013 – “Ab-ex / Re-con,” Abstract Expressionism Reconsidered, Nassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn Harbor, New York
2013 – “The Artist and the Poet,” The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
2012 – “Robert Motherwell: Abstract Expressionist,” Saint Louis University Museum of Art, Saint Louis, Missouri
2012 – “Robert Motherwell: Prints from the Artist’s Studio,” Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London, United Kingdom
2011 – “Focus: Robert Motherwell,” Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado
2011 – “Robert Motherwell: Works on Paper,” Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London, United Kingdom
2010 – “Robert Motherwell: Printmaking Impressions,” Galerie Weihergut Biberngasse, Salzburg, Austria
2009 – “Robert Motherwell: Unique Monotypes,” Greenfield Sacks Gallery, Santa Monica, California
2009 – “The Thaw Collection of Master Drawings: Aquisitions since 2002,” Morgan Library and Museum, New York, New York
2008 – “Reflections on Light,” Galerie Bernd Kluser, Munich, Germany
2008 – “Robert Motherwell: Five Great Opens,” Bernard Jacobsen Gallery, London, United Kingdom
2007 – “Temptations,” The Columns, Seoul, South Korea
2006 – “Black, Black & White, White,” Leonard Hutton Galleries, New York, New York
2005 – “Looking at Words: Erie,” Das MoMA, Berlin, Germany
2004 – “Robert Motherwell from the Collection: 1940–1990,” The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, Texas
2004 – Robert Motherwell, Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen, Germany
2003 – “Small Paintings & Works on Paper,” Galerie Bernd Klüser, Munich, Germany
2002 – “Themes + Variations,” Manny Silverman Gallery, Los Angeles, California
1987 – “The Spontaneous Gesture: Prints and Books of the Abstract Expressionist Era,” The Australian National Gallery of Art, Canberra, Australia
1983 – Robert Motherwell, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York
1981 – “American Prints: Process & Proofs,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
1980 – “The Painter and the Printer: Robert Motherwell’s Graphics 1943-1980,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
1978 – Retrospective, Royal Academy of Arts, London
1977 – Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris
1974 – “American Prints 1913-63,” Riva Castleman, Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
1972 – “Robert Motherwell’s A la Pintura: The Genesis of a Book,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
1969 – “Prints by Four New York Painters,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
1965 – “Robert Motherwell: Works on Paper,” Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
1946 – “Fourteen Americans,” Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
1944 – Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century, New York, New York
Youtube – “Robert Motherwell: Summer of 1971 [Excerpt]” by MichaelBlackwoodProd
Youtube – “Robert Motherwell: Storming the Citadel” exerpt from a film by KulturFilms
Hamptons.com – “Robert Motherwell’s Life in the Hamptons” by Mary Cummings