BORN IN ABERDEEN, WASHINGTON 1915
DIED IN PROVINCETOWN, MASSACHUSETTS 1991
“in my opinion he was one of the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters.” – Clement Greenberg, 1991
Robert Motherwell, one of the great painters of Abstract Expressionism, is renown for his work in painting, print and collage that combined a new visual language of gestural abstraction with the dialectical nature of the human psyche. Deeply informed by Henri Matisse, Motherwell strove to liberate color and line from its strict descriptive role and demonstrate its potential as a device by which profound emotions could be expressed through simple means. Throughout his oeuvre, Motherwell’s work is defined by pervading dialogues between European modernist traditions and a distinctive and fresh American approach to art making; pure abstraction and figuration; as well as formal and emotional modus operandi.
Motherwell graduated from Stanford University in 1937 and later continued his graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University. It was in 1940, when Motherwell studied briefly at Columbia University, that Meyer Schapiro encouraged him to pursue painting rather than scholarship. Following a 1941 voyage to Mexico with Surrealist painter Roberto Matta, Motherwell fully committed to painting as his primary vocation. In 1944, Motherwell was granted his first one-person show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery. Soon after, he became the leading spokesperson for avant-garde art in America. Throughout the 1950s, Motherwell lectured widely on abstract painting and held a professorship at Hunter College in New York and at Black Mountain College in North Carolina—during which he taught Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland, all of whom would become deeply influenced by Motherwell’s rigorous academia and extensive knowledge of literature and philosophy. In the 1960s, Motherwell exhibited in the prestigious São Paulo Bienal, and was awarded his first major New York retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, curated by the artist's close friend, renowned writer and art critic Frank O’Hara. During the 1970s, Motherwell was the subject of numerous significant retrospective exhibitions in Düsseldorf, Stockholm, Vienna, Paris, Edinburgh and London. In 1983, a major retrospective of Motherwell’s work was mounted at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, which subsequently travelled The Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; The Seattle Art Museum; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.