It may be that the deep necessity of art is the examination of self-deception.

Robert Motherwell

Two Figures 1958

Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington and began to study painting at the Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles in 1926 when he was only 11. Family money offered him a comprehensive education: a BA in philosophy at Stanford, a pre-war tour of Europe and PhD studies in philosophy at Harvard eventually abandoned to enrol on an art history course at Columbia run by art historian Meyer Schapiro. And it was Schapiro who persuaded Motherwell to take up painting professionally. He studied painting with the Chilean Surrealist Matta in Mexico in 1941.

His first solo exhibition was in 1944 at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art Of This Century Gallery. He was the youngest of the Abstract Expressionists, and was unusual in that he produced work which was abstract from the outset, although there is a suggestion of figuration in his paintings. Despite comprising only a fraction of his output,

Motherwell’s best known work is the ‘Spanish Elegies’ collection prompted by the Spanish Civil War, an event that moved him deeply but not begun until a decade later in 1949.

In 1948 Motherwell, together with other leading exponents of Abstract Expressionism, founded the Subjects of the Artist School. His earliest paintings contained ideas prompted by his friendship with a number of expatriate Surrealists, but by the late 1940s he turned to using bold slabs of paint, often ovals or upright rectangles in a very subdued palette reminiscent of the late Matisse cutouts. This technique, making dramatic use of black and white continued for some time. It can be seen to good effect in ‘Elegy to the Spanish Republic LXX’ (1961). In 1967 he changed tack, beginning a series of Colour Field paintings called ‘Open’. They featured large areas of dense colour broken by a few spare lines, a style chosen to convey both expansiveness and simplicity.

Motherwell was highly prolific both as an artist and as a critic and lecturer. His understanding of various different styles inform a lot of his art – Surrealism within his early work and his later collages such as ‘Unglueckliche Liebe’ (‘Unhappy Love’) (1975) and Abstract Expressionism clearly evident in ‘Elegies’. However, he always retains an understanding of the world around him, conveying a sense of humanity as opposed to cold intellectualism.


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