Every intelligent painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head. It is his real subject, of which everything he paints in both an homage and a critique, and everything he says is a gloss.
ROBERT MOTHERWELL (1915–1991)
The Phillips Collection
An articulate, intellectual talent among the abstract expressionists, Robert Motherwell was born in 1915 in the State of Washington. While attending Stanford University (1932–1937), Motherwell took his first trip to Europe. After receiving his undergraduate degree, he began graduate coursework in philosophy at Harvard University. During a stay in Europe in 1938–1939, he had his first one-person exhibition in Paris. In 1940, he studied art history with Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University, and through Schapiro, he met many European surrealist painters. Motherwell soon devoted most of his time to painting. After settling in New York in 1941, he began writing and lecturing on modern art and became associated with the group of American artists whose work had been influenced by the surrealists’ ideas of automatism, a process of making art through subconscious free association—Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, William Baziotes, and Hans Hofmann. Motherwell, the youngest of this group of abstract painters, sought to create imagery that communicated the emotional truths of an authentic self and reflected a collective human consciousness.
In 1944 Motherwell held his first New York solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery; that same year the Museum of Modern Art was the first museum to purchase one of his works. By 1949 Motherwell reached his mature style, creating large paintings that employ simple shapes in a manner reminiscent of Franz Kline’s forceful black on white images. Unlike Kline, Motherwell’s paintings had a strong political and literary content, specifically in his Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, for which he was best known. Motherwell underwent a period of frustration during the mid 1950s, when he seldom exhibited and had destroyed many works. Between 1959 and 1961, however, he experienced a renewal of creativity, experimenting and refining his Elegy to the Spanish Republic
series, creating a new series of oils, and executing numerous collages, including The Phillips Collection’s Mail Figure
During the 1950s and 1960s, Motherwell expanded his writings on art, and as a leading art theorist taught painting at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and at Hunter College in New York. In 1958 he married a leading figure of the second-generation abstract expressionists, Helen Frankenthaler, who became his third wife. Following their divorce in 1971, he established permanent residence in Greenwich, Connecticut; two years later, Motherwell married the German photographer Renate Ponsold. He continued to expand his artistic repertoire in paintings, prints, and collages. Motherwell died in 1991 in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
An extensive synopsis of Motherwell's key ideas, biography, writings, ideas, and a discussion on Existentialism and the Function of the Modern Artist may be found on www.theartstory.org.
Oral history interview with Robert Motherwell, 1971 Nov. 24, 1974
Archives of American Art
born 1915 Aberdeen WA
died 1991 Provincetown MA
1937 California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco, BA
1937 Stanford University, Palo Alto CA, BA
1937 Harvard University, Cambridge MA, PhD
1940 Columbia University, New York
selected public collections
New York Times
A Painter's Cut-and-Paste Prequel
'Robert Motherwell: Early Collages,' at the Guggenheim
Karsten Moran for The New York Times
'Robert Motherwell: Early Collages': A look at the new show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
By HOLLAND COTTER
October 3, 2013
Abstract Expressionism is overrated. And it wasn't initially a movement or style at all. It was a bunch of unalike artists, some great, some not, who shared a city, a war, some ideas and a bar, circa 1940. Pretty much everything else, including a fecund two-decade fad for soulful painting that grew from that moment, was largely a product of marketing and myth spinning.
That, at least, is the way future historians may well see AbEx's "heroic" origins. And they'll see that Robert Motherwell (1915-91) — a born explainer, neatener and networker — had a ground-level role in creating the brand, narrowing it to a specific kind of art that purportedly channeled emotion through gesture. But Motherwell also coined a more realistically neutral and accommodating label for the vanguard art of the time: the New York School. That name covered a lot of stylistic ground.
So did he when he began his career. We see him hard at work at it in "Robert Motherwell: Early Collages" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. And it's a bracing, mettlesome, variegated sight, surprisingly so, given this artist's reputation for formulaic elegance and AbEx orthodoxy.
In reality, Motherwell always stood slightly apart from other characters, even in standard tellings of the New York School tale. To Pollock's loutish cowboy and de Kooning's Olympian swashbuckler, he plays the genteel, brainy West Coast kid, a want-to-be painter, writer and philosophy scholar who arrived in Manhattan in 1940 to study art history with Meyer Schapiro at Columbia.
Cultural traffic was heavy in the city just then, as émigré artists, fleeing the war in Europe, poured in, among them Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, and a raft of Parisian Surrealists. Because Motherwell spoke fluent French — he had spent time in Paris — and was literary minded, Schapiro enlisted him to meet and greet the refugees, making him one of the few people in the New York art world with ready and continuing access to them.
Within the Surrealist circle, he encountered the young Chilean-born painter Roberto Matta, and they became, for a while, fast friends. It was through Matta that he met a crucial mentor, the collector and impresaria Peggy Guggenheim, who was about to open a gallery-museum-salon called the Art of This Century. And it was Matta who, on a joint trip to Mexico in 1941, fully initiated Motherwell into Surrealist automatism, an improvisatory technique that radically loosened up his idea of what art could be and how he could make it.
By 1943, he loosened up enough to take a stab at collage making, and Guggenheim provided the occasion. She was planning a big collage survey that would bring together European past masters of the form like Arp, Braque and Picasso with American newcomers. She wanted Motherwell in the mix. She gave him a deadline and said: Get to work. He did. One of the collages that resulted is in the present show.
It's titled "Joy of Living," though there isn't much joy evident in this moody, unkempt concoction of smudged ink, nervy doodles and perspectival geometry, punctuated by a scrap cut from a military map and a sprinkling of curious red stains on a patch of white paper, like blood seeping through a bandage.
The piece was a hit. It attracted critical notice and even found a buyer, not bad for a first time out. And this public success set the seal on Motherwell's newfound infatuation with what would become his primary medium over the next several years and the locus of some of the most interesting work he would ever do.
His paintings and drawings over a long career ahead would often be repetitive and predictable. Not these early pieces, though. A few settle for easy Gallic élan, and, Lord knows, there are Picassoisms flitting everywhere here. But other collages look bulky and dark, even slightly monstrous. They're heavily labored but raw, as if he'd slaved over them until he just couldn't bear to another minute and stopped. This impression of effort is probably partly a result of wrestling with formal demands that were new to him, involving the gestureless, surprisingly complicated physics of cutting, tearing, layering and gluing. Plus he was dealing with unfamiliar materials, most of them ready-made and therefore potentially intractable: papers of different weight, patterned and not; high- and low-grade inks, kindergarten gouaches, adhesives that discolored or bled.
The tone of much of this early work though, alternately brooding and volatile, comes from its expressive content. Motherwell once said that he had been obsessed with the idea of death since he was a child. And that obsession is there in his art from the start.
The much-exhibited 1943 collage-painting "Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive" is based on a very specific image of death, a 1923 photograph of the corpse of Villa, the assassinated Mexican revolutionary. Motherwell shows the body, rendered all but abstract, twice, once daubed with blood-colored paint, and again set against a sheet of busily patterned wrapping paper that here suggests a bullet-strafed wall.
Motherwell's single best-known work, the huge series of more than 100 paintings titled "Elegy to the Spanish Republic," is a memorial to an extended episode of modern political violence, the brutal suppression of Loyalists in the 1930s in the Spanish Civil War. Stretched over Motherwell's entire career, the series began in 1948, and a collage from that year, simply titled "Elegy," encapsulates its essential resurrectional components: two testicular ovals and a phallic upright.
Many more pieces, however, are clear responses to an even more immediate and colossal crisis, World War II. A section of the military training map seen in "Joy of Living" turns in up a latter collage, "View from A High Tower," dated 1944-45. Here, the map sits like a targeted patch of green in a convulsed landscape of folded, wrinkled and ripped paper. Just off the picture's center floats a form that is hard to interpret. It could be a dead body, headless and shrouded, but the letters inscribed on it, "VIV" and "LA," read like a broken cry to life, a resistance anthem: Vive la France.
By this point, Motherwell had more than just mastered color. He had made it a central element in his collage work, and he would never use it again or anywhere else with such experimental boldness. It's what turns the 1946 "Blue With China Ink (Homage to John Cage)" into an infinity of kite-filled sky, and, a year later, makes "The Poet," painted ember orange, a little furnace radiating heat. Color is also part of what makes the 1949 "Collage in Yellow and White, With Torn Elements" autumnal in every sense, with its goldenrod yellow and wild-aster blues, and paper scraps clinging loose to its surface like golden leaves to an October tree.
In some ways, this is the most radical piece in an extraordinary show, organized by Susan Davidson, a senior curator at the Guggenheim. It comes out of both Surrealism and Expressionism but leaves both behind, and maybe abstraction, too: What , after all, could be more concrete, more illusion free than the visibly fragile material this picture is composed of?
And in this work, more obviously than any other, Motherwell relinquished his role as sole creator, which is Abstract Expressionism's defining feature. Gravity, chemistry and light deserve equal billing as collaborators in a piece of art that has almost certainly changed color, texture and form since it was new.
Motherwell, the memorialist, surely understood this. Maybe that's why he did his best — his freest, most vital, least doctrinaire — work in collage, a medium that in the end belongs to one all-encompassing movement, time.
Robert Motherwell: Early Collages, Robert Motherwell, Guggenheim Museum,
Robert Motherwell. H H Arnason, published by Harry N Abrams, New York
The Writings of Robert Motherwell (Documents of Twentieth-Century) Robert Motherwell, Dore Ashton, Joan Banach,University of California Press, 2007