Robert Motherwell

The scholar turned painter who defined American abstract expressionism.

Motherwell joined the founders of abstract expressionism in American through a distinctly intellectual and international perspective.

It was in Paris that he was first inspired to become a painter, in Mexico that he completed his first works and in New York that he realized his importance as a distinctly American artist, only after receiving two degrees in philosophy and one in art history.

At Five in the Afternoon, 1949 (Estate of Helen Frankenthaler)

Upon his return to New York in the early 1940s, he became a founding member of the New York School, an artistic movement that united such contemporaries as: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, William de Kooning and Philip Guston.

The New York School fostered the American development of abstract expressionism, which sought to demonstrate both universal emotionality and the individual psyche of artists. With his philosophical, analytical background, Motherwell was especially drawn to the movement defining American art.

“All [American artists] needed was a creative principle, I mean something that would mobilize this capacity to paint in a creative way, and that’s what Europe had that we hadn’t had; we had always followed in their wake. And I thought of all the possibilities of free association — because I also had a psychoanalytic background and I understood the implications — might be the best chance to really make something entirely new which everybody agreed was the thing to do.”
— Robert Motherwell

Over the next five decades, Motherwell created over 1,000 works that demonstrated the influences of his past philosophical, psychoanalytical studies and strove to establish their own American voice, independent of established artistic culture.

The Hollow Men no VI, 1983 (Courtesy of Mint Museum)

In the 1980s, Motherwell completed one of his most significant series of drawings and paintings: Hollow Men. With this series, he sought to dispel superficiality in his work and cut through, directly to the genuine.

However, while Motherwell’s works were highly conceptual, he believed there was a specific place for analysis in art creation:

“It’s not that the creative act and the critical act are simultaneous. It’s more like you blurt something out and then analyze it.” — Robert Motherwell

Motherwell received a B.A. in literature, psychology and philosophy from Stanford University before going on to study philosophy at Harvard University and art history at Columbia University. He served as a professor at Hunter College.

Motherwell has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, Paul Kasmin Gallery, the Bernard Jacobson Gallery in London the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York City.

You can acquire a Robert Motherwell lithograph now at artlist.co


This post was written with the help of Alice Mahoney.

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