Artist Spotlight: Robert Motherwell

The painting, "Elegy to the Spanish Republic, No. 126," by Robert Motherwell
Elegy to the Spanish Republic, No. 126, by Robert Motherwell. Adam Berry/Stringer/Getty Images

I have long admired the Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell (1915-1991). Not only a revolutionary artist but also a visionary, philosopher, and writer, Motherwell's works and words have always struck at the root of what it means to be an artist and fully human.  

Biography

Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington in 1915 but spent much of his childhood in California where he was sent to try to alleviate his asthma.

He grew up during The Great Depression, haunted by the fear of death. He was also a talented artist even as a child, and received a fellowship to the Otis Art Insitute in Los Angeles at the age of eleven. He attended art school when 17 in 1932 but didn't decide to devote himself to painting until 1941.  He was quite well-educated, studying liberal arts, aesthetics, and philosophy at Stanford University, Harvard University, and Columbia University. 

His thesis at Harvard was on the aesthetic theories of painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), one of the leading artists of the French Romantic period. He therefore spent 1938-39 in France to more completely immerse himself in what he was studying. 

Shortly after returning to the United States he moved to New York City and had his first solo show there in 1944 at Peggy Guggenheim's gallery Art of this Century Gallery, which also showed the work of Wasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann, Mark Rothko, and Clifford Still, among others.

It represented an exciting mixture of time, place, and cultures. 

Motherwell had a sensual interest in materials. The preface to the catalogue of his first exhibition said, "With him, a picture grows, not in the head, but on the easel - from a collage, through a series of drawings, to an oil. A sensual interest in materials comes first." (1)

Motherwell was a self-taught painter, and so felt free to explore many different avenues of artistic and painterly expression, but always had an identifiable personal style. His paintings and drawings are as much about the sensuality of the material and the expression of the subconscious as they are about the image.  They are not a window or door to another reality but are an extension of his own inner reality, and begin "technically from the subconscious through automatism (or as he may say 'doodling') and proceeds towards the subject which is the finished work."(2) He used collage extensively to explore his ideas and subconscious.

But whereas the Surrealists gave in totally to the subconscious, Motherwell was only informed by it, bringing to it also his great intellect and ethics. These are the basic premises and practice that underlie all his art, giving birth to a wide range of works of great variety, subtlety, and depth.

Motherwell once remarked that an artist is known as much by what he will not permit as by what he includes in the painting." (3)

He had a strong aversion to provincialism, both political and aesthetic, so was attracted to the New York school of Abstract Expressionism, with its attempt at conveying the universal human experience through non-objective means.

He was the youngest member of the New York school.

Motherwell was married to the American Abstract Expressionist color field painter Helen Frankenthaler from 1958-1971.

About Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism was a post World War II art movement that grew out of a resistance to war, to  artistic and political isolationism and to international economic depression. The Abstract Expressionists based their art on personal and ethical responses to the troubling dark side of being human rather than on aesthetics. They were influenced by European modernism and by Surrealism, which showed them how to break free of their conscious mind and connect with their subconscious by psychic automatism, leading to doodling and free gestural, improvisatory artworks. 

The Abstract Expressionists were looking for a new way to create universal meaning in their art besides creating figural or symbolic paintings.

They decided to give up looking at reproductions and replace them with first-hand experimentation. "This was the great anguish of the American Artist. They had a sound theoretical, but no practical, knowledge of the suffering involved in being extreme; but they would learn. They shot off in every direction, risking everything. They were never afraid of having a serious idea, and the serious idea was never self-referential. Theirs was a struggle as ultimate as their painting." (4)  

About the Abstract Expressionist movement and his fellow artists Motherwell said: "But really I suppose most of us felt that our passionate allegiance was not to American art or in that sense to any national art, but that there was such a thing as modern art: that it was essentially international in character, that it was the greatest painting adventure of our time, that we wished to participate in it, that we wished to plant it here, that it would blossom in its own way here as it had elsewhere, because beyond national differences there are human similarities that are more consequential..." (5)

Elegy to the Spanish Republic Series

In 1949, and for the next thirty years, Motherwell worked on a series of paintings, numbering close to 150, collectively called Elegy to the Spanish Republic. These are his most famous works. They are Motherwell's tribute to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) which left fascist General Francisco Franco in power, and which was a profound world and political event that took place when he was a young man of twenty-one, leaving an indelible impression upon him.

 

In these large-scale monumental paintings he represents human corruption, oppression and injustice by a recurring motif of simple, abstract ovoid forms painted in deep black within a formal framework. They have a weighty solemnity moving slowly across the canvas, suggestive of the rhythm of an elegy, a poem or song for the dead. 

There is debate over what the forms mean - whether they relate to architecture or monuments, or to wombs. The black and white palette suggests dualities such as life and death, night and day, oppression and freedom. "Although Motherwell stated that the 'Elegies' are not political, he did say they were his 'private insistence that a terrible death happened that should not be forgot.'"(6) 

Watch Khan Academy's video Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, No. 57.

Quotes

  • "A picture is a collaboration between artist and canvas. 'Bad' painting is when an artist enforces his will without regard for the sensibilities of the canvas...." (7)
  • "An artist is someone who has an abnormal sensitivity to a medium. The main thing is not to be dead. And nearly everyone is dead, painter or not. Only an alive person can make an alive expression. The problem of inspiration is simply to be fully alive at a given moment when working." (8)
  • "I don't exploit so-called 'accidents' in painting. I accept them if they seem appropriate. There is no such thing as an 'accident' really; it is a kind of casualness: it happened so let it be, so to speak. One doesn't want a picture to look 'made' like an automobile or a loaf of bread in waxed paper. Precision belongs to the world of machinery - which has its own forms of the beautiful. One admires Léger. But machinery created with brush and paint is ridiculous, all the same....I agree with Renoir,, who loved everything hand-made." (9)
  • "The greater the precision of feeling, the more personal the work will be."(10)
  • "The more anonymous a work, the less universal, because in some paradoxical way, we understand the universal through the personal." (11)
  • "Every picture one paints involves not painting others! What a choice!"(12)
  • "Caution is the enemy of art, and everyone is more cautious than he thinks he is."(13)
  • "The drama of creativity is that one's resources, no matter how unusual, are inadequate."(14)
  • "The ultimate act is faith, the ultimate resource the preconscious: if either is suspended, the artist is impotent. This is possible any hour any day, and it is the artist's nightmare throughout life."(15)
  • "One never really gets used to reality. The ultimate joke is our life of anxiety. God's small compensation is a sense of wonder."(16)

Further Reading and Viewing

Robert Motherwell, American, 1915-1991, MOMA 

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) & the New York School, Part 1/4

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) & the New York School, Part 2/4

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) & the New York School, Part 3/4

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) & the New York School, Part 4/4

Robert Motherwell: Early Collages, Peggy Guggenheim Collection

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REFERENCES

1. O'Hara, Frank, Robert Motherwell, with selections from the artist's writings, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Doubleday and Co., 1965, p. 18.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid. p.15.

4. Ibid. p. 8.

5. Ibid.

6. The Museum of Modern Art, Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 108, 1965-67, http://www.moma.org/collection/works/79007

7-9. O'Hara, Frank, Robert Motherwell, with selections from the artist's writings, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Doubleday and Co., 1965, p. 54.

10-16. Ibid. pp. 58-59.

RESOURCES

O'Hara, Frank, Robert Motherwell, with selections from the artist's writings, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Doubleday and Co., 1965.