Collections> Browse Robert Motherwell

Collections> Browse Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell
Holdings (693)
9 paintings, 462 edition prints/proofs, 6 books, 37 drawings, 5 unique works on paper, 4 posters, 168 preparatory materials for works on paper, 2

Wikipedia About Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell (January 24, 1915 – July 16, 1991) American painter, printmaker and editor. He was one of the youngest of the New York School (a phrase he coined), which also included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Philip Guston. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Robert Motherwell, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Robert Motherwell was the youngest member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionist painters, a group that included Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock. His humanist approach to art, affinity for literature, and passion for writing made him the unofficial spokesperson for the movement. Unlike many of his peers, he had an extensive formal education, studying painting at the California School of Fine Arts, literature and philosophy at Stanford and Harvard, and art history at Columbia. His pictorial language took the form of drawings, collages, prints, and paintings ranging from intimate studies to monumental works on canvas. The Walker Art Center is home to a significant collection of Motherwell’s achievements in all these media, including a complete archive of the prints—the largest public repository of this material in the world.1

Motherwell took pride in being a part of the lineage of modern painting, and embraced in his work the influence of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. Of equal interest were Asian traditions of painting, drawing, and calligraphy; he also profited from the diverse ideologies of European artists living in New York in refuge from World War II, particularly the Surrealists Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, and Roberto Matta. From them, he learned the concept of “psychic automatism,” a form of doodling in which the artist allows an unconscious, spontaneous impulse to lead the way.2 Motherwell used the technique with great success in developing his own brand of abstraction.

As a personal point of reference, it was the subject of Spain to which Motherwell returned time and again in his work. Two of his best-known series, the Elegies to the Spanish Republic and the Iberia paintings, were created in response to his intellectual and emotional involvement with Mediterranean culture. The Elegies, which eventually came to number more than one hundred canvases plus numerous drawings, prints, and studies, were intended not only to commemorate the loss of life and liberty marked by the defeat of the Spanish Republic in 1939, but to evoke Motherwell’s belief that an era of enlightened humanism had died with it. He once remarked, “The Spanish Elegies are not ‘political,’ but my private insistence that a terrible death happened that should not be forgot.”3

The Elegies first appeared in Motherwell’s work in 1948. Characterized by alternating ovoid and vertical bar shapes dominated by black, the motif soon became a seminal part of his visual vocabulary. Elegy Study (1953) shows the artist’s interest in the impulse of automatism as well as the metaphorical permanence of black; in the late work Elegy to the Spanish Republic #167 (Spanish Earth Elegy), the motif is placed on a field of ochre, a pigment the artist favored, in part, for its allusions to the sun-baked landscapes of Mexico and the Mediterranean.

The Iberia paintings, titled after the region named by the ancient Greeks that is now Spain, were initiated when Motherwell traveled there in 1958, an experience that proved pivotal. His many paintings and drawings made that year, such as the Walker Art Center’s Untitled (Iberia), moved away from figuration into a more pure and symbolic abstraction. Though critics have seen in the Iberia paintings such visual references as the body of a bull, in a formal sense these are paintings about black, the most persistent pictorial presence in Motherwell’s work. He saw black as both a color and a structural element around which a work could visually and symbolically revolve.

Throughout his life, Motherwell explored the expressive potential of collage, a technique of assembling found papers or other materials on a flat surface. It was a means by which he could alternately explore issues of representation and abstraction. His collages were very personal statements and included ephemera—bits of torn rice paper, cigarette wrappers, sheet music, wrapping paper, wine labels, or postal packaging—that revealed his individual tastes and visual attraction to particular colors and textures. Through collage, Motherwell frequently resolved compositional problems he was investigating on canvas; likewise, the process of painting opened new possibilities for the artist to further his work in collage.

“For a painter as abstract as myself, the collages offer a way of incorporating bits of the everyday world into pictures,” Motherwell once remarked.4 The elegant Histoire d’un Peintre (Diary of a Painter) (1956) is composed of random fragments, such as pieces of brown wrapping paper at hand in his studio and paper removed from a blue package of French Gauloise cigarettes.5 At the center of this work is a torn page from an art catalogue with text that reads Réalité et abstraction (reality and abstraction), words that allude to the two poles of artistic expression Motherwell actively explored. A second text appears on a scrap of rice paper on which the artist has written the phrase Jour la maison, nuit la rue (By day at home, by night on the town). Borrowed from the Surrealist writer Paul Éluard, these words might also have been included to poetically reference the life of a painter.

Throughout his activities in painting and collage, Motherwell returned to the practice of automatic drawing. He also had a fascination with Asian calligraphy, and often painted with ink and a calligrapher’s brush. During the spring of 1965, he made a series of some six hundred ink drawings on Japanese rice paper.6 He entitled these the Lyric Suite, named partly for a string quartet by Alban Berg that he had listened to repeatedly while he worked. Rapidly executed, each drawing has the resonant precision of Japanese haiku poetry and recalls Motherwell’s interest in Zen. When grouped, the drawings amplify one another to form a strikingly vivid array of gestures. The artist once admitted that he was anxious at first that these ink studies lacked visual complexity, but many years later he was still astounded by their freshness.7

From early 1967 through the final years of his life, Motherwell devoted considerable time and energy to a series of works he called his Open paintings. Just as automatic drawing had led to the development of new forms in his work, serendipity also played a role. When one day he noticed two canvases leaning against each other in his studio, it led him to outline the shape of the smaller canvas onto the larger one, which resulted in a spare, rectangular design against a background of color. For Motherwell the effect recalled a window in the plane of a textured or colored wall, which in turn reminded him of the stark facades of Spanish houses.8 The Open paintings, such as Window in Sienna (1968), allude to the presence of the window throughout the history of art, from Renaissance portraiture to the more abstract depictions of Henri Matisse to the psychological musings of René Magritte. Motherwell also spoke of the affinity between Japanese Zen painting and his own work, characterizing the Opens as analogous to the Asian concept of the void: “The amazing discovery is that it takes relatively little to animate the absolute void … [one discovers] that the void is beautiful in itself.”9

  1. In 2003, the Walker published a definitive catalogue raisonné of Motherwell’s prints to commemorate this acquisition. See Siri Engberg and Joan Banach, Robert Motherwell: The Complete Prints 1940–1991 (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2003).

  2. It was Matta who introduced Motherwell to the technique in 1940.

  3. Motherwell, “A Conversation at Lunch,” address delivered at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, November 1962, notes by Margaret Paul. Paul’s notes were included in Robert Motherwell, An Exhibition of the Work of Robert Motherwell, exh. cat. (Northampton, Massachusetts: Smith College Museum of Art, 1963), unpaginated.

  4. Quoted in Jack Flam, “With Robert Motherwell,” in Douglas G. Schultz, ed., Robert Motherwell, exh. cat. (Buffalo, New York: Albright-Knox Art Gallery in association with Abbeville Press, 1983), 16.

  5. The artist was known to keep “collage boxes” in his studio in which random materials could be collected for later use. Often, elements from a given collage fragment would appear in several works. The Gauloise package was a visual element the artist recalled being introduced to by a neighbor: “ … one day we were sitting talking and he offered me one—I don’t smoke them—but I said, ‘God, that package is so beautiful and blue’—it probably was in August sitting by the sea—and about a week later he put in my mailbox an empty carton of these blue packages. One day in the studio I felt like making a collage, and among other elements, picked up this blue—well, it turned out to become an obsession, this blue package.” Motherwell, interview with Martin Friedman, Walker Art Center, August 1972 (Walker Art Center Archives).

  6. The series was initially meant to consist of 1,000 drawings: “On an impulse one day in a Japanese shop in New York City … I bought ten packets of one hundred sheets each of a Japanese rice paper called ‘Dragons and Clouds.’ Some weeks later—early in April 1965—it came to me in a flash: Paint the thousand sheets without interruption … and above all without revisions or additions upon critical reflection and judgement… . Anywhere from ten to fifty a day, on the floor, sweat dimming my spectacles on hot days. Each picture would change before my eyes after I had finished working on it.” Motherwell, “Addenda to the Museum of Modern Art Lyric Suite Questionnaire—from Memory … with Possible Chronological Slips,” August 8, 1969 (Museum of Modern Art Archives).

  7. Ibid.

  8. These recollections are quoted in Marcelin Pleynet, Robert Motherwell (Paris: Editions Daniel Papierski, 1989).

  9. Quoted in Flam, “With Robert Motherwell,” 23.

Engberg, Siri. “Robert Motherwell.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center

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