Born in 1915 in Aberdeen, Washington, and raised in California, Motherwell was the youngest and one of the most significant of the Abstract Expressionist painters. While his works share a fundamental philosophic kinship with the spontaneous action paintings made by peers such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning–namely, a strong attachment to psychic self-expression achieved by the act of painting–they are more poetic and premeditated and less brazenly aggressive. His works are more openly tied to their literary sources and inspirations; Motherwell himself had an extensive formal education, and was a prolific writer who became the unofficial spokesperson for Abstract Expressionism.
Motherwell’s repertoire included Surrealist-inspired automatist drawings, intimate collages, editioned prints, lyrical ink paintings, and monumental paintings on canvas. In general, the visual language of these disparate works synthesizes the history of modern painting, from Pablo Picasso’s early collages and Wassily Kandinsky’s biomorphic compositions to Henri Matisse’s color-field paintings. The selections from the Lyric Suite, on view here, are examples of Motherwell’s use of automatic drawing and spontaneous gesture in his work. With their minimal color and prominent caligraphic forms, these drawings demonstrate the artist’s affinity with Japanese Zen painting.
These drawings join a gift of 33 works by American artist Robert Motherwell given to the museum in 1995 through the generosity of longtime museum patrons Angus and Margaret Wurtele and a gift of the Dedalus Foundation. The collection spans four decades of the artist’s career and includes seven paintings, 21 drawings, and five collages. This, in addition to a recent acquisition of a complete archive of the artist’s prints, ensures that the Walker will be an important center for the study of Motherwell’s work.
Motherwell’s work has been the focus of four exhibitions held at the Walker: Robert Motherwell: Recent Paintings (1972); Robert Motherwell: The Collaged Image (1985); Robert Motherwell: The Spanish Elegies (1992-1993), and Robert Motherwell: Reality and Abstraction (1996).