Stanford University

Robert Motherwell – An Abstract Expressionism and the Father of Psychic Automatism

Robert Motherwell, born on January 24, 1915 at Aberdeen, Washington, was a renowned American ‘Abstract Expressionist’ painter, who also set records as a printmaker. He completed his B.A. in philosophy from the Stanford University in the year 1937, while completing his Ph.D. in the subject from Harvard. A year later, he made a surprising switch to Art History & Arts at Columbia University, and developed a very keen interest in painting. In the year 1958, Motherwell entered into a matrimonial alliance with another American painter, Helen Frankenthaler.

At the start of his career, Robert Motherwell was inclined towards ‘Surrealism’ and was held in high regard by the other Surrealists in New York. He had adopted a distinct style of painting known as ‘Psychic Automatism,’ reflecting his understanding of philosophy. This fascination for ‘Surrealism’ was more a result of Robert’s association with Roberto Matta from Chile with whom he shared a strong bond of friendship. The artist traveled with Matta to Mexico in 1941 and painted his first famous series, “The Mexican Sketchbook.”

Motherwell became a part of the New York School, as tagged by him, which was an informal association of American artists in various domains in 1950s and 1960s. As a part of this group, he shared space with the likes of Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, rediscovering himself as an ‘Abstract Expressionist’ and adding new dimensions to this style of painting. Robert Motherwell believed in the depiction of the human emotions through delightful strokes of brush and colors, as signified by his words, “You don’t have to paint a figure to express human feelings.” He experimented a lot with the paint, like diluting paint to give the effect of a shadow and ‘Calligraphically’ depicting, the different state of emotion. The unique aspect of his work was the wild brush strokes mingled with the bared strokes of black color, carrying with it the live expression of human sentiments.

Robert Motherwell’s first solo exhibition was held at Raymond Duncan Gallery, Paris in the year 1939. In 1948, Robert Motherwell painted the first “Spanish Elegies” for the famous painting series, “Elegy of Spanish Republic (1948-90).” “Personage (1943),” “Western Air (1947),” “Two Figures (1958),” “The Blue Painting (1973),” “Mexican Night (1979),” and “The Dalton Print (1979),” rank among his most celebrated works. Robert Motherwell also created several collages, of which “Surprise & Inspiration (1943)” was the best known. This magnum opus was displayed in his exhibition at the art gallery, the Art of Century, owned by Peggy Guggenheim, at New York.

During his successful career as a painter, Robert Motherwell briefly took up teaching at Black Mountain College (late 1940s) and at the Hunter College, Manhattan (1950s). He also ventured into editing for several magazines like Possibilities (in 1947-48) and The Dada Painters & Poets (in 1951), followed by his direction of the publication series, “The Documents of Modern Art (1944-52).” In 1948, he founded an art school, the “Subjects of the Artist” with William Baziotes, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko.

In 1961, he published the limited edition of all his work, which was the first time ever that an ‘Abstract Expressionist’ published his art in the form of prints. Robert Motherwell breathed his last at the age of 76, on July 16, 1991 at Provincetown, Massachusetts.

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