Robert Motherwell (1915 – 1991) was a preeminent abstract expressionist working at exactly the right time and in exactly the right place to contribute materially to the movement’s critical and commercial success. His work evinced the gestural brushwork of action painting and the saturation of color field painting, both at a time when nonrepresentational painting was considered a controversial innovation.
Motherwell studied philosophy at Stanford (B.A., 1937), became interested in modern European symbolist poets, and enrolled in a Ph.D. program in philosophy at Harvard before moving to Columbia to study art history with Meyer Schapiro. He became conversant with the philosophy of the “immediate experience,” developed by philosophers like John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead and David Prall, and came under the influence of Roberto Matta and other European surrealists, who advocated automatism, or the performance of an act without conscious thought, as a means of creating art. It often fell upon Motherwell, with his elite education and intellectual bent, to come to the defense this new artistic process. This he did with writing (Documents of Modern Art; The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology;, Possibilities: An Occasional Review; and Modern Artists in America), with lectures, through teaching at Black Mountain College, and even through painting. In 1944, he painted Mallarmé’s Swan (Cleveland Museum of Art), and he often quoted the French poet’s admonition that the artist is to paint “not the thing, but the effect it provides.”
Motherwell’s underlying premise is that abstract expressionism is a natural outgrowth of the evolution of modern society in the twentieth century into a material culture that cannot, or should not, be embraced by an artist:
The social condition of the modern world which gives every experience its form is the spiritual breakdown which followed the collapse of religion. This condition has led to the isolation of the artist from the rest of society. The modern artist’s social history is that of a spiritual being in a property-loving world.
In 1941 he traveled with his friend Roberto Matta to Mexico and produced there his earliest known work, the Mexican Sketchbook, a unique work now at the Museum of Modern Art. The Sketchbook hints at but does not possess the boldness of the monumental abstract canvases he would later paint and that have become the recognizable hallmark of his work, identifiable at first sight, and reflecting the literary and political themes that supported his view of alienation and isolation. His most famous series of paintings, the Elegies to the Spanish Republic, is a series of over 140 large canvasses uniformly showing somber dark abstract forms against a white horizontal background and inspired by the lost cause of the Spanish Civil War.
It is his artist’s books, however, that best unify Motherwell’s earliest philosophical views, his inspiration from poetry, his life-long interest in the culture of the Spanish speaking world, his devotion to printmaking, and his bold gestural painting. Created mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, his collaboration with Mexican Poet Octavio Paz, in the form of Tres Poemas / Three Poems, and with Spanish poet Rafael Alberti in the form of A la Pintura and El Negro, are particularly successful collaborations combining language, design, and printmaking.
Books with Robert Motherwell available from Boreas Fine Art:
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