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Robert Motherwell Artist Biography

Robert Motherwell was highly prolific both as an artist and as a critic and lecturer. His understanding of various different styles informed a lot of his art - Surrealism within his early work and his later collages such as 'Unglueckliche Liebe' ('Unhappy Love') (1975) and Abstract Expressionism clearly evident in 'Elegies'. However, he always retains an understanding of the world around him, conveying a sense of humanity as opposed to cold intellectualism.

Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington and began to study painting at the Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles in 1926 when he was only 11. Family money offered him a comprehensive education: a BA in Philosophy at Stanford, a pre-war tour of Europe and PhD studies in Philosophy at Harvard eventually abandoned to enroll on an Art History course at Columbia run by art historian Meyer Schapiro. And it was the critic Meyer Schapiro who persuaded Robert Motherwell to take up painting professionally. He studied painting with the Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta and travelled with him in Mexico in 1941.

Influenced by the European Surrealist, Automatist émigré painters, and Roberto Matta, Robert Motherwell began creating several early works that hint at the gestural quality of his mature work. By the late 1940s he turned to using bold slabs of paint, often ovals or upright rectangles in a very subdued palette reminiscent of the late Henri Matisse cutouts. This technique, making dramatic use of black and white shapes, continued for some time. His first solo exhibition was in 1944 at Peggy Guggenheim's Art Of This Century Gallery, New York. He was the youngest of the Abstract Expressionists, and was unusual in that he produced work which was abstract from the outset, although there is a suggestion of figuration in some of his paintings.

In 1948, Robert Motherwell, together with other leading exponents of Abstract Expressionism, founded the Subjects of the Artist School. This year, Robert Motherwell, began to work with his celebrated Elegy to the Spanish Republic theme, which he continued to develop throughout his life. Robert Motherwell intended his Elegies to the Spanish Republic as a "lamentation or funeral song" after the Spanish Civil War. His recurring motif here is vertical ovals and rectangles, repeated in varying sizes and degrees of compression and distortion. Throughout the 1950's, he also taught painting at Hunter College in New York and at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Continuing to exhibit extensively in the United States and abroad, at this time, he was also a prolific writer and lecturer.

A Motherwell exhibition took place at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts, Vienna, and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1976–77. He was given important solo exhibitions at the Royal Academy, London, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., in 1978. A retrospective of his works organized by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, traveled in the United States from 1983 to 1985. From 1971, the artist lived and worked in Greenwich, Connecticut. He died July 16, 1991, in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

"I belong... to a family of 'black' painters and earth color painters in masses, which would include Manet and Goya and Matisse." Robert Motherwell

According to Robert Motherwell, there were no concrete answers, only questions, discussions and conflicts. 'The Elegies to the Spanish Republic' series was a career-spanning group of over 140 works for which the artist is perhaps best known. The collection was prompted by the Spanish Civil War, an event that moved him deeply. The paintings use the tragedy of the war as a metaphor for all human suffering. With their stark black and white palette, gestural brushwork, and tense relationships between ovid and rectilinear forms, they attempt to symbolically represent the human cycles of life and death, oppression and resistance.

More art prints from Robert Motherwell

Untitled, 1944 By Robert Motherwell
La Resistance By Robert Motherwell
The Painter By Robert Motherwell
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