Robert Motherwell: January 24,1915-July 16,1991...United
in the European tradition was painting the mask. Modern art rejected all that. Our subject matter was the person behind the
One of the most prominent gestural abstraction artists, in the area of color field
painters, was Robert Motherwell. Born in Aberdeen, Washington his family soon transplanted to California for a year before
moving on to Salt Lake City, Utah. After a few years in Utah, the family returned to California where he began his art training
at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. Due to asthma, he transferred to Moran Preparatory School in Southern California.
Much of his work there was independent, making copies of masters like Michelangelo, Peter
Rubens, and Rembrandt. Again dissatisfied, he transferred to Stanford University. There
too he was a little upset with the lack of flexibility in the curriculum. "Wherever art appears,
life disappears." He switched from an art major to earning a degree in philosophy in 1936. That same year he enrolls
at Harvard University for a yearlong art history exposure.
After traveling to Paris to study, Motherwell would end up back in the United States, teaching at the University
of Oregon, Eugene. There he starts to paint full-time. At this time, after seeing the works of Pablo Picasso
in Paris, his work looks to have a strong impact by his artwork. He would hunger for more knowledge and graduate school in
the area of art history at Columbia University in New York under Meyer Schapiro. Professor Schapiro
encourages him to paint and hooks him into a network of artists. Out with education, in with art production. Plugged into
the social network of artists in New York, Peggy Guggenheim asked him to create a collage for an exhibition. A collage is
when an artist takes small pieces of paper and attaches them to a larger one. He works with Jackson Pollock
on creating the collage. The collage work became Motherwell’s passion. He taught in the summers and works on the art
all the time. In the summer of 1951, he even taught Robert Rauschenberg and Cy
Twombly at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
Most artists also have non-art centered lives. I don’t spend much time talking about their children
or extended families all that much, because they honestly don’t matter all that much to the art. But there are time
where those relationships are profoundly insightful to the artists work. In 1958, after one relationship or two that came
and went, he married Helen Frankenthaler, arguably one of the best colorists of her generation.
This relationship had to make an impact on both of their artworks.
As well as being influenced by his wife, he was also influence by abstract expression and surrealism. An example
of this work is his Totemic Figure. A series of work that he described as "metaphors
of abandonment, despair and impotence." It was Motherwell's blend of the abstract and surreal that made him unique. "If the abstraction, the violence, the humanity was valid in Abstract Expressionism, then it cut out the ground
from every other kind of painting." His paintings were quite varied, but had some consistent elements. The most dominant
of those elements was his use of a gestalt structure. He wanted interested in the whole work to be balanced and often focus
on color/space relationships to achieve that gestalt balance. For a short time, he had even gone in with Mark
Rothko and William Baziotes to found an art school called "The Subjects of the Artist" to
teach these concepts of his artwork. "The public history of modern art is the story of conventional people
not knowing what they are dealing with."
In 1970, Motherwell moves his primary studio to Greenwich, Connecticut. In 1982 the Motherwell Gallery at
the Bavarian State Museum of Modern Art in Munich, Germany was dedicated. And on top of his many awards, honors, and exhibits,
he was awarded the National Medal of Arts at the White House in 1990. He would pass away the following July. "Art
is much less important than life, but what a poor life without it."