Robert Motherwell


Robert Motherwell is considered one of the most esteemed artists involved in the American Abstract Expressionist movement alongside Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. Born in 1915 in Aberdeen, Washington, Motherwell showed interest in creative and intellectual subjects since an early age. At eleven, Motherwell was awarded a fellowship at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. He had a brief study in painting at the California School of Fine Arts before he received the Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy at the Stanford University in 1937. After he enrolled in the PhD program in philosophy at Harvard, Motherwell travelled to Europe where his interest in the art of European Modernists confirmed his own ambition to become an artist.  From 1940, Motherwell started a parallel career in teaching, editing and writing, whilst pursuing further study in Art History at the Columbia University. At this time, the Art Historian Meyer Schapiro introduced him to the group of émigré Surrealist in New York, most particularly Roberto Matta. He was deeply inspired by the Surrealist’s concept of automatism (the manifestation of subconsciousness) which became a central tenet of his creativity.

In New York, Motherwell quickly found himself involved with the circle of artists who would go on to make up the core of the Abstract Expressionist Movement. A group exhibition of collages invited at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery in 1943 was one of the first successes of Motherwell’s career. Subsequently, the creation of the Elegies to the Spanish Republic series (1948) marked a maturity of his image making. This series, which consist of over a hundred and forty works, is probably his most well-known and widely-recognisable work. With the intense and rough brushwork, a minimal palette and tense composition of forms and voids, the Elegies paintings express a powerful sense of the catastrophic pain involved in war and death.

Motherwell’s Je t’aime series dated from the mid-1950s features brighter colour combinations with popping yellows, saturated reds and blues. It maintained a bold, direct and striking formal structure which articulates the underlying spontaneousness employed by the artist’ processes. Motherwell’s Open series, started in 1967, occupied him for nearly two decades. Utilising simple lines to build three-sided boxes over a monochrome ground, Motherwell implied a door way, a window, or an opening which subverted the flatness of the canvas and alluded to metaphysical ideas of time and space, emptiness and fullness.

The works currently on exhibition at the Drill Hall Gallery are from Motherwell’s Summer Light and America – La France Variations series. Both exhibit his continued interest in collage as a creative outlet. These lithographs were produced through a complex process of collaboration with the master printer Kenneth Tyler.

Updated:  3 November 2016/ Responsible Officer:  DHG Director/ Page Contact:  Drill Hall Gallery