Robert Motherwell (January 24, 1915 – July 16, 1991) was an American painter, printmaker, and editor. He was one of the youngest of the New York School (a phrase he coined), which also included Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko.
Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington on January 24, 1915, the first child of Robert Burns Motherwell the 2nd and Margaret Hogan Motherwell. The family later moved to San Francisco, where Motherwell's father served as president of Wells Fargo Bank. Due to the artist's asthmatic condition, Motherwell was reared largely on the Pacific Coast and spent most of his school years in California. There he developed a love for the broad spaces and bright colours that later emerged as essential characteristics of his abstract paintings (ultramarine blue of the sky and ochre yellow of Californian hills). His later concern with themes of mortality can likewise be traced to his frail health as a child.
Between 1932 and 1937, Motherwell briefly studied painting at California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco and received a BA in philosophyfrom Stanford University. At Stanford Motherwell was introduced to modernism through his extensive reading of symbolist and other literature, especially Mallarmé, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Octavio Paz. This passion stayed with Motherwell for the rest of his life and became a major theme of his later paintings and drawings.
At the age of 20 Motherwell traveled to Europe with his father and sister. They made a Grand Tour starting in Paris, then went to Amalfi, Italy; Switzerland; Germany; The Netherlands; and London; and ended in Motherwell, Scotland.
At Harvard, Motherwell studied under Arthur Oncken Lovejoy and David Wite Prall; to research the writings of Eugène Delacroix he spent a year in Paris, where he met an American composer Arthur Berger. In fact, it was Berger who advised Motherwell to continue his education atColumbia University, under Meyer Shapiro.
In 1940, Motherwell moved to New York to study at Columbia University, where he was encouraged by Meyer Schapiro to devote himself to painting rather than scholarship. Shapiro introduced the young artist to a group of exiled Parisian Surrealists (Max Ernst,Duchamp, Masson) and arranged for Motherwell to study with Kurt Seligmann. The time that Motherwell spent with the Surrealists proved to be influential to his artistic process. After a 1941 voyage with Roberto Matta to Mexico—on a boat where he met Maria, an actress and his future wife—Motherwell decided to make painting his primary vocation.The sketches Motherwell made in Mexico later evolved into his first important paintings, such as Little Spanish Prison (1941), and Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive (1943), both in theMoMA collection).
Robert Motherwell died in Provincetown, Massachusetts on July 16, 1991. On Motherwell's death, Clement Greenberg, the great champion of the New York School, left in little doubt his esteem for the artist, commenting that, "although he is underrated today, in my opinion he was one of the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters".
Motherwell was a member of the editorial board of the surrealist magazine VVV and a contributor of Wolfgang Paalens journal DYN, which was edited 1942-44 in six numbers. He also edited Paalens collected essays Form and Sense in 1945 as the first Number of Problems of Contemporary Art.
Dedalus Foundation was set up by Robert Motherwell in 1981 to educate the public by fostering public understanding of modern art and modernism through its support of research, education, publications, and exhibitions in this field. When Motherwell died on July 16, 1991, he left an estate then estimated at more than $25 million and more than 1,000 works of art, not including prints. His will was filed for probate in Greenwich and named as executors his widow, Renate Ponsold Motherwell, and longtime friend Richard Rubin, a professor of political science at Swarthmore College.
On July 20, 1991, several hundred people attended a memorial service for Motherwell on the beach outside his Provincetown home. Among them were the writer Norman Mailer and the photographer Joel Meyerowitz, both Provincetown summer residents. Speakers included the poetStanley Kunitz, who read a poem that was a favorite of Motherwell's, William Butler Yeats's Sailing to Byzantium; Senator Howard Metzenbaum, Democrat of Ohio, an acquaintance of Motherwell's; and other artists, friends, and family members.