Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington on January 24, 1915, the first child of Robert Burns Motherwell II 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 philosophy from 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.
Thus, in the early 1940s, Robert Motherwell played a significant role in laying the foundations for the new movement of Abstract Expressionism (or the New York School): "Matta wanted to start a revolution, a movement, within Surrealism. He asked me to find some other American artists that would help start a new movement. It was then that Baziotes and I went to see Pollock and de Kooning and Hofmann and Kamrowski and Busa and several other people. And if we could come with something. Peggy Guggenheim who liked us said that she would put on a show of this new Business. And so I went around explaining the theory of automatism to everybody because the only way that you could have a movement was that it had some Common principle. It sort of all began that way."
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.
In 1948, he began to work with his celebrated Elegy to the Spanish Republic theme, which he continued to develop throughout his life. 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. They have various associations, but Motherwell himself related them to the display of the dead bull's testicles in the Spanish bullfighting ring. Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110 from 1971, in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is typical of this series.
Throughout the 1950s Motherwell also taught painting at Hunter College in New York and at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland studied under and were influenced by Motherwell. At this time, he was a prolific Writer and lecturer, and in addition to directing the influential Documents of Modern Art Series, he edited The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, which was published in 1951.
From 1954 to 1958, during the break-up of his second marriage, he worked on a small series of paintings which incorporated the words Je t’aime, expressing his most intimate and private feelings. His collages began to incorporate material from his studio such as cigarette packets and labels becoming records of his daily life. He was married for the third time, from 1958 to 1971, to Helen Frankenthaler, a successful abstract Painter.
In 1958–59, Motherwell was included in “The New American Painting” exhibition, initiated by the Museum of Modern Art, which traveled across Europe. That year he traveled in Spain and France, where he started his Iberia series. During the 1960s, Motherwell exhibited widely in both America and Europe and in 1965 he was given a major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art; this show subsequently traveled to Amsterdam, London, Brussels, Essen, and Turin.
The late 1960s saw Motherwell using Gauloises packets and cartons in many collages, including an extensive series with the packets surrounded by bright red acrylic paint, often with incised lines in the painted areas. In the introduction to his 2015 book Robert Motherwell, The Making of an American Giant, gallery owner Bernard Jacobson says, "Motherwell smoked Lucky Strikes, but in his collage life he smokes Gauloises, around whose blue packets he now organises one composition after another, 'exotic to me precisely because in the normal course of things I don't smoke French cigarettes'." And by incorporating Gauloises packets he makes deft and condensed allusion to "French blue": to the Mediterranean and the palette of Matisse ... to the smoke coiling up in a Cubist assemblage."
In 1962, Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler spent the summer at the artists’ colony at Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the coastline inspired the Beside the Sea series of 64 paintings, the oil paint splashed with full force imitating the sea crashing on the shore in front of his studio. The 1963 untitled oil on canvas painting in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art exemplifies this stage in the artist's career.
In 1965 Motherwell worked on another prominent series called the "Lyric Suite", named after Alban Berg’s string quartet. Motherwell recalled, “I went to a Japanese store to buy a toy for a friend’s kid, and I saw this beautiful Japanese paper and I bought a thousand sheets. And made up my mind, this was in the beginning of April 1965, that I would do the thousand sheets without correction. I’d make an absolute rule for myself. And I got to 600 in April and May, when one night my wife and I were having dinner and the telephone rang. And it was Kenneth Noland in Vermont saying that I should come immediately. And I said, ‘what’s happened?’ And he said, ‘David Smith’s been in an accident’.” Smith, the Sculptor, was Motherwell and Frankenthaler’s great friend. Jumping into their Mercedes they sped to Vermont but arrived 15 minutes after Smith had died. Motherwell stopped work on the series. He said of them: “And then one year I had them all framed, and I like them very much now. I should also say that I half painted them and they half painted themselves. I’d never used rice paper before except occasionally as an element in a collage. And most of these were made with very small, I mean very thin lines. And then I would look at amazement on the floor after I’d finished. It would spread like spots of oil and fill all kinds of strange dimensions.”
In 1967, Motherwell began to work on his Open series. Inspired by a chance juxtaposition of a large and small canvas, the Open paintings occupied Motherwell for nearly two decades. Intimate and meditative, the Opens consist of limited planes of colour, broken up by minimally rendered lines in loosely rectangular configurations. As the series progressed, the works became more complex and more obviously painterly, as Motherwell worked through the possible permutations of such reduced means.
In 1972, Motherwell married the artist-photographer Renate Motherwell and moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, where they lived in a carriage house with a hayloft aerie, a beautiful old barn and a gabled guest cottage adjoining a one-hundred-foot-long studio—the whole surrounded by verdant parklike grounds. During the 1970s, he had important retrospective exhibitions in a number of European cities, including Düsseldorf, Stockholm, Vienna, Paris, Edinburgh, and London. In 1977, Motherwell was given a major mural commission for the new wing of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
In 1983, a major retrospective exhibition of Motherwell’s work was mounted at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York; this exhibition was subsequently shown in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Another retrospective was shown in Mexico City, Monterey, and Fort Worth, Texas, in 1991.
In 1988, Motherwell worked with the publisher Andrew Hoyem of Arion Press on a limited edition of the modernist novel Ulysses, by James Joyce. Motherwell produced 40 lithographs for the project.
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 poet Stanley 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.
Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada (2011); Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen, Germany (2004–05); Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, Spain (1996–97, traveled); Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City, Mexico (1991–92, traveled); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota (1985); Albright-Knox At Gallery, Buffalo, New York (1983, traveled); Fundación Juan March, Madrid, Spain (1980); the william Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, Storrs (1979); Royal Academy of Art, London, England (1978); Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, France (1977); Stadtisches Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, Germany (1976); Museo de Arte Moderna, Mexico City, Mexico (1975); Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey (1973); David Mirvish Gallery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (1973); The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas (1972–73, traveled); The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1965); The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. (1965); Smith College Museum of Art (1963); Pasadena Art Museum, California (1962); Galerie Heinz Berggruen, Paris, France (1961); Bennington College, Bennington, Vermont (1957); Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery, New York (1944).
Upon return from Mexico Motherwell spent time developing his creative principle based on automatism: "what I realized was that Americans potentially could paint like angels but that there was no creative principle around, so that everybody who liked modern art was copying it. Gorky was copying Picasso. Pollock was copying Picasso. De Kooning was copying Picasso. I mean I say this unqualifiedly. I was painting French intimate pictures or whatever. And all we needed was a creative principle, I mean something that would mobilize this capacity to paint in a creative way, and that's what Europe had that we hadn't had; we had always followed in their wake. And I thought of all the possibilities of free association—because I also had a psychoanalytic background and I understood the implications—might be the best chance to really make something entirely new which everybody agreed was the thing to do."