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Robert Motherwell has had a profound effect on my work though you’d never know it. His approach and thoughtfulness regarding his work has opened the door for many artists who came after him.
Robert Motherwell (January 24, 1915 – July 16, 1991) American painter, printmaker and editor. He was one of the youngest of the New York School (a phrase he coined), which also included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Philip Guston.
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.
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 on 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 MoMA collection).
It was Matta who introduced Motherwell to the concept of “automatic” drawings. The Surrealists often deployed the process of automatism, or abstract “automatic” doodling to tap into their unconscious. This concept had a lasting effect on Motherwell and on other American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and William Baziotes, whom he befriended in New York after a trip to Mexico.
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.”
Thus, in the early 1940s Robert Motherwell played a significant role in lying 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.”
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 the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters”.