Robert Motherwell was born on January 24, 1915 in Aberdeen, Washington. He and his family then moved to San Francisco, California, where Motherwell spent much of his time by the Pacific Coast due to his asthmatic condition as a child. There, he developed a love for the broad spaces and bright colors that later emerged as essential stylistic characteristics of his abstract paintings: the ultramarine blue of the sky and yellow ochre of the Californian hills.
Between 1932 and 1937, Motherwell briefly studied painting at the California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco and received a BA in Philosophy from Stanford University before undertaking graduate work in Philosophy at Harvard University from 1937 to 1938. At Stanford, Motherwell was introduced to modernism through his extensive reading of Mallarmé, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Octavio Paz. This passion stayed with him for the rest of his life and became a major theme of his later paintings and drawings.
In September of 1940, Motherwell arrived in New York, turning his focus away from philosophy to pursue art full-time. He entered Columbia University to study Art History with Meyer Schapiro, whose encouragement initially led Motherwell to start making paintings. He was largely self-taught, although he was especially influenced by the Surrealist artists Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, and André Masson. His early work followed no single style, but already contained motifs from which much of his later art grew. Following a 1941 voyage to Mexico with Surrealist painter Roberto Matta, Motherwell fully committed to painting as his primary vocation. During that decade, Motherwell emerged as a leading Abstract Expressionist whose work encompassed painting, printmaking, and collage, in addition to writing. His paintings and theoretical approach forever shaped the formal discourse of his era.
In 1942, Motherwell began to exhibit his work. He was included in the exhibition “First Papers of Surrealism” at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion, New York, and in 1944 he had his first one-man show at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery. That same year the Museum of Modern Art in New York was the first museum to purchase one of his works. Throughout the mid-1940s, Motherwell painted abstract figurative works that showed the influence of Surrealism, and in 1949 he began his most famous series, “Elegies to the Spanish Republic,” which includes more than one hundred oil paintings and numerous sketches and drawings. These paintings demonstrate a continuous development of a limited repertory of simple and massive forms applied in black paint to the picture plane, highlighting the broad spaces of the canvas.
Throughout the 1950s, Motherwell also taught painting at Hunter College in New York and at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Artists Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland studied under and were influenced by Motherwell. From 1958 to 1971, Motherwell was married to fellow painter and leading figure of the second-generation Abstract Expressionists, Helen Frankenthaler.
Today, the artist’s works are held in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Art; the Tate Modern, London; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, among others.
Robert Motherwell died in Provincetown, Massachusetts on July 16, 1991. The artist’s legacy is remembered through the Dedalus Foundation set up by the artist in 1981 to foster public understanding of modern art and modernism through its support of research, education, publications, and exhibitions.