Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell

A son of the Pacific Northwest, painter Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) spent his early childhood in the state of Washington, having been born in Aberdeen. His father’s senior position with Wells Fargo would see the family move a bit south, making a home for themselves in San Francisco, CA. This move was also beneficial for Robert, as the boy was asthmatic and took well to the Bay Area’s clean coastal air.

The unique beauty for which the California coastline is well known has inspired many a writer, filmmaker, and fine artist. In this regard Robert Motherwell was no exception, as the ocean and sky views which graced his life during those formative years would give shape to the man’s aesthetic style and sense of natural wonder. Though an eventual devotee of modernism, Motherwell’s work was fundamentally influenced at an early age by the elemental beauty and serenity of Western Washington and coastal California.

Motherwell’s college education, though quite extensive by any measure, was a bit unconventional, at least in terms of the way it took shape. Pursuing formal painting training for a time at the California School of Fine Arts, not far from his family’s San Francisco home, Robert Motherwell would eventually move to Stanford University, earning from the celebrated institution a degree in philosophy. His time spent at Stanford would also expose the nascent painter new ways of thinking and of understanding artistic expression. Literature, as much as the philosophical arts, was central to his cerebral development.

A family trip throughout Europe following his time at Stanford would expose Motherwell to the modernism which would strongly guide, effectively shape, and ultimately come to identify the artist’s most prominent of works. So strong an impression did this overseas education leave upon Motherwell that the man’s Harvard Ph. D ambitions were abandoned in favor of art history studies at Columbia University. This pleased Motherwell’s banker father, who took comfort in the idea of his son having “fallback” options (such as teaching) in place, in the event that full-time painting proved financially unfruitful.

Robert Motherwell Artwork

Time spent at Columbia University was doubly fortunate where Motherwell’s ongoing artistic education was concerned. Firstly, the academic work itself expanded still further Motherwell’s already expansive knowledge of artistic principles, styles, and forms. This rigorous scholarly training allowed for the budding painter to connect his own sense of expression with those of figures both historical and contemporaneous; a connection which lent considerable legitimacy and gravitas to his every effort.

Secondly, the New York City-based practitioners of Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism whose paintings were coming together in a genre all their own would contribute greatly to Motherwell’s own style, essentially dictating the trajectory which would subsequently guide his work from that point forth.

Motherwell’s works would come together in alignment with several overlapping, often competing influences, a number of which spoke to world affairs to which the artistic community predictably responded in noteworthy fashion. While Motherwell’s early work consisted of Surrealist sketches rendered during an early-1940s trip to Mexico, a subsequent project would see him assembling a collage of modernist works for a commissioned show.

The significance of this undertaking was tremendous, as it provided Motherwell with a presentation format for which he demonstrated aptitude (that of collage) and which he would continually employ throughout his professional career. Also of importance is the period in which this show was arranged—that of World War II. Of course, the collage reflected Motherwell’s psychological response to the wanton violence being visited across Europe, itself the source of his affinity for modernism and home to peoples and cultures of whom he was deeply fond.

As is observable in Motherwell’s edition prints, much of his work tended to mirror the larger geopolitical and cultural realities through which he lived. Various phases would see the painter (also a writer and filmmaker) fluctuate between seemingly violent expressions of raw emotion, while others would channel the peaceful sanctuary of his childhood and coming-of-age years. Elements of the abstract and the surreal persisted throughout his career, just as his eclectic knowledge and multi-faceted capacity for creation would render so distinctive his every work.

A life of 76 years would be well spent by Motherwell, whose West Coast upbringing, Old World exposure, and East Coast polishing would produce an artist who possessed a breathtaking capacity for endlessly inventive creation.

Known throughout his life for the modernism he so ardently embraced, Motherwell is remembered for the host of influences which he gracefully combined in the service of high art.