Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington, on January 24, 1915. He spent most of his school years in California, where he graduated from Stanford University in 1937. He did graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University. In 1940, he also studied briefly at Columbia University where he was encouraged by Meyer Schapiro to devote himself to painting versus scholarship. After a 1941 voyage to Mexico with Surrealist painter Matta, Motherwell decided to follow Schapiro’s advice. He began to do “automatic” drawings and painted his first mature works.
In 1942 Motherwell began to exhibit his work in New York. In 1944 he had his first solo show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery. Beginning in the mid-1940s, Motherwell became the leading spokesperson for avant-garde art in America. He lectured widely on abstract painting and founded and edited the Documents of Modern Art series. In 1948, he began to work with his celebrated “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” theme, which he continued to develop throughout his life. From 1950 to 1959, he also taught painting at Hunter College in New York. He was a prolific writer and lecturer at this time. 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.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Motherwell exhibited widely at museums in the United States and Europe. In 1958 and ’59, he was included in the “New American Painting” exhibition initiated by the Museum of Modern Art, which traveled to numerous European cities. In 1958 he traveled in Spain and France, where he started his “Iberia” series. During the 1960s, Motherwell exhibited widely in both American and Europe. In 1965 he was given a major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art which subsequently traveled to Amsterdam, London, Brussels, Essen and Turin.
In 1967 Motherwell began to work on his “Open” series.
In 1970 he moved to Greenwich, Connecticut. He continued to create new series and to exhibit widely in the 1970s and ‘80s. He had important retrospective exhibitions in several 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 in Washington, D.C.
In 1983, a large retrospective exhibition of Motherwell’s work was mounted at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, which was subsequently shown in Los Angeles; San Francisco; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; and New York. Another retrospective was exhibited in Mexico City, Monterrey and Fort Worth, Texas in 1991.
Motherwell died in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on July 16, 1991.
Over a long and distinguished career, he was the recipient of numerous awards and honors, and his works are on display in museums throughout the world.