Robert Motherwell | Biography

Robert Motherwell’s highly esteemed body of work as a printmaking artist. Motherwell made his first prints in 1943 and returned to printmaking in the early 1960s at the invitation of the ULAE print studio. His later work with Tyler Graphics, Gemini G.E.L., and printers working in his own studio, evolved into an impressive body of almost 500 editions.

Motherwell was fascinated by many literary figures as well as figures from art history that he painted and wrote about. Motherwell’s pantheon of artists included the writers Mallarmé, Joyce and Poe, as well as the Spanish poets Lorca and Alberti, and artists Delacroix, Matisse, Goya, Pollock and della Francesca.

The Collages
In previously curated exhibitions over the last 20 years we have showcased works from the artist's Gestures and Elegies series, his late prints (from 1989-1991) and the America-La France Series, a small series of collage prints created at Tyler Graphics in the early 1980s as well as a broad survey of Motherwell's collage prints, an important body of work within this prolific and important artist's oeuvre.

During his career as an artist Robert Motherwell produced nearly 460 prints, influencing countless artists with his innovative ideas and printmaking techniques. The bulk of his work is comprised of gestural images (such as the Elegies). A few are linear compositions (such as the Opens) and a considerable number of them contain some element of collaged material or the implication of such layering of image and paper.

Collage, as an art form, is truly a 20th century innovation. Of all the printmaking artists of the last century, Motherwell made the most of collage as an editioned art form, creating slight variations within editions using a common matrix of placement and substitution. Sometimes this takes the form of replicated bits of found paper that Motherwell used to such great effect in his unique works. To that end, the artist selected various wine, cheese, paper or cigarette labels that printmaking studios then faithfully reproduced on acid-free paper. This way the artist could eliminate the possibility for disintegration common with found materials, thereby ensuring long-term archival quality.

Creating the collage effects in these prints is done by tearing or cutting the re-printed papers around templates designed by the artist and then pasting the resulting scraps in a uniform manner to the surfaces of his prints. Other types of collage materials utilize special papers chosen by the artist or even proofs from previously editioned prints containing images or textures desired by the artist. Depending on the specific print, this collaging work is done by the studio’s master printers matching the artist’s specifications or, in some cases, by the artist himself. We will show examples of both.

The works in the last collage exhibition dated from 1964 to 1990. They varied in size from 20 x 15 inches to 48 x 32 inches. The various media used included etching, lithography, silkscreen and, of course, torn paper.

Motherwell’s impressive series of Elegies to the Spanish Republic began in 1948 as a reaction to the Spanish Civil War. Though he also painted elegies about international politics in Ireland, Mexico, and even New England, the Spanish elegies were the most critically acclaimed. In this series, symbolic figures rendered as ovoid shapes in dense, deep blacks march across the canvas or paper with solemn destiny. These forms can be read variously as figures, corpses, testicles, phalluses and bulls. Lacking a horizon, the extreme depth of black in these paintings suggests an infinite hole carved out with violent, brushy strokes from a field of washy color.

Not improvised like most of his other work, these paintings are generally well conceived and drawn before setting brush to canvas. Nonetheless, they would always go through many revisions and repainting before being complete. They combine the ochres of earth, the red of blood, and the dominant blacks of death and mourning. Often his crude line quality refers to the cave drawings at Altamira, Spain, which he saw during his 1958 honeymoon with Helen Frankenthaler. Each Elegy builds on and relates to the others in this ongoing series that challenged the artist throughout his career.

The size and the scale of many of the Elegies also challenged both the artist and his viewers. The extreme horizontality of the panels of canvas or the sheets of papers allowed one to be lost in the image. There are, however, several smaller editioned prints that succeed in distilling this imagery to an intimate scale.

Motherwell’s Gesture series was, likewise, a lifetime fascination. Propelled by his intense interest in the metaphysical and the subconscious, Motherwell created a large body of these sometimes splashy, sometimes rigid, always energetic images. Automatism, the name coined for this kind of instinctive abstract gesture, also relates to Japanese and Chinese calligraphy, which the artist admired and collected. The greatest series of his calligraphic work was called Beside the Sea and began with 1,000 sheets of rice paper which were to be painted using brushed and splashed ink using unconscious gestures without predetermined direction or the possibility of correction. The series ended at 565 with the news of David Smith’s death in 1965. There were also several other series of gestural work created during his career.

Often Motherwell painted or printed his ‘blacker than black’ gestures over solid colors such as sky blue, raw ochres, rich browns, moody grays, and a bright, crimson or blood red. These gestural etchings and lithographs reveal an elegance not found in the brutality of the Elegies. Among the gestural prints are several from the Octavio Paz Suite, a tribute to the Mexican poet who was a close friend of Motherwell for many decades. These are classic Motherwell images – the spare splash of black, imbued with calligraphic expression and printed on a rice paper ground.

Other works of note include a small calligraphic etching printed in black on a special "Motherwell Blue" paper, which has been over-painted by the artist with red, white and ochre acrylic paints. Motherwell took his blue color from the French Gauloises cigarette package – even though he did not smoke the Gauloises brand.

Some of Motherwell’s larger lithographs straddle the images of both the Elegies and the Gestures. With titles such as Monster or Stoneness of Stone, these prints are obviously calligraphic but also suggest imagery open to interpretation. What the viewer happens to read into his works was also of interest to the artist.

Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington in 1915.

He studied art at Stanford and Columbia, completing a B.A. in philosophy from Stanford University.

His career as an American surrealist earned him critical acclaim as a young, promising painter during the 1940s. In the next 50 years Motherwell continued to enhance his reputation as a painter, as well as a fine printmaker, philosopher and critic. As a member of the New York School and as the inadvertent spokesman for his generation of artists he was often referred to as the Dean of American Painters. He received many international awards for his contribution to the artworld and his work was seen in numerous exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad, including a major retrospective exhibition in 1984 at the Seattle Art Museum.

During his career as an artist Robert Motherwell produced nearly 460 prints, influencing countless artists with his innovative ideas and printmaking techniques. A new and complete Catalogue Raisonné was recently published and is available now: Robert Motherwell Catalogue Raisonné

He lived and worked in Greenwich, Connecticut; Providence, MA and in New York City. Motherwell died July 16, 1991 at the age of 76. His presence is sorely missed.