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Robert Motherwell

“Abstract Expressionism was the first American art that was filled with anger as well as beauty.”

“Art is an experience, not an object.”

– Robert Motherwell

Motherwell, a prolific writer and engaging speaker, became a leading spokesperson for Abstract Expressionism. In talks and lectures across the US, he articulated to the public what it was he and his artist friends were doing in New York. He is best known for his Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, over 140 career-spanning works inspired by the 1930s Spanish Civil War. The tragedy of that conflict, in which an embattled, defiantly idealistic Spanish Republic was overwhelmed by the brutal fascist militia of Francisco Franco, gave Motherwell the impetus to dedicate a life's work to the cause of celebrating (and mourning) freedom. The fate of Spain, in losing democracy to dictatorship, was an emblem of a larger European struggle for freedom. Through this historic event, Motherwell also could paint meditations on the larger themes on death, loss and sexuality.

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Motherwell Timeline

  • 1915 Born in Aberdeen, Washington. Spends childhood in California.
  • 1937 Graduates from Stanford University with a BA in philosophy. Also studies at Harvard and Columbia. Other Ab Ex artists will later tease him about his education.
  • His rigorous background in rhetoric would serve him and the abstract expressionists well, as he was able to tour the country giving speeches that articulated to the public what it was that he and his friends were doing in New York.
  • 1940 Moves New York City to study at Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University with Meyer Schapiro who convinced him to devote himself to painting
  • 1941 befriends European Surrealists living in New York, interested in theory of “automatism”
  • 1943 made his first two collages at invitation of Peggy Guggenheim for forthcoming collage show at her gallery, “Art of This Century.”
  • 1944 first solo show at “Art of This Century”
  • 1948 first use of the image that developed into the motif for Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, career-spanning series of over 140 works
  • 1953 First summer in Provincetown, Cape Cod, MA; after 1956 returned most summers thereafter
  • 1958, married artist Helen Frankenthaler (his third wife), they divorce in 1971
  • 1958–59, included in MoMA's “The New American Painting”, which traveled to eight European cities
  • 1959 first retrospective at Bennington College, Vermont
  • 1965 major retrospective exhibition at MoMA, traveled to London, Brussels, Essen, and Turin
  • 1971 moved to Greenwich, Connecticut
  • Died 1991

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