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Robert Motherwell (1915 - 1991)

Credit: photograph by Arnold Newman, 1959 © Arnold Newman
American artist Robert Motherwell, born in coastal Washington State, was brought up in San Francisco where his father was President of Wells-Fargo Bank. A highly literate student, after studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, he graduated in Philosophy from the prestigious Stanford University. In 1935, in part to complete his education, he and his family travelled to France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and The Netherlands before visiting Britain to make an ancestral pilgrimage to the large industrial town of Motherwell near Glasgow in Scotland. In order to satisfy his father, upon their return to the United States, he continued his academic studies at Harvard and Columbia universities.

Resolving to become an artist - and heavily influenced by European Surrealism - during the 1940s Motherwell sought what he called a new and specifically American ‘creative principle’. In 1942, alongside Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, he began exhibiting his ‘automatic’ paintings in New York City. Two years later, having become a founding member of the avant-garde American Abstract Expressionist group, the art dealer Peggy Guggenheim offered him a solo exhibition at her famous Art of the Century Gallery. Motherwell’s large and vivid abstract canvases clearly demonstrate his interest in philosophy and contemporary psychanalysis, often evoking the colours, landscapes and skies of his Californian childhood.

As an art teacher at the radical Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Motherwell proved a significant influence upon one of his most famous students - the artist Robert Rauschenberg. Throughout the following decades, travelling and exhibiting across Europe and the United States, Motherwell’s reputation as a metaphysical artist remained high. Upon his death, the famously influential art critic Clement Greenberg declared him to be have been ‘the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters’.
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