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Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell (b. 1915, Aberdeen, WA – d. 1991, Provincetown, MA), an American painter, printmaker and editor, was a pioneering figure of Abstract Expressionism and the Color Field movement. In his lifelong dialogue with European precedents, trends and ideas, Motherwell played an important role in the mid-twentieth century shift from Paris to New York City. His proficiency in both poetry and philosophy facilitated close friendships with European Surrealists including Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and André Masson. Motherwell went on to serve as a vital link between avant-gardist pre-war Paris and its post-war counterpart in New York.

Born in Aberdeen, Washington, Motherwell was raised in San Francisco, California. He studied at  both Stanford University and Harvard University before spending a year in Paris studying French literature and painting in 1939. In 1940, he moved to New York and continued his education at Columbia University. In the subsequent decade, Motherwell became a leader of the American Abstract Expressionist movement. He was a member of the New York School along with Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston and Mark Rothko. Motherwell was one of the first American artists to engage with automatism and establish psychoanalysis as central to the post-war abstract movement.

In 1943, Peggy Guggenheim invited him to exhibit a collage at her New York Art of This Century gallery, alongside works by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Georges Braque. Having never engaged with this medium before, this initial experimentation sparked a life-long passion for collages, which incorporated material from his studio life, such as cigarette packets and labels from art supplies. He said of his relationship to the medium, “I felt a magical release. I took to it, as they say, as a duck to water."

Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, Motherwell primarily taught at Black Mountain College, and Hunter College, before fully returning to his artistic practice in the late 1950s.

His initial exposure to printmaking dates back to the 1940s when he followed his exiled European Surrealist friends to the New York workshop of Kurt Seligmann where he learned etching and first experimented with automatism. Motherwell’s renewed interest in the 1960s coincided with the American “graphic renaissance.” He developed his interest in collage by reproducing his works using lithography. He produced over 500 prints over the course of his career. Motherwell purchased his own lithography and etching press in 1973 for his studio in Greenwich, Connecticut.

“I had always loved working on paper,” Motherwell said. “But it was the camaraderie of the artist-printer relationship that tilted the scale definitely.”

Motherwell’s work has recently been included in solo and group exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (2017), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2016), Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2016), Dedalus Foundation (2016), De Young Museum (2015), Phillips Collection (2014), Denver Art Museum (2014), Albright-Knox Art Gallery (2014), San Diego Museum of Art (2014), Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (2014), Princeton University Art Museum (2014), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (2014), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (2013), Kunstmuseum Ahlen (2013) and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (2013).

His work is included in major public collections, among them the Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Brooklyn Museum, NY; Centre Pompidou, FR; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA; Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, ES; Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, JP; High Museum of Art, GA; Hirshhorn Museum Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; The Israel Museum, IL; Jewish Museum, NY; Kunsthaus Zürich, CH; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; McNay Art Museum, TX; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, TX; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, FR; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, ES; Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, MX; Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, BR; Museum Moderner Kunst, AT; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Museum of Modern Art, NY; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, AU; Peggy Guggenheim Collection, IT; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; Pinakothek der Moderne, DE; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY; Stedelijk Museum, NL; Tate, London, UK; Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, IR; Walker Art Center, MN and the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY.
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