Born in Aberdeen, Washington in January 1915, Robert Motherwell was an American artist who had a huge impact on the Abstract Expressionism movement during his active years. The first child of Margaret Hogan Motherwell and Robert Burns Motherwell, his family later relocated to San Francisco so that Motherwell’s father could take up the position of head of Wells Fargo Bank.
The young artist was severely asthmatic, and spent many of his school years in California believing that the warm climate would help to alleviate his symptoms. It was whilst he was here that the young Motherwell developed a love for the bright colours and broad spaces that later became essential characteristics in his abstract paintings. Notably, Robert Motherwell prints contain the striking ultramarine blue of the Californian sky and his yellows the ochre of the Californian hills. As he matured, his work also took on themes concerning mortality, which again can be traced back to his illness as a child.
In 1935 at the age of 20, Motherwell travelled to Europe with his father and sister where they toured Italy, Switzerland, Germany and London before settling in Motherwell, Scotland. He became a member of the editorial board of the surrealist magazine VVV and a contributor of Wolfgang Paalen’s journal DYN, which was edited in 1942 to ‘44 in six numbers. He also worked on Paalen’s collected essays “Form and Sense” in 1945 as the first “Number of Problems of Contemporary Art”.
His work developed throughout the 1950s and by 1967 Motherwell had begun working on his “Open” series. Inspired by the (purely coincidental) juxtaposition of a small and a large canvas, Motherwell worked on the Open paintings for almost 20 years. Meditative, reflective and intimate, the Opens were made up of limited spaces of colour, divided by minimally rendered lines in vaguely rectangular configurations. As the series took shape, the pieces became increasingly complex and more overtly painterly, as Motherwell worked through all the different permutations of such a reduced way of working.
The late 1960s saw Motherwell incorporating Gauloises packets (a French cigarette brand) and cartons in a large number of his works to make a collage. He created an extensive series around this time, placing the packets in the middle of bright red acrylic paint, often adding incised lines in the painted areas.
In 1972, Motherwell married photographer and artist Renate Motherwell. By now yearning for a life back in the US, they moved to Greenwich, Connecticut and lived in a carriage house with a gabled guest cottage, stunning old barn and a one-hundred-foot-long studio. He produced many of his 1970s works from here, and created works for a number of exhibitions held across Europe, including Vienna, Düsseldorf, Paris, Stockholm, London and Edinburgh. In 1977, Motherwell won a major mural commission for the new wing of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
Another major retrospective exhibition of Robert Motherwell prints was mounted at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York in 1983. It was then later shown in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York City and Washington DC. Just before his death, a further retrospective exhibition was showcased in Fort Worth, Texas and Mexico City, Monterey in 1991.
In 1988, Motherwell collaborated with Arion Press’s Andrew Hoyem, working on a limited edition of James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses”. Motherwell in fact created 40 lithographs for the project. Robert Motherwell died in Massachusetts on the 16th July 1991 but Robert Motherwell prints have remained enduringly popular and iconic.