Painted Black: Robert Motherwell


At the request of reader Molly, today we'll take a look at Robert Motherwell, the first abstract expressionist to be covered by "Feel Art Again" (unless you count DuanPen). The American painter, writer, and collagist was both the youngest and the most prolific of the original group of abstract expressionists.

1. Robert Motherwell's paintings may not look very complex, but there is much more to them than what is noticeable upon first glance. With a B.A. in philosophy from Stanford, a year of doctorate philosophy work at Harvard, and art / art history studies at Columbia, Motherwell was an extremely well-educated artist, which is apparent in his works. Titles for paintings, drawings, and prints were inspired by James Joyce works; his Hollow Men series took its title from a T.S. Eliot poem; and his artist's book A la pintura (To Painting) was a response to Spanish poet Rafael Alberti's verses celebrating painting.

2. One of Motherwell's most successful and well-known series is Elegy to the Spanish Republic, comprised of more than 200 works. Motherwell took the series' theme from a poem by Frederico García Lorca, a Spanish poet, and used the series to express his "nostalgia for the lost cause of the Spanish Civil War," an apparently common nostalgia among his generation.

3. Not only is Motherwell credited for coining the phrase "New York School" (a group including Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning), but he's also credited with bringing shy, reclusive artists like Rothko to the public eye. With his background in philosophy and rhetoric, Motherwell was able to articulate his artwork and motivations, and those of his friends. Rothko and others probably would not have become as well-known as they are today without Motherwell's speaking tours around the country.

4. Two Motherwell quotes help to explain his artwork: "You don't have to paint a figure to express human feelings. The game is not what things look like"¦" and "Generally, I use few colors"¦ Mainly I use each color as simply symbolic"¦ I guess that black and white, which I use most often, tend to be protagonists."

5. Interesting coincidence: Motherwell, known for his frequent use of black in his artwork, taught at Black Mountain College (North Carolina) in 1950.

A larger version of "Africa 4" (1970), from Motherwell's Africa Suite, is available here. Fans of Robert Motherwell should check out the large collections at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Walker Art Center; this YouTube video of Motherwell works; and the Robert Motherwell Scrapbooks in the MOMA archives. Current Exhibitions featuring "Feel Art Again" artists:History of Artelier Brancusi, feat. Constantin Brancusi (Paris: through October 6, 2008)Monet to Picasso, feat. Monet, Picasso, Degas, van Gogh, Dali, Matisse, & Renoir (Salt Lake City: through September 21, 2008)Frida Kahlo (San Francisco: through Sept. 28, 2008) "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with artist suggestions or details of current/upcoming exhibitions.