"Wherever art appears, life disappears." ~ Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington on January 24, 1915, the first child of Robert Burns Motherwell II and Margaret Hogan Motherwell. The family later moved to San Francisco, where Motherwell's father served as president of Wells Fargo Bank. Due to the artist's asthmatic condition, Motherwell was reared largely on the Pacific Coast and spent most of his school years in California. There he developed a love for the broad spaces and bright colours that later emerged as essential characteristics of his abstract paintings (ultramarine blue of the sky and yellow ochre of Californian hills). His later concern with themes of mortality can likewise be traced to his frail health as a child.
Between 1932 and 1937, Motherwell briefly studied painting at California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco and received a BA in philosophy from Stanford University. At Stanford, Motherwell was introduced to modernism through his extensive reading of symbolist and other literature, especially Mallarmé, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Octavio Paz. This passion stayed with Motherwell for the rest of his life and became a major theme of his later paintings and drawings.
At the age of 20, Motherwell took a grand tour of Europe, accompanied by his father and sister. They began in Paris, then traveled to Amalfi, Italy. The next stops were Switzerland, Germany, The Netherlands and London. The group ended their tour in Motherwell, Scotland.
Motherwell studied under Arthur Oncken Lovejoy and David Wite Prall at Harvard University. He spent a year in Paris to research the writings of Eugène Delacroix, where he met American composer Arthur Berger who advised him to continue his education at Columbia University, under Meyer Schapiro.
In 1940, Motherwell moved to New York to study at Columbia University, where he was encouraged by Meyer Schapiro to devote himself to painting rather than scholarship. Schapiro introduced the young artist to a group of exiled Parisian Surrealists (Max Ernst, Duchamp, Masson) and arranged for Motherwell to study with Kurt Seligmann. The time that Motherwell spent with the Surrealists proved to be influential to his artistic process. After a 1941 voyage with Roberto Matta to Mexico—on a boat where he met Maria Emilia Ferreira y Moyeros, an actress and his future wife—Motherwell decided to make painting his primary vocation. Matta introduced Motherwell to the concept of "automatic" drawing or automatism, which the Surrealists used to tap into their unconscious. The concept had a lasting effect on Motherwell, further augmented by his meeting with the artist Wolfgang Paalen.
Upon return from Mexico Motherwell spent time developing his creative principle based on automatism. Thus, in the early 1940s, Robert Motherwell played a significant role in laying the foundations for the new movement of abstract expressionism (or the New York School). In 1942 Motherwell began to exhibit his work in New York and in 1944 he had his first one-man show at Peggy Guggenheim's "Art of This Century" gallery; that same year the MoMA was the first museum to purchase one of his works. From the mid-1940s, Motherwell became the leading spokesman for avant-garde art in America. His circle came to include William Baziotes, David Hare, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, with whom he eventually started the Subjects of the Artist School (1948–1949). In 1949 Motherwell divorced Maria and in 1950 he married Betty Little, with whom he had two daughters.
Throughout the 1950s Motherwell also taught painting at Hunter College in New York and at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland studied under and were influenced by Motherwell. From 1954 to 1958, during the break-up of his second marriage, he worked on a small series of paintings which incorporated the words Je t'aime, expressing his most intimate and private feelings. His collages began to incorporate material from his studio such as cigarette packets and labels, becoming records of his daily life. He was married for the third time, from 1958 to 1971, to fellow abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler.
In 1958–59, Motherwell was included in "The New American Painting" exhibition, initiated by the Museum of Modern Art, which traveled across Europe. In 1958 he and Frankenthaler spent a three-month honeymoon in Spain and France, during which he began painting with a new energy that he attributed to her influence. The Two Figures series he made that year shows "the brightening power of Helen's colors" on his work.
During the 1960s, Motherwell exhibited widely in both America and Europe and in 1965 he was given a major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art; this show subsequently traveled to Amsterdam, London, Brussels, Essen, and Turin. In 1967 Motherwell began to work on his Open series. Inspired by a chance juxtaposition of a large and small canvas, the Open paintings occupied Motherwell for nearly two decades. The Opens consist of limited planes of colour, broken up by minimally rendered lines in loosely rectangular configurations.
In 1972, Motherwell married the artist-photographer Renate Ponsold and moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, where they lived in a carriage house with a hayloft aerie, a barn and a guest cottage adjoining a large studio—the whole surrounded by parklike grounds. During the 1970s, he had retrospective exhibitions in several European cities, including Düsseldorf, Stockholm, Vienna, Paris, Edinburgh, and London. In 1977, Motherwell was given a major mural commission for the new wing of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. In 1983, a major retrospective exhibition of Motherwell's work was held at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York; this exhibition was subsequently shown in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Another retrospective was shown in Mexico City, Monterey, and Fort Worth, Texas, in 1991. In 1985, Motherwell was awarded the Edward Macdowell Medal.
Motherwell died in Provincetown, Massachusetts on July 16, 1991. On his death, Clement Greenberg, champion of the New York School, left in little doubt his esteem for the artist, commenting that "although he is underrated today, in my opinion he was one of the very best of the abstract expressionist painters".
The Dedalus Foundation was set up by Robert Motherwell in 1981 to foster public understanding of modern art and modernism through its support of research, education, publications, and exhibitions. When Motherwell died, he left an estate then estimated at more than $25 million and more than 1,000 works of art, not including prints. His will was filed for probate in Greenwich and named as executors his widow, Renate Ponsold Motherwell, and longtime friend Richard Rubin, a professor of political science at Swarthmore College.
On July 20, 1991, several hundred people attended a memorial service for Motherwell on the beach outside his Provincetown home.