One of the founders and principal exponents of Abstract Expressionism, Robert Motherwell was also one of its most articulate spokesmen. Illustrated with works offered from the Dedalus Foundation
Few artists were as intrinsically connected to Abstract Expressionism as Robert Motherwell (1915-1991). Unlike Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, whose stars burned brightly but briefly, Motherwell remained prolific throughout his 50-year career. He was a searching artist whose output, though determinedly abstract, was also hugely varied.
On Motherwell’s death in 1991, the eminent art critic Clement Greenberg wrote that ‘although underrated today… he was one of the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters’.
Motherwell remained underrated well into the 21st century. Things seemed to change, however, around the time that the Dedalus Foundation published the catalogue raisonné of his paintings and collages in 2012.
That year, a canvas from his best-known series, ‘Elegies to the Spanish Republic’, fetched $3.7 million, a record price for a work by Motherwell at auction. In 2019, that record was smashed when another Elegy sold for $12.96 million.
Motherwell set up the Dedalus Foundation in 1981 ‘to support public understanding and appreciation of the principles of modern art’ — through scholarships, publications, exhibitions, research projects and more. Since his death, it has also been devoted to his artistic legacy.
‘Motherwell was one of the finest American painters of the 20th century, most definitely,’ says Dedalus Foundation CEO Jack Flam. ‘His paintings mix raw energy with a spiritual gracefulness that sets them apart.’
‘The brush will stumble upon what one couldn’t by oneself’
Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington, but moved as a boy to San Francisco, where his father became president of Wells Fargo Bank. He studied philosophy at undergraduate and postgraduate level (at Stanford and Harvard, respectively), focusing primarily on painting shortly after he moved to New York in 1939.
Meeting Surrealists who’d just arrived from war-torn Europe — the likes of Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and Roberto Matta — proved crucial. Though rejecting their fondness for the figurative, he embraced the Surrealist theory of psychic automatism. This entailed painting without preconceived ideas, letting one’s brush wander, undirected by the conscious mind. In so doing, Motherwell said, ‘the brush will stumble upon what one couldn’t by oneself’…….