Robert Motherwell, American (1915- 1991)

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A leading exponent of American abstract expressionism, Robert Motherwell has served as a vital spokesman for the avant-garde of the mid-twentieth century. He introduced the term "abstract expressionism into the United States, and helped crystallize the direction of the new movement with his painting and writing.

An abstractionist from the beginning of his career, Motherwell worked primarily in the medium of collages. His best-known works-more than 100 canvases, including monumental oil paintings and small drawings-are represented under the series title "Elegies to the Spanish Republic."

Born in Aberdeen, Washington, Motherwell studied at the Otis Institute and the California School of Fine Arts, before moving permanently to the Fast coast as a young man. He studied philosophy at Harvard and art history at Columbia, deciding at age 26 to become a painter. In 1942, following a trip to Mexico, he settled in New York City to begin professional painting. Deeply influenced by the modernist European painters who gathered in New York during World War II, particularly Chilean surrealist Matta Echaurren, Motherwell began experimenting with surrealism and automatism, evolving his own unique style. With a technique he called "plastic automatism," Motherwell created images and collages by free association, on which he imposed a later formal composition. His early work, architecturally structured, is reminiscent of Mondrian; later productions were done with freer brushwork. In the course of a long and prolific career, Motherwell tried his hand at a wide variety of styles, including drip-and-spatter expressionism and color-field combinations. But, for the most part, his abstractionism remains carefully structured, with a tendency toward geometric images.

The "elegies" theme, done almost exclusively in black and white, has black ovoid shapes suspended between vertical panels. Motherwell found his medium in 1943 when noted art patron Peggy Guggenheim asked three American artists, including Motherwell, to contribute to the first all-collage show held in this country. Motherwell set to work with paper, scissors and paste, an experience that galvanized him to adopt collage as his continuing mode of expression. One year later, he held his first one-man show at the Art of This Century Gallery. Since then, he has been included in every major exhibition of American abstract art.

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