"Peggy Guggenheim who liked us said that she would put on a show of this new business. And so I went around explaining the theory of automatism because the only way you could have a movement was that it had some common principle."
Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) was born in Aberdeen, Washington, but the family soon moved south to combat the child's severe asthma attacks. He spent his early years soaking in the ultramarine blues and earthy ochres of Central California.
Motherwell studied literature, psychology and philosophy at Stanford University, developing a fascination with the French Symbolists. Postgraduate work at Harvard University further propelled him into a world where abstract explorations of emotion and identity replaced the traditional narrative.
During a trip across Europe in the late 1930s, Motherwell fell in love with modern art and decided to become a painter, much to the dismay of his father. After a months-long "cold war", they struck a deal: Motherwell would get his PhD in art history as a backup plan, and his father would support his painting aspirations thereafter with a small weekly stipend.
During his art history studies at Columbia University, Motherwell's teacher Meyer Schapiro introduced him to exiled European surrealist Roberto Matta. Matta and his circle, including Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst, introduced Motherwell to the concept of automatism— the avoidance of conscious intention in art making.
Matta and Motherwell traveled across Mexico in 1941, where the latter produced his first known artworks, a series of travel sketches. On that journey, everything came together: the vivid palette of Motherwell's homeland, and ideas culled from symbolism, modernism, surrealism, and automatism.
Motherwell's new friends convinced him to focus on painting full-time, and he began searching for something that could unite his American contemporaries.
"What I realized was that Americans potentially could paint like angels but that there was no creative principle around, so that everybody who liked modern art was copying it," Motherwell explained. "That's what Europe had that we hadn't had; we had always followed in their wake."
Free association was the answer, and Abstract Expressionism was the name of the movement. Along with his friends Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hoffman and others in the 'New York School' (a term coined by Motherwell), the young artist developed the first wholly American art philosophy.
Motherwell was an eager icon of the new movement, and one of its most vocal proponents. His major works, such as 'Elegies to the Spanish Republic', are considered masterpieces of abstract expressionism, and his writings are essential contributions to postwar art theory.
For the prolific painter and printmaker, the act of creating was always a balancing act between the two parts of the mind. “All my works [consist] of a dialectic between the conscious (straight lines, designed shapes, weighed color, abstract language) and the unconscious (soft lines, obscured shapes, automatism) resolved into a synthesis,” Motherwell wrote in 1944.