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These painters renounced the prevalent American style, believing its realism depicted only the surface of American life. Their interest was in exploring the deeper sense of reality beyond the recognizable image. Influenced by the Surrealists, many of whom had emigrated from Europe to New York, the Abstract Expressionists sought to create essential images that revealed emotional truth and authenticity of feeling.
Robert Motherwell was the youngest and most prolific of the group. Born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1915, Motherwell first hoped to be a philosopher. His studies at Stanford and Harvard brought him into contact with the great American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who first challenged him with the notion of abstraction.
What he took from Whitehead was the sense that abstraction was the process of peeling away the inessential and presenting the necessary. After moving to New York and becoming acquainted with a number of artists, Motherwell recognized in them similar desires. Forming a community and living on what little they had, the Abstract Expressionists made daring experiments in painting and in the intellectual investigations surrounding
it. Their break with the traditional art conventions often provoked the harshest criticism from the establishment.
Despite this, these early years were an incredibly productive period for Motherwell - seeing him experiment in a range of media, from painting to collage. His work often expressed the actions of the artist through
dramatic and bright brush strokes. Valued for their energetic imagery, they attempted a pure emotional
response made real in paint. His collage also concerned itself with an awareness of the presence of the artist in a work. Using torn paper on minimalist backgrounds, he created work that was at once discordant and lyrical.
About Robert Motherwell (Artist)
The name of painter, printmaker and writer Robert Motherwell is often taken as synonymous with the New York School, whose name he coined. Motherwell was the youngest of this group of Abstract Expressionists working in art, dance, poetry and music in 1950s and '60s New York City, which included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston and Mark Rothko.
Born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1915, Motherwell had perhaps the broadest and best education of any of the New York School coterie, with an extensive background in philosophy, literature and art history. He earned a BA in philosophy in 1937 from Stanford University and was working toward a PhD in the subject at Harvard when he interrupted his studies for a yearlong trip to Europe, where he fell in love with European modernism.
After returning, in 1940 he enrolled Columbia to study art history. It was there that he met a group of exiled Parisian Surrealists, and encounter that proved influential on his style. Motherwell began to integrate the idea of “automatism” — unmediated gestures that reflect deeper psychological impulses — into his work, pioneering a new form of Abstract Expressionism that came to characterize the New York School.
Works like the 1967 Beside the Sea no. 45 , an acrylic on canvas, and the 1966 lithograph New York International epitomize Motherwell’s use of simple shapes in boldly contrasting colors, executed in quick, gestural strokes that occasionally evoke figures, suggesting a latent narrative despite their obvious abstraction.
Throughout his career, Motherwell taught painting at Hunter College, in New York, and at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, where his work influenced the likes of Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland. His influence as one of the founding fathers of American Abstract Expressionism remains profound.