Robert Motherwell

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Robert Motherwell (January 24, 1915 – July 16, 1991) was an U.S. abstract expressionist painter. He was one of the youngest artists of the 'New York School' (a phrase he coined), which also included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Phillip Guston. Motherwell initiated many art debates and publications in this art-scene.


Quotes of Robert Motherwell[edit]

1940s[edit]

  • We must remember that ideas modify feelings. The anti-intellectualism of English and American artists has led them to the error of not perceiving the connection between the feeling of modern forms and modern ideas. By feeling is meant the response of the 'body-and-mind' as a whole to the events of reality.
    • In: Modern Painter's World, Robert Motherwell , Dyn, Nov. 1942, p. 9


  • Plastic automatism.. ..as employed by modern masters, like Masson, Miro, [both artists of Surrealism] and Picasso, is actually very little a question of the unconsciousness. It is much more a plastic weapon with which to invent new forms. As such it is one of the twentieth century greatest formal inventions.
    • In: Modern Painter's World, Robert Motherwell , Dyn, Nov. 1942, p. 13


  • One is to know that art is not national, that to be merely an American or a French artist is to be nothing; to fail to overcome one's initial environment is never to reach the human.. .Thus when we say one of the ideals of modern art has been internationalism, it is.. ..as a natural consequence of dealing with reality on a certain level. [quote in 1946]
    • As quoted in Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, W.C, Seitz, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1983, p. 439


'Beyond the Aesthetics' (1946)[edit]

'Beyond the Aesthetics', Robert Motherwell, in 'Design 47', no 8, April 1946, pp. 15-...
  • One cuts and chooses and shifts and pastes, and sometimes tears off and begins again.
    • p. 15


  • The aesthetic is the sine qua none for art: if a work is not aesthetic, it is not art by definition.. .We feel through the senses, and everyone knows that the content of art is feeling; it is the creation of an object for sensing that is the artist's task; and it is the qualities of this object that constitute its felt content.
    • pp. 36-37


  • The passions are a kind of thirst, inexorable and intense, for certain feelings or felt states. To find or invent 'objects' (which are, more strictly speaking, relational structures) whose felt quality satisfies the passions,- that for me is the activity of the artist, an activity which does not cease even in sleep. No wonder the artist is constantly placing and displacing, relating and rupturing relations; his task is to find a complex of qualities whose feeling is just right – veering toward the unknown and chaos, yet ordered and related in order to be apprehended.
    • pp. 36-37


  • The activity of the artist makes him less socially conditioned and more humans. It is then that he is disposed to revolution. Society stands against anarchy; the artist stands for the human against society; society therefore threats him As an anarchist. Society's logic is faulty, but its intimation of an enemy is not. Still, the social conflict with society is an incidental obstacle in the artist's path.
    • pp. 36-37


  • It is Cezanne's feeling that determined the form of his pictorial structure. It is his pictorial structure that gives off his feeling. If all his pictorial structures were to disappear from the world, so would a certain feeling..
    • pp. 38-39


  • Feeling must have a medium in order to function at all; in the same way, thought must have symbols. It is the medium, or the specific configuration of the medium that we call a work of art that brings feeling into being, just as do responses tot the objects of the external world.. .The medium of painting is such changing and ordering on an ideal plane, ideal in that the medium is more tractable, subtle, and capable of emphasis (abstraction is a kind of emphasis) than everyday life.
    • pp. 38-39


1950s[edit]

  • Every intelligent modern painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head. [quote, 1951]
    • In: Abstract Expressionism, David Anfam, Thames and Hudson Ltd London, 1990, p. 22


  • Don't underestimate the influence of the Surrealist state of mind on the young American painters [like his artist-friends William Baziotes and w:Roberto Matta in those days.
    • In Abstract Painting, Thomas Hess, New York, Viking 1951, p. 132


  • ..there is a real Dada strain in the minds of the New York School of abstract painters that has emerged in the last decade.
    • In: The Dada Painters and Poets, Schultz, Wittenborn, New York 1951, p. xiii


  • Here we are at the antipode of automatism [invention from Surrealism] and mechanism, and no less distant from the cunning way of reason. In the action of the machine, in which everything is repeated and predetermined, accident is an abrupt negation.. .. [the] excess of ink flowing capriciously in thin black rivulets.. ..this line deflected by a sudden jar, this drop of water diluting a contour – all these are the sudden invasion of the unexpected in a world where it has a right to its proper place. [Motherwell is quoting here the comments of w:Henri Focillon on Japanese legends of 'accidentalism']
    • In: The Dada Painters and Poets, Schultz, Wittenborn, New York 1951, p. xxxvii


  • [the process of painting..] ..is conceived of as an adventure, without preconceived ideas on the part of persons of intelligence, sensibility, and passion. Fidelity to what occurs between oneself and the canvas, no matter how unexpected, becomes central.. ..the major decisions in the process of painting are on the grounds of truth, not taste...
    • In: The School of New York, exhibition catalogue, Perls Gallery, 1951; as quoted in the New York School – the painters & sculptors of the fifties, Irving Sandler, Harper & Row Publishers, 1978, p. 46


  • ..no true artist ends with the style that he expected to have when he began,. ..it is only by giving oneself up completely to the painting medium that one finds oneself and one's own style.
    • In: The School of New York, exhibition catalogue, Perls Gallery, 1951; as quoted in the New York School – the painters & sculptors of the fifties, Irving Sandler, Harper & Row Publishers, 1978, p. 46


  • ..a plastic weapon with which to invent new forms.. [remark in 1951 on the concept of automatism ].
    • In: Abstract Expressionism, David Anfam, Thames and Hudson Ltd London, 1990, p. 79


  • It would be very difficult to formulate a position in which there were no external relations. I cannot imagine any structure being defined as though it only has internal meaning.
    • In: Modern Artists in America, First Series, R. Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt and B. Karpel eds., 1952; as quoted in Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, W.C, Seitz, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1983, p. 40


'The painter and the audience', (1954)[edit]

'The painter and the audience', 1954; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism, Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrahams Publishers, New York 1990
  • ..for most painters nowadays [1954] examination is self-examination – this is all that we are accustomed to – while the relation to the audience is a social matter. And it is our pictures, not ourselves, that live the social life and meet the public.
    • p. 106


  • A modern painter may have many audiences or one or none; he paints in relation to none of them, though he longs for the audience of other modern painters.
    • p. 107


  • Indeed, our society, which has seemed so freedom-giving and passive in its attitudes toward the artist really makes extraordinary demands upon him: on the one side, to be free in some vague spiritual sense, free to act only as an artist, and yet on the other side to be rigorously tested as to whether the freedom he has achieved is great enough to be more solidly dependable than a government's financial structure.. .No wonder that modern painters, in view of these curious relations to society, have taken art matters into their own hands, decides for themselves what art is, what its subjects are to be, and how they are to be treated. Art like love is an active process of growth and development.
    • p. 108


  • I believe that painter's judgments of painting are first ethical, then aesthetic, the aesthetic judgments flowing from an ethical context. Doubtless no painter systematically thinks this way; but it does seem to me to be basically what happens when modern painters judge any new manifestations of painting.. .An artist's 'art' is just his consciousness, developed slowly and painstakingly with many mistakes en route. How dare they collect those ugly early Van Gogh's like trophies...
    • pp. 109-110


1960s[edit]

  • I think he Pollock responded to rhythm more than anything else in art. Indeed, perhaps it is not to much to assert that his greatest works are marked by the intensity and violence of his rhythm, modified by an incorruptible respect for the work's flat surface, an art masculine and lyrical and, as in a Celtic dance, measured, despite its original primitive impulse. That he also meant to me, his rhythm...
    • In: 'Jackson Pollock: An Artists' Symposium', in 'ARTnews', Vol. 66, no. 2 April 1967


'interview with David Sylvester', (1960)[edit]

interview with David Sylvester, recorded over BBC, 22 October 1960
  • I begin [a painting] from an impulse, an intense and irrational desire that takes you over, prompting you to start moving. And from experience, with some knowledge of what moves oneself, I think it's not altogether arbitrary what one begins with.. ..certainly implicit partially is the feeling, not that 'I am going to paint something I know' by 'through the act of painting I'm going to find out exactly how I feel'.
  • In my case, I find a blank canvas so beautiful that that to work immediately, in relation to how beautiful the canvas is as such, is inhibiting and, for me, demands 'too much to quickly'; so that my tendency is to get the canvas 'dirt', so to speak, in one way or another, and then, so to speak 'work in reverse', and try to bring it back to an equivalent of the original clarity and perfection of the canvas, that one began on...
    • Two quotes, quoted in Abstract Expressionism, Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrahams Publishers, New York 1990, p. 111


  • Before 1940 there was relatively little abstract art in America. Most of it was relatively geometric versions of Cubism, or of Mondrian and De Stijl, or of Arp reliefs, and the like. So that when our painting [of the artists of the New York School: Abstract Expressionism first appeared, the critics at once realized that to describe it as 'abstract' would be misleading.. .In America, the word (I suppose taken from Germany) for something highly emotional is 'expressionist', and some critic, either in the New Yorker or the New York Times then called it Abstract Expressionism, meaning that this was a very emotional art, but an abstract one.
    • first published in 'Metro', 1962; as quoted in Interviews with American Artists, by David Sylvester; Chatto & Windus, London 2001, p. 80


  • Well, Mondrian is absolute, and is pure, and those are real aspirations of our [American Abstract Expressionism art]. When I say 'pure', I don't mean 'clean' . I don't think Mondrian himself did; I knew him when he was here [New York] during the war. He went to an exhibition by the Surrealist, Tanguy, and was asked what he thought, and he said he would like Tanguy's pictures better if they were dirtier, that for him they were to clean... .I think he meant that when they were to 'clean', they were essentially lifeless, statuesque, unrevised. As for me, I must say, Mondrian's painting is intensely rhythmic, warm, passionate - restricted as the means ostensibly seem to me.
    • first published in 'Metro', 1962; as quoted in Interviews with American Artists, by David Sylvester; Chatto & Windus, London 2001, p. 81


  • I mean, the official definition of Surrealism is to make a work automatically without a priori aesthetic or moral conditions, which is exactly what we do [artist in New York School / Abstract Expressionism]. At the same time Surrealism was an assault, - with a few exceptions: Giacometti, Arp and Miro - on the 'purity' of painting. I mean mean, on making painting - means themselves speak, without reliance on literature; and that second insistence of Surrealism, Americans really rejected. So that historically.. ..Abstract Expressionism is in part, I think, a fusion of certain Surrealist means, above all plastic 'automatism' with the Cubist's insistence that the picture speaks as a picture in strictly pictorial language.
    • first published in 'Metro', 1962; as quoted in Interviews with American Artists, by David Sylvester; Chatto & Windus, London 2001, p. 82

after 1970[edit]

  • And finally after months of really a cold war [between his father and him] he made a very generous agreement with me that if I would get a Ph.D. so that I would be equipped to teach in a college as an economic insurance, he would give me fifty dollars a week for the rest of my life to do whatever I wanted to do on the assumption that with fifty dollars I could not starve but it would be no inducement to last. So with that agreed on Harvard then - it was actually the last year - Harvard still had the best philosophy school in the world. And since I had taken my degree at Stanford in philosophy, and since he didn't care what the Ph.D. was in, I went on to Harvard.
    • In 'Oral history interview with Robert Motherwell', 1971 Nov. 24 - 1974 May 1, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution


  • When I was young I was more obsessed with the materiality of things.. ..today I am more interested in air and atmosphere. This is why I deliberately treat space ambivalently. For example, an orange painting with white lines might be viewed as an orange wall with white lines, but the orange colour is no less atmospheric for all of that. It abounds white light, and the white line vibrate in a deep space, too, as well as an orange 'wall'.
    • In an interview with Irmeline Lebeer, in 'Recent Work', Princeton Art Museum, 1973 pp. 10-13


  • I love painting the way one loves the body of a women.. ..if painting must have an intellectual and social background, it is only to enhance and make more rich an essentially warm, simple, radiant act, for which everyone has a need.
  • When I first saw the work of Matisse I knew that was for me.
    • quotes, from a conversation with W;W.C. Seitz, in Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, W.C, Seitz, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1983,


  • I begin a painting with a series of mistakes. The painting comes out of the correction of mistakes by feeling. I begin with shapes and colors which are not related internally nor to the external world; I work without images. Ultimate unifications come about through modulations of the surface by innumerable trials and efforts. The final picture is the process arrested at the moment when what I was looking for flashes into view.
    • quotes, from a conversation with W;W.C. Seitz, in Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, W.C, Seitz, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1983, p. 94


  • I take an elegy to be a funeral lamentation or funeral song for something one cared about. The 'Spanish Elegies' [his most famous series of paintings, related to the Spanish Civil War] are not 'political' but my private insistence that a terrible death happened that should not be forgot. They are as eloquent as I could make them. But the pictures are also general metaphors of the contrast between life and death and their interrelation.
    • In: Abstract Expressionism, Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrahams Publishers, New York 1990, p. 111


  • Among other ends, modern art is related to the ideal of Internationalism.
    • In: American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s, An Illustrated Survey, Herskovic, Marika; nyschoolpress, 2003, p.238


  • I hung Baziote's [painting] show with him at Peggy's in 1944. After it was up and we had stood in silence looking at it for a while, I noticed he had turned white.. .Suddenly he [Baziotes] looked at me and said: 'You're the one I trust; if you tell me the show is no good, I'll take it right down and cancel it.'.. ..you see, at the opposite side of the coin of the abstract expressionist's ambition and of out not giving a damn, was also not knowing whether our pictures were even pictures, let alone whether they were any good...
    • Quote in William Baziotes – paintings and drawings, curated by Michael Preble, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 2004, p. 181

External links[edit]

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