Untitled, Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell (American, 1915 - 1991) 

Untitled, 1963 

Oil on canvas 

Gift of The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, 2011, and purchased with funds given by Persis Corporation and gift of the Dedalus Foundation, 1997 (TCM.1997.1) After studying painting in the 1930s at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), in 1940 Robert Motherwell moved to New York City to pursue studies at Columbia University. In New York he met Surrealist artists Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Andre Masson and others, who had fled Paris in the onset of World War II. He also met the Chilean-born artist Robert Matta who introduced Motherwell to the concept of “automatic” drawing, a form of doodling in which the artist allows an unconscious, spontaneous impulse to lead the way. Asked for help by Matta, who wanted to start a revolutionary new movement, Motherwell went to Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann and other artists, explaining the concept of automatism. Thus, in the early 1940s, Robert Motherwell played a significant role in laying the foundation for Abstract Expressionism (also known as the New York School). 

Motherwell was also intrigued and influenced by Asian ink and brush paintings and calligraphy. Motherwell often used only black on a white or gray ground, as in Untitled, which was done at a time when Motherwell had a summer studio on the ocean in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In this painting and in a large series of works on paper titled Beside the Sea done about the same time, Motherwell explored his fascination with the surge and spray of water hitting the sea wall in front of his studio window and reveals the real-world experience which underlies much of his abstraction. One senses the artist’s energy and boldness as he splashed the oil paint with full force in one sweeping arc-shaped gesture.