"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.