Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington, on January 24, 1915, the first child of Robert Burns Motherwell II and Margaret Hogan Motherwell. He was reared largely on the Pacific Coast and spent most of his school years in California, where he graduated from Stanford University in 1937. Motherwell also did graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University, and in 1940 he studied briefly at Columbia University, where he was encouraged by Meyer Schapiro to devote himself to painting rather than scholarship. After a 1941 voyage to Mexico with the Surrealist painter Matta, Motherwell decided to make painting his primary vocation. It was at this time that he began to do “automatic” drawings and painted his first mature pictures.
The next year Motherwell began to exhibit his work in New York and in 1944 he had his first one-person show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery. Beginning in the mid-1940s, Motherwell became the leading spokesperson for avant-garde art in America. He lectured widely on abstract painting, and he founded and edited the Documents of Modern Art series. In 1948, he began to work with his celebrated Elegy to the Spanish Republic theme, which he continued to develop throughout his life. From 1950 to 1959, Motherwell also taught painting at Hunter College, in New York City. At this time, he was a prolific writer and lecturer, and in addition to directing the influential Documents of Modern Art series, he edited The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, which was published in 1951.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Motherwell exhibited widely at museums in the United States and Europe, In 1958–59, Motherwell was included in The New American Painting exhibition, initiated by the Museum of Modern Art, which was shown in numerous European cities. That year he traveled in Spain and France, where he started his Iberia series. During the 1960s, Motherwell exhibited widely in both America and Europe, and in 1965 he was given a major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. This show subsequently traveled to Amsterdam, London, Brussels, Essen, and Turin.
In 1970, Motherwell moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, and in the 1970s and 1980s, he continued to create new series of works and to exhibit widely. He had important retrospective exhibitions in a number of European cities, including Düsseldorf, Stockholm, Vienna, Paris, Edinburgh, and London. In 1977, Motherwell was given a major mural commission for the new wing of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. In 1983, a large retrospective exhibition of Motherwell’s work was mounted at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York; this exhibition was subsequently shown in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Another retrospective was shown in Mexico City, Monterey, and Fort Worth, Texas in 1991. Robert Motherwell died in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on July 16, 1991.