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Motherwell’s discovery in 1941 of the Surrealist technique of psychic automatism provided him with a means of generating inventive forms, of liberating himself from habit and inhibition, and of probing deeply within himself and finding his inner voice. He became engaged with abstract figuration, abstraction, and collage early in his career, when he came to understand the profound ways in which both abstraction and collage could express the realities of modern life.
Page from Motherwell’s Greek art lecture notes, November 13, 1940. At left is Motherwell’s sketch of the Berlin Kore.

Page from Motherwell’s Greek art lecture notes, November 13, 1940. At left is Motherwell’s sketch of the Berlin Kore.

1940

Motherwell enters Columbia University’s graduate program in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, where Meyer Schapiro serves as his mentor.

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Figure with Mandoline, 1940

1940—1941

Motherwell continues to paint and frequently solicits Schapiro’s advice about his works. Schapiro, understanding that Motherwell is clearly more interested in being an artist than in his academic studies, arranges for him to study with the Swiss surrealist Kurt Seligmann. In Seligmann’s studio he makes his first etchings, including Figure with Mandoline.

1941

In January and February 1941, Motherwell attends one of a series of lectures on Surrealism given by Gordon Onslow-Ford, where he meets the Chilean painter Roberto Matta Echaurren, who will educate him on the Surrealist technique of automatism and have a significant influence on his art and thought during the next several years.

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Untitled, 1941

1941

Working with Seligmann in the early spring, Motherwell creates Untitled, a monotype with hand-painted additions, one of his earliest works to show an awareness of automatist techniques.

1941

Called before his draft board, Motherwell is classified as 4F, “physically unfit for service,” because of his history of chronic asthma.

In June, Motherwell drops out of Columbia University to pursue painting full-time, despite his family’s objections.

Maria Emilia Ferreira y Moyers, Motherwell’s first wife, ca. 1946
Maria Emilia Ferreira y Moyers, Motherwell’s first wife, ca. 1946
La Belle Mexicaine (Maria), 1941. Oil on canvas, 29 ½ x 23 ¾ inches (74.9 x 60.3 cm)
La Belle Mexicaine (Maria), 1941. Oil on canvas, 29 ½ x 23 ¾ inches (74.9 x 60.3 cm)

1941

Around June 7, he sails for Mexico with Matta, Anne Matta, and Barbara Reis, the daughter of the prominent New York collectors, Bernard and Rebecca Reis. Aboard the ship Motherwell meets his future wife, Maria Emilia Ferreira y Moyers, an aspiring actress and writer who is traveling to Mexico to obtain a divorce and visit relatives in Mexico City.

Upon arrival in Mexico, the group spends a week in Mexico City where Motherwell begins La Belle Mexicaine (Maria), his first mature oil painting.

Mexican Sketchbook, Page 5, 1941. Ink on paper, 9 x 11 ½ inches (22.9 x 29.2 cm)

Mexican Sketchbook, Page 5, 1941

1941

On June 19 Motherwell travels with the group and Maria to Taxco, where they will spend the summer.

In the months that follow, Motherwell creates the ink drawings in the Mexican Sketchbook, his first sustained experiment in automatism.

1941

In the fall, Motherwell and Maria move to Mexico City at the invitation of the Austrian surrealist Wolfgang Paalen. Motherwell translates Paalen’s essay “The New Image” for Dyn, a new magazine Paalen is starting.

1941

In November, Motherwell and Maria return to New York, where meets André Breton, Max Ernst, and Peggy Guggenheim.

Breton chooses Motherwell to serve as one of the editors of VVV, the new journal of the Surrealists in America. In one of Motherwell’s first acts as editor, he invites William Carlos Williams to serve as a second American editor of the publication.

1942

Shortly before publication of the first issue of VVV in the spring, Motherwell is fired and replaced, first by Lionel Abel and then by David Hare. The issue is published in June with Motherwell’s essay, “Notes on Mondrian and Chirico.”

Little Spanish Prison, 1941–44. Oil on canvas, 27 ¼ x 17 1/8 inches (69.2 x 43.5 cm)
Little Spanish Prison, 1941–44. Oil on canvas, 27 ¼ x 17 1/8 inches (69.2 x 43.5 cm)
Spanish Picture with Window, 1941. Oil on canvas, 42 x 34 inches (106.7 x 86.4 cm)
Spanish Picture with Window, 1941. Oil on canvas, 42 x 34 inches (106.7 x 86.4 cm)

Works from this period include The Little Spanish Prison, whose color is inspired by the colors he had seen in Mexican folk art, and Spanish Picture with Window; both paintings reflect the impact of Mondrian’s work.

Recuerdo de Coyoacán, 1942. Oil on canvas, 42 x 34 inches (106.7 x 86.4 cm)

Recuerdo de Coyoacán, 1942

1942

Motherwell and Maria spend the summer in Provincetown, joined by the Mattas, Guggenheim, and Ernst. Recuerdo de Coyoacán clearly illustrates his efforts at this time to integrate surrealist automatism and the plastic integrity of Mondrian’s work.

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Robert and Maria Motherwell at LaGuardia Airport, May 1943

1942

Motherwell and Maria are married on August 16.

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Motherwell in his Greenwich Village studio, ca. 1945

1942

In the fall, the Motherwells return to New York, where Motherwell meets John Cage and Marcel Duchamp.

Installation view of First Papers of Surrealism at the Whitlaw Reid Mansion, New York, 1942. Motherwell’s painting is the first artwork on the right side

Installation view of First Papers of Surrealism at the Whitlaw Reid Mansion, New York, 1942. Motherwell’s painting is the first artwork on the right side

1942

In the fall, Motherwell’s work is included in First Papers of Surrealism, organized by Breton and Duchamp. It is his first exhibition in New York.

Guggenheim opens the Art of This Century gallery in mid-October to showcase her personal collection of modern art and to present exhibitions of new work. She invites Motherwell to exhibit at the gallery in the spring but he defers until 1944, feeling his work is not yet ready.

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Untitled (drawing for Hours of the Day), ca. 1942

1942

William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Peter Busa, Gerome Kamrowski, and Motherwell begin meeting weekly at Matta’s apartment for experiments in automatist methods of making art.

Proceeding with Matta’s suggestion of the theme of “the hours of the day,” Motherwell creates a drawing for a total environment in the galleries of Art of This Century that combines sculpture, projected light, paintings, and painted walls.

Joy of Living, 1943. Oil, gouache, pasted papers, pasted fabric, crayon, charcoal, and ink on paperboard, 43 ½ x 33 5/8 inches (110.5 x 85.4 cm)

Joy of Living, 1943

1943

Early in the year, Guggenheim invites Motherwell, Pollock, and Baziotes to make collages for an upcoming exhibition of collages, a relatively new medium in the United States. Pollock invites Motherwell to work in his studio, as neither artist has made collages before. Motherwell creates two collages during this session, which Matta sees shortly afterward. Matta enthusiastically urges him to make more and larger works in the medium.

In the weeks that follow, Motherwell creates the groundbreaking Joy of Living, which Guggenheim includes in her Exhibition of Collage that spring. Joy of Living is purchased by Saidie A. May for the Baltimore Museum of Art, the first work by Motherwell to enter a museum collection.

The Sentinel, 1943. Oil and graphite on canvas, 33 7/8 x 41 7/8 inches (86 x 106.4 cm)

The Sentinel, 1943

1943

Motherwell’s painting The Sentinel, 1943 is included in the Spring Salon for Young Artists at Art of This Century and is acquired by Guggenheim for her collection.

Motherwell’s father Robert Burns Motherwell II, ca. 1940

Motherwell’s father Robert Burns Motherwell II, ca. 1940

1943

During the summer, Motherwell travels to Mexico for a planned six month stay with Maria in Taxco. But in mid-August he receives word that his father is gravely ill with cancer. Motherwell immediately goes to San Francisco, where his father dies on August 29.

Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive, 1943 (C7, DAD i.d. 12358)
Personage (Autoportrait) (C8)

1943

On returning to New York, Motherwell creates a series of bold and dramatic new works that reflect his recent personal trauma and his ongoing interest in political themes, such as Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive and Personage (Autoportrait).

1944

Motherwell and the booksellers George Wittenborn and Heinz Schultz conceive of a series of affordable, paperback editions of writings by modern artists. Wittenborn and Schultz ask Motherwell to edit the series, which they name the Documents of Modern Art.

Max Ernst and Motherwell at Amagansett, N.Y., summer 1944

Max Ernst and Motherwell at Amagansett, N.Y., summer 1944

1944

Motherwell spends the summer in Amagansett, on Long Island, where he is introduced Motherwell to the French architect Pierre Chareau, who becomes a close friend and will later design a house for Motherwell. Ernst and Dorothea Tanning are among those spending the summer nearby.

1944

In the fall, Motherwell moves to Main Street in East Hampton. Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Cubist Painters is published as the first volume of Documents of Modern Art.

Motherwell installing his exhibition at Art of This Century, New York, October 1944
Motherwell installing his exhibition at Art of This Century, New York, October 1944
Motherwell installing his exhibition at Art of This Century, New York, October 1944
Motherwell installing his exhibition at Art of This Century, New York, October 1944

1944

On October 24, Robert Motherwell: Paintings, Papiers Collés, Drawings opens at Art of This Century with a catalogue essay by James Johnson Sweeney, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art; this is Motherwell first solo exhibition in New York.

1945

Motherwell signs a five-year contract with the Samuel M. Kootz Gallery, which promises him a monthly stipend in exchange for twenty-five oil paintings and collages, and fifty watercolors each year.

Motherwell’s copy of Piet Mondrian: Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, 1937, and Other Essays, 1941–1943

Motherwell’s copy of Piet Mondrian: Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, 1937, and Other Essays, 1941–1943

1945

Piet Mondrian: Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, 1937, and Other Essays, 1941-1943 is published as the second volume in the Documents of Modern Art series.

Tortoise, from La Fontaine’s Fables, 1945. Ink on paper, 6 ½ x 5 inches (16.5 x 12.7 cm)

Tortoise, from La Fontaine’s Fables, 1945. Ink on paper, 6 ½ x 5 inches (16.5 x 12.7 cm)

1945

Reynal & Hitchcock commission him to illustrate Marianne Moore’s translation of La Fontaine’s Fables, for which he creates a number of drawings and collages; but the project is later abandoned.

Motherwell and Wittenborn acquire the rights to publish Georges Hugnet’s essay “L’esprit dada dans la peinture.” Motherwell’s work on Hugnet’s essay is inspired in part by his conversations with Dadaists, including Ernst and Duchamp, and is the beginning of what will be a seven-year engagement culminating in the publication of The Dada Painters and Poets as the eighth volume of the Documents of Modern Art series in 1951.

Robert Motherwell teaching at Black Mountain College, Asheville, N.C., summer.

Robert Motherwell teaching at Black Mountain College, Asheville, N.C., summer

1945

Motherwell teaches the second half of the summer session at Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina.

Untitled, 1945, illustrated in the catalogue for Motherwell’s 1946 solo exhibition at the Samuel M. Kootz Gallery, New York
Untitled, 1945, illustrated in the catalogue for Motherwell’s 1946 solo exhibition at the Samuel M. Kootz Gallery, New York
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In Beige with Sand, 1945. Oil, pasted wood veneer, and sand on paperboard, 44 7/8 x 35 inches (114 x 88.9 cm)

1946

In January, Robert Motherwell: Paintings, Collages, Drawings, an exhibition of 22 new works, opens at the Samuel M. Kootz Gallery. The Museum of Modern Art acquires In Beige With Sand from the exhibition.

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Cover of the catalogue for Motherwell’s solo exhibition at the Arts Club of Chicago, February 1946

1946

In February, Robert Motherwell: Paintings, Collages, Drawings, an exhibition featuring thirty works from the past five years is shown at the Arts Club of Chicago; the show travels to the San Francisco Museum of Art.

1946

That summer, Motherwell becomes close friends with Mark Rothko, and through him, a wider circle of American artists, including Barnett Newman, Herbert Ferber, Tony Smith, and Bradley Walker Tomlin.

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Cover of the catalogue for Fourteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 1946

1946

On September 10, Fourteen Americans opens at the Museum of Modern Art.

The exhibition, curated by Dorothy Miller, includes several works by Motherwell, along with works by Arshile Gorky, Hare, Isamu Noguchi, Saul Steinberg, and Mark Tobey.

Motherwell observing the construction of his Quonset hut house and studio, 1946

Motherwell observing the construction of his Quonset hut house and studio, 1946

1946

Toward the end of the summer, Motherwell purchases two acres of land in East Hampton, where he plans to build a house and studio complex using two salvaged Quonset huts designed by Architect Pierre Chareau.

The Poet, 1947. Oil and pasted papers on board, 55 3/8 x 39 1/8 inches (140.7 x 99.4 cm)

The Poet, 1947

1947

In April, Motherwell has an exhibition of sixteen new works at the Samuel M. Kootz Gallery, which reflects a shift in his work towards a greater painterliness. The show features large oils such as Western Air and the collage The Poet.

Interior Of Quonset Hut

Motherwell in the house designed by Pierre Chareau

1947

In late July, Motherwell moves into his new Quonset hut house in East Hampton, designed by Pierre Chareau. It is the first modern home built in the Hamptons.

Motherwell’s copy of Possibilities: An Occasional Review

Motherwell’s copy of Possibilities: An Occasional Review

1947

In October, Possibilities 1: An Occasional Review is published. Conceived by Motherwell and Harold Rosenberg, the journal has four editors, each overseeing a different discipline: Motherwell, art; Rosenberg, literature; Cage, music; and Chareau, architecture.

Motherwell and Rosenberg write in their introduction: “This is a magazine of artists and writers who ‘practice’ in their work their own experience without seeking to transcend it in academic, group or political formula…. If one is to continue to paint or write as the political trap seems to close upon him he must perhaps have the extremest faith in sheer possibility.”

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