“I'm a Viking who has read French literature."
Although showing a skill and interest in art by gaining a fellowship to Los Angeles’ Otis Art Institute as a 12 year old, the abstract expressionist artist Robert Motherwell went on to study philosophy at Stanford and Harvard universities. It was a pact he had made with his banker father who wanted some economic insurance for his eldest son whose heart was set upon becoming a painter.
As he revealed in a Smithsonian Institution oral history "And finally after months of really a cold war 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."
Armed with a rigious education and after spending a year painting in Paris coupled with a European Grand tour in his late teens Motherwell was able to approach the beginnings of his career as an abstract artist as an expression of his literary and philosophical concerns along with his love and knowledge of European culture.
As he said in an artist’s talk at the Art Gallery of Ontario “I knew a priori relational structures are meaningful, and could begin with absolute confidence. Whereas I say Matisse is one of my heroes. I think the moment Matisse left the face out in his figure paintings, it must have been a staggering decision for him to make. And most of my contemporaries were faced with similar hesitation at a certain moment.”
Appropriating the idea of automatic drawing from the surrealists it became a mainstay of his artistic production.
About which he said "You let the brush take over and in a way follow its own head, and in the brush doing what it's doing, it will stumble on what one couldn't by oneself. It's essential to fracture influences in the same way that free association in psychoanalysis helps to fracture one's social self-deceptions."
About Motherwell the eminent critic Clement Greenberg said after the artist’s death in 1991 “Although he is underrated today, in my opinion he was the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters."
The New York Times obituary reported Motherwell as stating "All my life I've been working on the work -- every canvas a sentence or paragraph of it. Each picture is only an approximation of what you want. That's the beauty of being an artist; you can never make the absolute statement, but the desire to do so as an approximation keeps you going."
Fifteen of his works are currently on show at Hong Kong’s Pearl Lam Galleries in the exhibition Form, Gesture, Feeling: Robert Motherwell 1915 – 1919, A Centennial Exhibition which is on show until the 6th of November.