Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington on January 24, 1915. He graduated from Stanford University in 1937 and later continued his graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University. In 1940, he studied briefly at Columbia University, where he was encouraged by Meyer Schapiro to devote himself to painting rather than scholarship. It was after a 1941 voyage to Mexico with Surrealist painter Roberto Matta that Motherwell decided to make painting his primary vocation.
In 1944 Motherwell had his first one-person show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery and soon after became the leading spokesperson for avant-garde art in America. Throughout the 1950s Motherwell lectured widely on abstract painting and also taught painting at Hunter College in New York and at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland studied under and were influenced by Motherwell. During the 1970s, he had important retrospective exhibitions in a number of European cities, including Düsseldorf, Stockholm, Vienna, Paris, Edinburgh, and London.
In 1983, a major 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.
Upon Motherwell's death in Provincetown, MA in 1991, Clement Greenberg, the great champion of the New York School, left in little doubt his esteem for the artist, commenting that, "although he is underrated today, in my opinion he was one of the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters”.