From the New York Times, Thursday, July 18, 1991. Robert Burns Motherwell was a great-grandson of John and Bridget:


Robert Motherwell, a major presence on the American art scene for nearly 50 years and one of the last giants of the Abstract Expressionist movement, died on Tuesday afternoon on Cape Cod. He was 76 years old and had had a heart ailment for some years.

The cause of death was believed to be a stroke, his curator, Joan Banach, said. She said that he died in an ambulance en route to Cape Cod Hospital.

Mr. Motherwell's work ranged from a series of brooding abstract paintings known as "Elegies to the Spanish Republic" -- whose obsessive theme roughly took the form of oval shapes confined by vertical bars -- to elegantly playful collages contrived from scraps of music, stamps, tobacco labels and other ephemera.

Though always abstract and painterly, Mr. Motherwell's work expressed his literary and philosophical concerns and his deep involvement with the culture of Mediterranean Europe. A large man who moved and talked slowly, the artist never lost his Abstract Expressionist view of painting as a struggle, "a state of anxiety" as he once put it, "that is obliquely recorded in the inner tensions of the finished canvas."

He regarded his art as a never-ending process. "All my life I've been working on the work -- every canvas a sentence or paragraph of it," he once said. "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."

An intellectual who philosophized about, wrote about and talked about art in addition to producing it, Mr. Motherwell became the theorist and leading spokesman of what he called the New York School: the post-World War II movement that put New York at the center of the international art world. Later, as a kind of elder statesman of American art, he promulgated the movement eloquently through lectures, teaching and editing, without interrupting his highly productive output as an artist. His stature as a painter, collagist and printmaker made his work a must in major collections throughout the world.

"Although he is underrated today, in my opinion he was the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters," the critic Clement Greenberg, who was a prominent part of the early scene, said yesterday.


In his later years, Mr. Motherwell was showered with medals, degrees and awards, among them the National Medal of Arts, given him by President Bush at the White House in 1989. In 1982, a permanent Motherwell Gallery was installed at the Bavarian State Museum of Modern Art in Munich, the only gallery for a living artist among those devoted to such modern masters as Matisse, Picasso and Max Beckmann.