Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington, on 24 January 1915. He briefly attended the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco in 1932, then studied philosophy at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, from 1932 to 1937, with further study at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University from 1937 to 1938. Motherwell travelled to Paris in 1938, where he encountered European modernism at first hand, and held his first solo show at the Raymond Duncan Gallery in 1939. Motherwell returned to the United States that year and attended Columbia University, New York, in 1940, studying art history under Meyer Schapiro, through whom he met a number of exiled European Surrealist artists, including the Chilean-born Roberto Matta with whom he travelled to Mexico in 1941.

Motherwell is now recognised as one of the major figures associated with Abstract Expressionism. He developed strong friendships with a number of artists, including William Baziotes. With Mark Rothko and David Hare, Motherwell was a founder of the short-lived The Subjects of the Artist art school in New York, which ran from 1948 to 1949; he then started his own School of Fine Art that lasted to 1950. He also taught at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, in 1945 and 1950 and at Hunter College, New York, from 1951 to 1959. Motherwell held his first solo exhibition in New York at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in 1944; like a number of his contemporaries he exhibited regularly with Kootz Gallery from 1946 to 1953, and the Sidney Janis Gallery from 1957 to 1962.

By the 1960s Motherwell’s reputation and contribution to American art was recognised by major museum exhibitions and representation in numerous survey shows in the United States and internationally. He was the subject of a First retrospect exhibition at Bennington College, Vermont, in 1959. Major retrospectives covering the many facets of his work have been held and include an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1965; The collages of Robert Motherwell at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 1972; The painter and the printer: Robert Motherwell’s graphics 1943–1980 organised by The Museum of Modern Art in 1980; with another retrospective initiated by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, which toured to venues in the United States between 1983 and 1985; and Motherwell at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona in 1996–97 and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid in 1997. Motherwell is also recognised for his writings on art and role as editor of The documents of modern art series, initiated in 1944. He received numerous awards and accolades throughout his career. Motherwell died at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on 16 July 1991.