The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth will host the first major retrospective in more than 25 years of one of America’s best-known abstract expressionist painters, Robert Motherwell

The museum has more than 70 of the artist’s works in its permanent collection and was the last institution to host a retrospective to Motherwell while the artist was still alive.

The exhibition, which opens June 4, also includes loans from other institutions and private collections from across the nation and abroad.

If you go

What: “Robert Motherwell: Pure Painting” exhibition
June 4-Sept. 17
Where: The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
3200 Darnell S.
            Fort Worth, TX 76107

Robert Motherwell: Pure Painting” explores a broad expanse of the artist’s career, from some of his earliest paintings created during World War II to the final painting in his “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” series, which was finished shortly before his death in 1991. 

“I wanted to begin the exhibition by setting up the two polarities in his work. … You’ll see here the influences primarily of Pablo Picasso, but him also working in and pulling out of figuration and into abstraction,” guest curator Susan Davidson said.

Motherwell was also known for his collages and prints, but, as the name implies, this show focuses on his paintings.

“One of the things I wanted to bring out of the exhibition was how much the artist rethinks and reworks his paintings,”  she said. “And you’ll begin (to see that) as you read the labels, then (as) you turn to look at the works. You begin to see that layering effect he uses, sometimes covering up elements, revealing others, and just creating an incredible surface, which you don’t really get at all in the reproductions.” 

The catalog for the exhibit and the gallery tags attempt to help the viewer understand when he updated his works. A dash on the tags indicates that the work was created over a period of multiple years without leaving his studio or being displayed publicly. A slash indicates that the work left the studio, came back and was modified. 

The exhibition’s catalog was published with the support of the Dedalus Foundation, and Davidson credited Katy Rogers, its program director and director of the Robert Motherwell Catalogue Raisonné Project, for her extensive research and writings on the artist.

“Elegy to the Spanish Republic” is an example of one of Motherwell’s paintings that he created, exhibited and later modified. (Courtesy | Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Dedalus Foundation, Inc.)

Motherwell practiced a technique called psychic automatism; in practice this meant he tried to prioritize feeling over thinking when working on a piece.

Whether he was finished with a painting depended on how it made him feel. He would stand in front of a piece of art and would make changes if he felt that the work wasn’t authentic enough to his experience or what he wanted to express, Rogers said.

“Psychic automatism sort of boils down to trying to lose your ego and to really access your inner self,” she said. “He would make marks without attempting to make a specific form … He always talked about that spontaneity with correction … He always felt like the painting would not be the same if he had started with a plan for what it was.”

Many of the works are massive; it takes only a few pieces to fill each gallery wall, including some that are able to anchor the space on their own.

Shades of black and tints of white fill many of his canvases. But the artist also includes colors like ochre, blue and red in his work; sometimes the colors subtlety peek through layers of paint and other times serve as a focal point.

The loose forms and freely drawn lines are signatures of the abstract expressionist style he was known for and that garnered him high praise and prominent exhibitions.

His ability to create pieces that were emotive without telling the viewer what to think or feel is one of the reasons his works remain so resonant today, Rogers said.

“He felt like if you could make something closest to your core as a human being, even if it’s not who you know yourself to be, then it would create a universal response. And that’s something he felt modernism did very well.”

But during his lifetime, there was at least one high-profile case where his style was also a source of controversy. 

Motherwell was commissioned to create a piece for the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston after the president’s assassination.

The original, which is titled “New England Elegy” is not in this show. However, a second iteration of the work, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, is in the exhibition.

Both versions exemplify how multiple people can view the same painting and walk away with starkly different meanings.

At the time, critics looked at the work and were outraged by what they saw as a depiction of the moment Kennedy was shot. 

A quote from the assistant curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Art appeared in Time Magazine and said, “One black blotch may represent the profile of the President’s head, a very direct and specific depiction of the most brutal moment of the tragedy.”

Motherwell defended the piece and said it was not a rendering of the assassination, but was “totally abstract” and “an expression of grief for someone dead, like a requiem Mass.” 

Tempers eased after the late president’s younger brother, Sen. Ted Kennedy, issued a statement that described the uproar as a misunderstanding: “I am personally satisfied that the painting is not meant to represent any specific event. I respect an artist’s freedom to decide on the approach he wishes to use in his work …  I appreciate the fact that they have sought out artists of the recognized stature of Robert Motherwell.”

Recently, Rogers had the opportunity to show undergraduates the original painting in Boston. 

The students knew the piece was dedicated to JFK, but didn’t know about the public reaction before Rogers asked them to share their own impressions.

“It was really interesting to see how they responded to the work without the context around it, and they still responded to the heaviness of the blacks and the violence of the splashing of paint,” she said.

“He wanted that humanity (in his work) and the best way to have humanity was to take away your own control of it. I think when people respond to (his work), they’re responding to that.” 

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...