Robert Motherwell was a multi-hyphenate artist. He’s entered art history books as the youngest and best educated of the first wave of Abstract Expressionists. But Motherwell also enjoyed a significant career as the editor of the “Documents of Modern Art” series, among other publications, and as a Hunter College professor. He was comfortable wielding paint brushes and spatulas, as well as tapping typewriter keys and proofreading manuscripts. If he had never created masterworks such as The Homely Protestant (1948), or the “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” series, or the “Beside the Sea” works on paper, he still would be remembered today for his stature as a New York intellectual.
Motherwell’s oeuvre occupies a unique position. During the early 1940s, as he embarked on a career as an artist, Surrealism continued to dominate attention. By the end of his life—he died in July 1991—Conceptualism was as strong as it ever had been. His own work lies between these two poles. For five decades, he relied on both his fertile imagination as well as his intellectual acumen. Today, in addition to his tendencies as an Abstract Expressionist, he is also associated with Color Field painting, a movement dominated by his third wife, Helen Frankenthaler.
Though Motherwell had a privileged childhood, he lived in so many different places, he could have been mistaken for an army brat rather than the son of an executive with the Federal Reserve Bank. Three years after he was born in January 1915 in Washington State, his peripatetic family moved from Aberdeen to Seattle and then, to San Francisco, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles, before returning to San Francisco in 1927. Summers always were spent along the coast of Washington. There, when Motherwell was 11, a painter who was a family friend encouraged the preteen to make art. Obviously a quick learner, a few months later, he was one of two students awarded a scholarship to Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, because his parents were not supportive and his teachers felt he was too young for the life drawing classes, he attended classes there for only a short time.
When he was 12, Motherwell developed severe asthma and was sent to Moran Preparatory School, a private school in arid central California, where the dry climate offered him some relief. From illustrations in books he found in the school’s library, he made copies after Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel as well as Rubens’s Marie de Medici panels. It was there that he discovered Cézanne, too. At 15, he attended the summer session at the California School of Fine Arts, where several of his future Ab Ex colleagues later taught.
Graduating at the head of his high school class, Motherwell enrolled at Stanford University. During his junior year, he switched his major from English literature to philosophy. Decades later, MoMA curator William S. Rubin often said that the Abstract Expressionists knew little more than the equivalent of night school metaphysics. Motherwell was conversant in the real thing.
Occasionally, Motherwell sounds like a character out of novels by Edith Wharton and Henry James rather than a contemporary of J.D. Salinger and John Cheever. During the summer of 1935, his father took him and his younger sister on a grand tour of Europe, where they visited seven countries. While abroad, he read James Joyce’s Ulysses for the first time, a book that would have a lasting impact. That autumn, back in Palo Alto, the college student attended a cocktail party at the home of collectors Michael and Sarah Stein, and became enthralled by the paintings of Henri Matisse that filled the Steins’ home.
Shortly before he graduated from Stanford, Motherwell again enrolled in a studio class at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. However, his father did not want him to pursue a career as an artist. Instead, encouraged by his father to pursue what he considered a more substantial career, the young man applied to Harvard University and was accepted with the provision that he learn French or German. When he continued to pursue his study of philosophy, French came in handy. One thing led to another, and he became interested in writing a thesis on the journals of Eugène Delacroix. To do this, his professors thought he should spend a year in France researching his subject. Off he went. A few years later, he transferred to Columbia University to study art history with Meyer Schapiro. Although he continued to paint while pursuing his academic studies, it was not until 1941 that he fully committed himself to being an artist.
Most accounts of well-known figures stress their mature life rather than their formative years. This one has summarily introduced Motherwell’s early experiences because they relate to a number of programs run by the foundation that he initiated in 1981 at the age of 66. Originally called the Motherwell Foundation, the Dedalus Foundation—renamed in 1991 shortly before the artist died, for the protagonist in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses—has an unusually wide-ranging program. Fostering scholarship and art making also involves community outreach. For example, from 2013 until the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Dedalus ran workshops at its Brooklyn location that were available to kids and teens as well as adults. As in all the foundation’s programs, encouragement, guidance, and feedback played pivotal roles.
When Motherwell launched the Foundation, he asked several scholars and critics to join the board. These included Jack Flam, who has served as president and chief executive officer since 2002, and John Elderfield, as well as Dore Ashton and David Rosand, both of whom are now deceased. Flam credits the organization with being both “subtle and flexible,” and is proud of the way the Foundation has changed its emphasis as it has evolved over the course of the past 40 years. “In the early days,” Flam mentioned to me during a Zoom meeting, “the Foundation was deeply involved in distributing Bob’s work.” After that, researching and assembling a catalogue raisonné, with a definitive chronology, emerged as a primary concern. All told, it took approximately 11 years to put together the three-volume catalogue raisonné of Motherwell’s paintings and collages, published in 2012. As that project wound down, a wide range of programs was introduced, with Katy Rogers as the foundation’s Programs Director. Some focused on the conservation of works of art. Others were fellowships that have evolved over time. And a number have remained directly related to the artist’s legacy, such as the catalogue raisonné of his drawings, which will be published next year.
As its programs developed, the foundation’s goal focused on improving peoples’ lives through art. After all, at Hunter, Motherwell had stressed to his students that they seek to achieve self-realization, and Flam wanted to follow in the spirit of the Foundation’s originator. “In doing something like this, you need to think about what the artist would do,” Flam indicated to me, though he also acknowledged that sometimes “you can only guess.” Moreover, as he pointed out, much has changed. “When Bob died, there was no Internet. There were no smart phones.” That absence of technology mattered more than you might assume. Much of the information that is readily accessible on the apps of an iPhone or through a quick Google search, was difficult to find only a few decades ago. Take documents, especially artists’ writings. Tracking down primary sources like these once required much effort. This aspect of Dedalus’s initial mission of involving dialogue through scholarship, has been transformed by technology in ways that Motherwell would have found hard to imagine.
When Motherwell died in July 1991, the Foundation had no readily available funds. It did, however, inherit unsold paintings, collages, drawings, prints, and related items as well as the artist’s copyrights. Rather than establishing its first base of operations in New York, it temporarily situated itself in Bedford Hills, and took out a $50,000 loan. It proceeded to take an inventory of the work it now owned. Placing art became critical, in order find the right homes for major works and to raise income for immediate needs and to build an endowment. Programming kicked off. Through the years, additional programs to support scholars and artists were introduced. The Foundation has had offices on East 21st Street since 2014, and space in Industry City in Brooklyn where, beginning in 2013, they have mounted shows and run workshops.
What sort of programs does the Dedalus Foundation run? Since 2001, dissertation fellowships with a stipend of $25,000 have been awarded to doctoral candidates at American universities and colleges. These budding scholars don’t apply directly for the grants, but are nominated by their professors. Some have attended Ivy League schools such as Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and Penn, as well as MIT, Johns Hopkins, USC, the Graduate Center at CUNY, Rutgers, the University of Michigan, and the University of Chicago. Topics researched have encompassed Russian, Belgian, French, German, and Brazilian painting, as well as sculpture, photography, printmaking, and artists’ writings, and have ranged from glassmaking in Communist Czechoslovakia to Northwest Coast Native Art to Computer Graphics and Geometric Abstraction in Postwar Europe.
Then there are two annual awards that the Dedalus Foundation bestows that could be likened to the Oscars or the Emmys for arts writers. One is the Robert Motherwell Book Award, which debuted in 2005, and carries a cash prize of 10,000 dollars, and the other is the Dedalus Foundation Exhibition Catalogue Award, introduced 10 years later in 2015. To be eligible, a book must be nominated by a publisher; and exhibition catalogues are nominated by a museum, gallery, or publisher. The book prize is expansive in a way that reflects Motherwell’s own wide range of interests. It is awarded, as the website notes, “to the author of an outstanding publication in the history and criticism of modernism in the arts—including the visual arts, literature, music and the performing arts.” Moreover, modernism has been broadly defined to encompass art created between the mid-19th century and the present. True to its stated criteria, the book award has gone, among others, to topics involving poetry, film, textiles, and architecture. While volumes about Paul Cézanne have twice been honored as has a new interpretation of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, attention has also been drawn to figures such as Kurt Schwitters and Paul Klee. Not surprisingly, the publishers of these books tend to be university presses.
As for the exhibition catalogue winners, they have accompanied outstanding shows of individual artists or themes that have shed new light on their subjects, and that often have garnered much attention. Where the Book Award winners might be tomes that appeal more to scholars than to the typical reader, the exhibition catalogues winners tend to be from shows that draw rave reviews from critics and attract crowds. These have included the cutouts of Henri Matisse as well as shows devoted to Alberto Burri, Emil Nolde, Bruce Conner, and Georgia O’Keeffe, and two theme surveys, Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today (held 2019 at the Wallach Gallery at Columbia University) as well as Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America (held this past spring at the New Museum). So far, the seven exhibition catalogue winners are books that have been released by publishing houses oriented towards a more general readership.
Encouraging scholarship, Dedalus also has awarded their Senior Fellowships since 2001. The cash awards for these run to the tune of up to 30,000 dollars (amounts vary by project), and they are granted to young and old alike. Some have gone to respected art historians such as William Camfield (in 2007, and again in 2009) for work on his catalogue raisonné of Francis Picabia and Hal Foster (2018) for his book Positive Barbarism: Brutal Aesthetics in the Postwar Period. Other recipients have included scholars earlier in their careers, such as art historian Suzanne Hudson (2015) for her book Better for the Making: Art, Therapy, Process. Many of the designated subjects of chosen beneficiaries would have been dear to Motherwell’s heart: Harold Rosenberg, Dada art, Baudelaire. The topics have also included Coco Chanel’s theater projects and the music of Dimitri Shostakovich.
On the other side of the coin, artists in the last year of their graduate school programs have been nominated by their professors for the Foundation’s MFA Fellowships, which have been awarded since 2002. In the beginning, just two painters or sculptors were awarded 25,000 dollars each. These days, four graduate students are subsidized annually for 15,000 dollars each. As for high school students, there’s a scholarship program for them, too. Since 1999, New York City high school seniors have submitted portfolios for college scholarships. The Foundation currently gives seven 2,000 dollar scholarships every spring.
The projects envisioned by the Dedalus Foundation have also included fellowships that train professionals in their specific endeavors. Since 1999, a student at the Conservation Center of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts has earned a grant in the field of modern and contemporary conservation practices. And from 2001 to 2020, there was a Dedalus Fellow in the Archives department at the Museum of Modern Art, to encourage new perspectives about preservation, processing, research, and reference.
If all of these sound a tad overwhelming, consider this: we haven’t yet brought up community outreach. For several years, until the COVID-19 pandemic, as I stated earlier, Dedalus hosted programs for kids, teens, and adults, which included two-hour workshops on Saturday mornings for kids aged four to eight (accompanied by an adult) held at the Foundation’s Brooklyn studio. There were a number of ground rules, which reflected the foundation’s ethos, including asking the participants “to be curious … to share ideas … and to collaborate with classmates.” Every August, Dedalus supervised a summer art camp, too, with attendees ranging in age from seven to twelve. For young adults between the ages of 16 to 20 who were getting ready to attend college and thinking of specializing in studio art, the Foundation offered lessons in how to put together portfolios for admission committees.
In recent years, Dedalus has hosted and sponsored programs that have covered a broad range of subjects, including conversations between diverse contemporary artists and curators; dialogues about authenticity in installation art; discussion of the distinctions that can be made between artworks and archives; and the challenges that are often posed by posthumously fabricated sculptures. All of these programs were videotaped and are available on the foundation’s website. A very recently initiated program involves mentorship and workshops that attempt “to demystify the scholarly publishing process.” This program, in partnership with the American Art Journal, helps younger scholars polish manuscripts so that they are print-ready.
When push comes to shove, we can all agree that Motherwell was a great Modernist. With, as Flam put it, “freedom from dogma and from outdated norms,” he reached out through his art, his writings, his lectures. A broad philosophical understanding served as a subtext for all of his activities. Over the years, the Dedalus Foundation has seen people from all walks of life responding to Motherwell’s art through the Foundation’s diverse programming. At one point, Flam mentioned to me that there is so much going on, “there’s never a dull day.”
With just its name, the Dedalus Foundation reminds us not only of artist Robert Motherwell, but of James Joyce and the legacy of one of the leading figures of 20th century literature. This is the backdrop against which we should view the artist’s studio records, correspondence, gallery records, and such that are available to researchers in the foundation’s archives. It’s a broader context than merely referring to Abstract Expressionism or Color Field painting. Instead of considering parts of 50 years, we’re meant to view a bigger picture that spans a century.
Robert Motherwell wanted his foundation to support scholarship that addressed modern art in all of its guises, not just his own individual role in its ongoing story. As such, the Dedalus Foundation operates on many different fronts. Both the visual and the verbal constantly cross paths as it pursues its mission.