Robert Motherwell
American, 1915–1991

Study in Automatism
1976–77 (initialed and dated on the image: RM 76; signed and dated on the reverse: R Motherwell January 1977)
Acrylic and china marker on canvas, 16 x 20 in.
Museum Purchase and Gift of the Dedalus Foundation

Promoted by the European surrealists, automatism--or "psychic automatism," as the French writer André Breton initially called it in The Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)--ostensibly provided access to an individual’s unconscious. If effective, automatism would enable the visual artist to produce images and gestures both personal and original, uncensored by style or other rational frameworks.

During World War II, a number of surrealists found safe haven in New York. There they encountered the circle of young American artists who, after the war, would become known as the abstract expressionists. Most members of this group enthusiastically embraced automatism. Formally schooled in philosophy and fascinated by psychology, Robert Motherwell became especially engaged in discussions about the theoretical and practical potential of automatism.

Throughout his career, which began in the early 1940s, Motherwell spoke eloquently and wrote lucidly about the importance of automatism to his own work and to modern art in general. He expressed his commitment to the concept in a 1978 letter to Edward Henning, then curator of modern art at the Cleveland Museum of Art: "I believe it is the most powerful creative principle--unless collage is--consciously developed in twentieth-century art. The intelligent and honest use of it can only lead to the originality and to, of course, the limitations of one’s own beingness."(1)

In the margins of that letter, Motherwell commented that collage--the assemblage of disparate elements--might be as important as automatism, since it “is also partly free-association” and therefore includes its own elements of automatism. Those words, written a year after he completed Study in Automatism, illuminate Motherwell’s intent. In the work, dense areas of flat black paint abut zones of ochre and pale blue, across which drawn black lines curve and cut. The combined effect evokes collage: numerous gestures intuitively pieced and layered together.

--Emily Stamey
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Ulrich Museum of Art

1. Motherwell to Edward Henning, October 18, 1978, transcribed in Stephanie Ternzio, ed., The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 230.

Robert Motherwell (American, 1915–1991), 'Study in Automatism,' 1976–77 (initialed and dated on the image: RM 76; signed and dated on the reverse: R Motherwell January 1977). Acrylic and china marker on canvas, 16 by 20 inches. Museum Purchase and Gift of the Dedalus Foundation


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