Robert Motherwell, Matta and Wolfgang Paalen in Mexico

Robert Motherwell:

"... that spring [1941] Matta and I and Bernard Reis's daughter and Matta's wife went to Mexico together for the summer. And it was there that I really seriously started painting. And I wrote my father that I was going to quit school and paint. But that time he was beginning to feel that everything might turn out all right, though he would die in the next year. So he said, 'fine, if that's what you want to do, do it and I'll give you your fifty dollars a week.'" (SR)

Motherwell later recalled that during the trip "I was as close to Matta then anybody can be. He is a kind of intellectual Don Juan who seduces and then moves on." In a letter to Kurt and Arlette Seligmann sent from Taxco, Mexico in June, Motherwell wrote, "Taxco is so dull that there is nothing to do but work. I have rather radically changed the way I paint - and much more flatly than I was - and I think perhaps I am on a track that will lead to some good things." (SS186)


"We spent the whole summer in Taxco, met everyday in a bar opposite the cathedral. It was by chance that my work began to take the form of volcanoes. I saw everything in flames, but from a metaphysical point of view. I was speaking from beyond the volcano... I painted that which burned in me and the best image of my body was the volcano." (SS186)

Motherwell stayed in Mexico for six months. While there he met the actress Maria Emilia Ferreira y Moyers whom he would marry the following year. When Motherwell returned from Mexico he lived in an apartment on Perry Street.

Motherwell also met Wolfgang Paalen in Mexico and he would later say that Paalen gave him a year long course in Surrealism in six weeks. He visited Paalen's home in San Angel regularly and painted in his studio. When, in 1945, Motherwell worked with George Wittenborn on the Problems of Contemporary Art series, the first book to appear as part of the series was Paalen's Form and Sense. (SS188-9)

Motherwell collaborated with Paalen on his magazine, DYN (see 1942) and translated Paalen's essay "L'Image nouvelle." Paalen also introduced Motherwell to Breton.

Irving Sandler [art writer]:

"Bob was well versed in modernism but came to painting late, after studying philosophy. Matta, a young Surrealist painter whom he met in 1941, was his primary influence. Matta, as Bob put it, was the most energetic, poetic, charming, brilliant, and enthusiastic artist that he had ever met. In the three summer months of 1941, Matta gave him a 'ten-year education in Surrealism.' They also went to Mexico where Matta introduced Bob to Wolfgang Paalen. Bob and his wife settled near Paalen and lived there until just before Christmas. Bob said that he received his 'post-graduate education in Surrealism, so to speak.' ... Bob spoke often about the Surrealist émigrés... They formed a 'kind of brotherhood' which met three times a week at Larre, the inexpensive French restaurant on West Fifty-sixth Street. There were internal struggles, however, in the early 1940s. Matta had a perverse love-hate attitude toward André Breton and his coterie. Bob recalled: 'Matta wanted to show them up as middle-aged, gray-haired men who weren't zeroed into contemporary reality.' ... Matta then tried to put together a group of young artists who would be daring in their exploration of automatism... At first he enlisted Esteban Francis, Gordon Onslow-Ford, and Bob. But he wanted more New Yorkers in his group, and he asked Baziotes, whom he recently met, to recommend artists he knew on the Federal Art Project. Baziotes suggested Pollock, de Kooning, Peter Busa, and Gerome Kamrowski. Baziotes and Bob visited them, and Bob 'taught' them the theory of automatism, or so he claimed. De Kooning was not interested in the Surrealist 'adventure,' but Pollock, who drank through the meeting, liked the idea, although he would not join a group. Then Matta capriciously gave the whole thing up. Only Gorky was accepted into the Surrealist inner circle." (IS90)

According to Motherwell chronology published by the Hackett Freedman gallery Motherwell painted his "first major paintings" in Mexico, "including The Little Spanish Prison." The Museum of Modern Art has attributed The Little Spanish Prison, currently in their permanent collection, to "1941 - 1944."

Robert Motherwell [from Abstract and Surrealist Art in America by Sidney Janis (NY: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1944, p. 65)]:

"The Spanish Prison, like all of my works, consists of a dialectic between the conscious (straight lines, designed shapes, weighed color, abstract language) and the unconscious (sort lines, obscured shapes...) resolved into a synthesis which differes as a whole from either. The hidden Spanish prisoner must represent the anxieties of modern life, the intense Spanish-Indian color, splendor of any life." (SS361)

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