Artist Letters: Robert Motherwell, Part I

August 15, 2013
Letter, Robert Motherwell to John Coolidge, February 26, 1951. © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy Harvard Art Museums Archives.

A letter from American painter Robert Motherwell to former Fogg Museum director John Coolidge provides a fascinating record of the artist’s thoughts on modern painting—the subject of a symposium held at the Fogg on April 12, 1951. A volley of correspondence between the two, housed in the Harvard Art Museums Archives, detail the preparation, substance, and success of this event.

Coolidge had invited two prominent painters—Motherwell and Ben Shahn—and two historians of modern art—Professor Oliver Larkin of Smith College and Meyer Schapiro of Columbia University—to speak at the symposium. An exhibition of 30 paintings was held in conjunction with the event, featuring works that the speakers had selected. Prior to the symposium, Coolidge sent a memo to his museum colleagues and the speakers asking for their opinions as to what the event should be titled. “Modern Painting” was the clear favorite; however, Coolidge’s query prompted this note from Motherwell, dated February 26, 1951 (to see a larger image of Motherwell’s note, go to our Flickr page).

Here’s a full transcript of Motherwell’s letter:

Suffolk Lane East Islip, L.I., N.Y. 26 February 51

Dear Coolidge:

About the name—I feel strongly that the word “modern” should be present; I am inclined to favor “The Future of Modern Painting,” since it’s not possible to speak of its future without reference to what it has been + is, that the past and present are implied. The difficulty is that I think S.S. Van Dine used the title for his brochure circa 1917, but perhaps this is what I regard our art to be now . . . how it is a response to the modern condition, + could alter only with an alteration in society.

If the Mondrian exhibition—which I think would be good for Harvard, all the same—is out of the question, I will use slides. My effort will be to be wholly concrete and “intimate,” not general and abstract. My real topic will be the subject-matter of abstract art, of Mondrian, of Miró, of the N.Y. School. I can choose the examples of the latter; if you want, and see that they arrive on a specified date.

Please criticize this project any way you see fit.


Robert M.


Ultimately Coolidge settled on a suitable title: “Modern Painting: What Has Happened, What Is Happening, and What May Happen.” Learn more about the fruits of this symposium in a forthcoming Index article.

The Harvard Art Museums continues to host artists, scholars, and other specialists in our ongoing lecture series—see our calendar for a complete list of upcoming events. We look forward to inviting you into our new museum facility, scheduled to open in fall 2014, where you’ll have more access than ever before to our rich collections and an exciting roster of lectures, symposia, performances, and other events.

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