Robert Motherwell was a painter, printmaker, editor, and scholar. During his studies in philosophy at Stanford, Motherwell was influenced by symbolist literature, including James Joyce and Edgar Allen Poe. His father, unsupportive of Robert’s career as an artist, urged him to pursue his PhD at Harvard. Only after finishing his Harvard degree, and then matriculating to Columbia, was he finally convinced to devote himself to his painting.
Motherwell sailed from New York to Mexico in June in 1941 with Chilean Surrealist painter Roberto Matta. During the time he spent in Mexico, Motherwell’s influence by the Parisian Surrealists (Max Ernst, Duchamp, Masson) prompted some of his most important work in Mexican Past. Like other surrealists, Motherwell utilized an artistic process introduced to him by Matta called Automatic Drawing, or scribbling from the unconscious mind, to find a jumping-off point. He also implemented colors of Mexican popular culture, land, and cityscapes.
While in Mexico, Motherwell began painting with a new concept: distinctive silhouettes and unseen shapes and figures. An experiment in stepping away from traditional perspective in favor of evanescent shapes. Robert championed this theory of automatic drawing, coined Automatism, and inspired other artists to take it on as a concept—creating a new movement in American art.
Motherwell once said in Mexico in the 1940’s is where he found himself an artist. So when in the last year of his life, he began reviewing his work for a major solo exhibition at Mexico’s Museo Rufino Tamayo and Museo del Monterrey in the fall of 1991, his career came full circle. During his intense preparations for this exhibition in 1990 is when he began painting Mexican Past. The painting is one of the last works created by Robert Motherwell before his death on July 16, 1991.
The composition of Mexican Past was based on a small scale painting from 1975 titled, Primordial Sketch No. 13 (Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth). According to archival studio photographs, Mexican Past went through several transformations in use of colors before the final version in which Motherwell implemented his signature ochre.
Mexican Past is a complete culmination of the artistic discernment Motherwell developed in that first monumental trip to Mexico.