A show at the Phillips Collection inspires Karlins to discover the expressionist world of Alfonso Ossorio.
Figure 1: Alfonso Ossorio in his studio at 9 Macdougal Alley, New York, with his work Untitled, 1951, leaning against the wall to his far left.
Photograph by Hans Namuth © 1991 Hans Namuth Estate
N.F. Karlins, New York, USA
On August 8, 1949, Life magazine was asking Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States? By November, Pollock (1912-1956) would have his third one-person show at the Betty Parsons Gallery, replete with some of the most ethereal drip paintings produced by the artist. It is hard to believe that for all the support from the media, he sold only one painting from that show, the lacy and much-beloved “Lavender Mist,” (Fig. 2) now belonging to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. It is interesting to remember that it wasn’t the National Gallery itself that bought the painting from Pollock’s show but his good friend and fellow artist, Alfonso Ossorio (1916–1990), who had decided to buy the painting before the opening because of his admiration of Pollock’s new work.
Figure 2: Jackson Pollock Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950.
Oil, enamel, and aluminum on canvas, 87 x 118 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund © 2012 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Both Ossorio and Pollock were close friends to Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985), considered the leading European artist of the time. They both also collected Dubuffet’s works. That Alfonso Ossorio himself was an important American Expressionist painter has usually been overshadowed by his significant collecting practice.
However, the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, and the Parrish Art Museum in East Hampton, New York (where Ossorio lived for most of his life) have teamed up to create “Angels, Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet.” The exhibition makes a strong case for the influence between Ossorio’s, Pollock’s and Dubuffet’s art in 1948 to 1952: the period of more fruitful interaction amongst the three.1.
Ossorio’s abstracted figures, wild color palette, and idiosyncratic wax-resist technique distinguish an interesting and relatively unexplored oeuvre, developed during the exciting period surrounding the founding of what became Abstract Expressionism. However, Ossorio’s commitment to figurative art set him aside from other groundbreaking American artists, possibly hindering his popularity. While many adventurous collectors, dealers and museums, like the perspicacious Duncan Phillips of The Phillips Collection, have bought and shown Alfonso Ossorio’s paintings, drawings, and assemblages, Ossorio’s work has never enjoyed the popularity of Pollock or Dubuffet.
Figure 3: Jean Dubuffet, Corps de dame—Château d'Étoupe (Body of a Lady—Stuffed Castle), 1950.
Oil on canvas, 45 3/4 x 35 3/8 inches
Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio. Gift of Joseph and Enid Bissett © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
The Phillips Collection exhibition, acknowledging the stature of Ossorio as a painter, will hopefully prepare the ground for more exhibitions on this artist. The early works included in “Angels, Demons, and Savages” should be enough to hook any art-lover on Ossorio, the artist. Moreover, as part of the permanent collection not included in the exhibition, the Phillips exhibits one of Ossorio’s later, large found-object assemblages, called Congregations, and some small Kenny Sharf-like drawings made shortly before his death, with exaggerated, cartoon-like figures in brilliant colors. As the exhibition is travelling, there is still a chance to see the show at the Parrish Museum between 21 July and 27 October 2013.
Some background may help in appreciating Ossorio beyond the enthusiasm I am expressing here. Alfonso Ossorio (1916-1990) was extremely rich, handsome, cultured, a devout Christian, and gay. Born in the Philippines and heir to a sugar fortune, he endured an unhappy childhood loosing three of his eight brothers and having to move to England to attend boarding school.
At the age of fourteen he moved to the US where he became a citizen in 1933. He then studied Fine Arts at Harvard University in Massachusetts. He traveled and studied art further in England and at the Rhode Island School of Design. Trying to reconcile his homosexuality with his religion during this period was troubling. In 1940, he married. Ossorio and his wife were living in Taos, New Mexico when he met Betty Parsons (1900–1982). As one of the most influential patrons of early Abstract Expressionists, Parsons gave Ossorio his first one-person show in 1941 at the Wakefield gallery, which she ran in a bookstore in New York City. That same year, Ossorio’s marriage dissolved.
During World War II Ossorio served into the army as a medical illustrator; in those years he was also absorbing Surrealism into his own work. After the end of the war he continued to show his work at Betty Parsons’ own New York City gallery on 57th Street, which she had opened in 1946. She showed most of the soon-to-be-christened American Abstract Expressionists or AbEx painters there as well. Ossorio saw Jackson Pollock’s paintings there, and bought the first of many drip paintings in 1949. Betty Parsons promptly took Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, to meet Ossorio at his studio in Greenwich Village. This is the period which “Angels, Demons, and Savages” hones in on.
Figure 4: Alfonso Ossorio, Perpetual Sacrifice, 1949.
Ink, wax, and watercolor on board, 40 x 30 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of Paul and Hannah Tillich
Perpetual Sacrifice (Fig. 4), the earliest Ossorio painting in the exhibition, shows the artist’s layering technique, a strategy quite common at the time and still in use. In looking at how he draws with paint, the contemporary artist David Salle (b.1952) immediately comes to mind. But unlike the multivalent images of Salle, in which disparate connections are left up to the viewer, Ossorio’s subject is not in doubt. He superimposes several male nudes amid a welter of other smaller surreal and abstract elements over a red heart. While a yellow figure and orange figure in extremis may be Christ or Christ-like, a black ink nude with spread, raised legs appears as if he might be experiencing ecstasy as much as agony.
This work, painted in 1949, may have been produced during the summer when Ossorio and his companion, dancer Ted Dragon, who would remain his life partner, went to visit the Pollocks in The Springs on Long Island. Ossorio and Dragon quickly became close to the Pollocks and soon rented a place nearby. Later, Pollock would locate the sumptuous Creeks in East Hampton as a possible residence for Ossorio, which Ossorio would immediately purchase. It was during the summer of 1949 that Pollock mentioned his admiration of Dubuffet. Ossorio thus traveled to Paris to meet Dubuffet, and they remained close from 1949 to Dubuffet’s death in 1985.
There was another influence on all these artists that might have been profitably pursued more fully, although it probably deserves an exhibition of its own. Dubuffet had spent time studying and collecting l’art brut, art by untrained, often institutionalized, artists, and showed his collection to Ossorio in late 1949 in Paris. It certainly left its mark on Dubuffet’s work and, I think, on Ossorio’s, as well. Ossorio would later store the collection at The Creeks and show it there from 1951 until Dubuffet returned it to Paris in 1962. It now resides in a splendid building in Lausanne, Switzerland, thanks to Dubuffet.
Ossorio, having already been primed by seeing l’art brut, would soon again be surrounded by expressions of Folk Art in the Philippines, where he returned for a commission in 1950, the first time since he left at the age of eight. Ossorio was asked to create a mural depicting The Last Judgment, in a church rebuilt by his family’s Victorias Milling Company. For his mural behind the altar, called The Angry Christ, Ossorio unleashed a fiery palette of reds, yellows, back, white and some blue. After working on his mural during the day, he stayed up nights doing drawings, mostly small, using a wax-resist method combined with other media. These drawings are some of the highlights in “Angels, Demons, and Savages.”
For the wax-resist technique, Ossorio would sometimes drip candle wax on paper then add watercolor or other media over it. He was also experimenting with different techniques, brushing on melted wax, then adding layers of color and repeating the process. Often small, on paper ripped into shapes, sometimes collaged, the artist produced more than three hundred works before his return. He poured forth images of families both Holy and mundane: children, angels, and Christ. These are among the most startling and impressive images in the current exhibition. Dubuffet, with whom Ossorio stayed in touch by mail, was enthusiastic.
Figure 5: Alfonso Ossorio First Suckling (Sleeping Mother and Child), 1950
Watercolor, gouache, ink, and wax on shaped paper mounted to canvas 22 x 30 inches
Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York
The overall energetically applied watercolor and sometimes gouache over the whiter wax-resist areas owe much to Pollock, yet the resulting works and their subjects are distinctly Ossorio’s. First Suckling (Sleeping Mother and Child) (Fig. 5) takes a subject that is usually treated quietly and sends lines and swaths of color to the edges of the shaped paper so violently that the paper’s edges seems to restrain them from flying off into space. The child’s head, reposing horizontally in the upper center, is the focal point around which the composition spins. The shape of the paper, read left to right, may emphasize the head, torso with breast, and legs of the mother, but could just as easily conjure up wings or the outstretched arms of a crucifixion.
Figure 6: Alfonso Ossorio Five Brothers, 1950
Watercolour, ink, and wax on illustration board, 18 3/8 x 30 1/4 in.
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1951
In Five Brothers (Fig. 6) Ossorio uses a high-keyed palette with lots of contrast to express his siblings, regimented in a row, adding lemon yellow and blue-gray to the borrowed earth tones and exaggerated, abstracted figures of Dubuffet. Even more colorful is Holy Mother (Mother Church No.2) (Fig. 7) in which the church becomes a literal female figure with prominent breasts that appear to be spurting white and dark blue streams of milk.
The use of non-traditional techniques linked Ossorio’s wax-resist method to Pollock’s on-the-floor, not-touching-the-canvas-with-a-brush technique; to Dubuffet’s incorporation of natural materials like sand and thick paint so dense it became plaster-like. All three wanted to break down old definitions of what art could be and an interest in non-western art traditions appealed to them all.
It is no wonder that Dubuffet’s admiration for l’art brut would make a big impression on all three artists, as the subject was exceptional for their time. An example of this influence can be found in Lavender Mist, where Pollock had impressed two hand prints on the upper right of the canvas to underline the paintings authenticity and linked it to paintings from other cultures, from those of the Neolithic to Native American, using painted hands.
Ossorio returned from the Philippines with more than three hundred drawings. Encouraged by Dubuffet, Ossorio continued to make more drawings on his return to Paris and then with Dubuffet and his wife off the French coast. Dubuffet eventually collected a small number, of the more than four hundred Victorias drawings that Ossorio eventually produced, into a limited edition book for which he wrote an important long essay, translated from French in the “Angels, Demons, and Savages” catalogue by Richard Howard.
You may need the catalogue for “Angels, Demons, and Savages” in order to keep all the dates straight about what each artist was doing exactly when, but a record of these prints, paintings, and drawings, especially Alfonso Ossorio’s Victorias drawings, are well-worth having. The Lead Curator, Klaus Ottmann, Curator at large for the Phillips Collection, and Co-curator Dorothy Kosinski, Director of The Phillips Colllection, have done a terrific job in inviting viewers to take another look at Alfonso Ossorio’s work.
Figure 7: Alfonso Ossorio Holy Mother (Mother Church No. 2), 1950
Ink, wax, and watercolor on paper 30 1/2 x 22 1/2 inches
Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York
1. “Angels, Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet”, The Phillips Collection, Washington DC, February 9 – May 12, 2013.
The catalogue for “Angels, Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet” is published by Yale University Press in association with The Phillips Collection and the Parrish Art Museum.