Jackson Pollock, Alfonso Ossorio, and Jean Dubuffet were among a group of artists in the mid-1950s who sought a different pictorial language through innovative use of materials and techniques. This February, The Phillips Collection pulls back the curtain on American abstract expressionism to reveal a little-known but captivating story that focuses on the relationship between three of the movement’s seminal players.
Featuring approximately 53 paintings and works on paper from 1945 to 1958, the exhibition illuminates a key moment in postwar art—one that was profoundly influenced by the artists’ transcontinental dialogue. It also reunites a number of works by Pollock and Dubuffet from Ossorio’s collection for the first time since they were dispersed after his death in 1990. The exhibition is on view February 9 through May 12, 2013.
Angels, Demons, and Savages diverges from the conventional history of American abstract expressionism to unravel a more nuanced narrative infused with artistic camaraderie and mutual admiration. The exhibition reveals visual affinities between the three artists’ work, tracing the impact of Dubuffet’s art brut, the experimental spirit of Pollock’s technique, and Ossorio’s figurative language. As the focal point of the art world shifted from Europe to America, the exchange between two of its leading protagonists—Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet—and the less known but equally critical participant Alfonso Ossorio, helped bridge the ever-widening gap between the continents.
Alfonso Ossorio, who is virtually absent from standard art history texts, is the central figure in this story and the exhibition pays tribute to him. One of the most colorful figures in postwar American art, his altruism and generosity have obscured his own work as a painter. Heir to a vast Philippine sugar fortune, Ossorio lived for most of his creative life in East Hampton, N.Y. Born in the Philippines to a Spanish father and Chinese-Filipino mother, and educated in England and the United States, he started to exhibit regularly in New York in 1941. He was a multicultural artist who synthesized surrealism, abstract expressionism, and art brut—art by prisoners, the insane, and other so-called outsiders—with his Hispanic and Asian roots.
An artist and collector with a lively mind and entrepreneurial spirit, Ossorio was attracted early on to the work of both Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet. He avidly collected their work and developed collegial friendships with both artists. Ossorio met Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner in 1949 through the gallerist Betty Parsons with whom Ossorio had exhibited since 1941. In 1950, at Pollock’s suggestion, Ossorio traveled to Paris to meet Dubuffet, an artist with whom he developed a deep kinship and rich correspondence. With Dubuffet’s help, Ossorio had several shows of his own work in Paris. From 1952 to 1961, he housed and exhibited at his East Hampton estate Dubuffet’s extensive collection of art brut. Ossorio amassed hundreds of works by Pollock and Dubuffet, including one of Pollock’s most celebrated paintings, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), which is featured in the exhibition.
The exhibition debunks the mythology of Jackson Pollock as a solitary genius. Contrary to popular belief, Pollock was keenly aware of what other artists were doing and was influenced by those he befriended and worked with throughout his abbreviated career. In 1950, Pollock worked in Ossorio’s studio while Ossorio was in the Philippines painting a mural for his family’s estate. During that time, Pollock received shipments of Ossorio’s wax and ink drawings from the Philippines and spent time studying them. It was at this time that Pollock abandoned his abstract designs and produced the Black Paintings, a series of figurative “drawings” created on unprimed cotton duck using sticks or hardened brushes as well as basting syringes and black industrial paint.
In recent years, The Phillips Collection has acquired a number of works by Ossorio that are showcased in the exhibition, including a seminal painting from the 1950s, The Family. In addition, the museum received a major work on paper, Reforming Figure (1950), and an assemblage, Excelsior (1960), part of the powerful series Ossorio called “Congregations.” Ossorio’s Five Brothers (1950), acquired by Duncan Phillips in 1951, and Pollock’s Collage and Oil (c. 1951), acquired in 1958, are also on view in the exhibition.