Paragon of Modernism: Esteban Vicente at the Grey
Concrete Improviations: Collages and Sculpture by Esteban Vicente at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University
January 11 to March 26, 2011
100 Washington Square East
New York City, (212) 998-6780
In his life and work, Esteban Vicente (1903-2001) traversed the 20th Century. Primarily known as an abstract painter and celebrated as a vivid colorist, Vicente was described by colleagues as a paragon of Modernism. Those who knew him well also recounted his fierce authenticity, poised demeanor, and dignified manner of contemplation. His was a radiating presence whether in the act of painting, conversing with a friend, or in dialog with students. His work as an instructor in drawing and painting took him from Black Mountain College to the University of Michigan, from Berkeley to Yale, and finally to the New York Studio School. He considered teaching an important asset to being an artist and it inspired a life-long sense of fulfillment.
A Spaniard, Vicente was born in Taregano in the province of Segovia, moving to New York as a young artist: he lived and worked in a spirit of nobility under relatively humble circumstances. He seemed to dislike the notion of having studio assistants, secretaries, preparators, or groupies of any sort. His intellect was never divorced from his feelings: art was a matter of harmonizing these qualities through the act of seeing.
The current exhibition, Concrete Improvisations: Collages and Sculpture, at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, focuses on his collages and small sculptures. The story goes that he began making collages from newsprint and magazine clippings in 1949 while teaching at Berkeley, this method of working suggested to him by his friend and colleague Elaine de Kooning. In fact, Esteban went beyond simply using cut and torn scraps of paper. He would enhance the surface by employing other traditional materials as well. These would include gouache, charcoal, and colored pencil over the pasted elements, which were mounted either on board or canvas. The energy that comes across from this five-decade survey corresponds, to varying degrees, to such practioners as Jack Tworkov, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Eduardo Chillida, and Michael Goldberg. Oddly, however, there is virtually no trace of Robert Motherwell’s collage aesthetic, which he must have been been aware of at the outset of his collage-making. As Vicente’s experimentations with collage progressed, he grew increasingly more involved with light, as had already been made apparent in his paintings. According to artist Dorothea Rockburne, it was the luminosity of Vicente’s color that made his work distinct from paintings by American or recent emigrant painters from Eastern Europe.
By the year 1962, Vicente’s collages were in full swing. He was painting his cut and torn papers with gouache in many cases before they were applied to the surface. Also, the color becomes richer and brighter. We see this in two collages from 1962, Orange, Red Black and Black, Red, and Brown, both from the collection of the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Esteban Vicente in Segovia (a magnificent museum in the heart of Spain, founded shortly before the artist’s death). This absorption of color within cut and pasted papers continued throughout the 1960s, culminating in a 1969 visit to Honolulu with masterworks such as Kalani Hawaii and Kaabumanu. The exhibition contains a relative paucity of collages of a comparable quality from the 1970s and early `80s. However, by the late `80s, Esteban springs back into form with a luster of soaring shapes, with an untitled work from 1988 where primary colors function in relation to thin nondescript washes, and with another untitled piece from 1994 of various cut white shapes on canvas. A similar approach in used in another collage on canvas from 1998 in which orange and green cut forms amplify four striations in white.
Although rarely discussed by American critics, Vicente’s sculptures, collectively called Divertimiento and dating from1960 to -1979, constitute one the true pleasures of this exhibition. Rather than monumental works, they are intimate extensions of collage or assemblage, a style of building or constructivism in miniature scale, displayed here in vitrines. They remind me of the delicate bronze Etruscan hairpins on permanent display in the Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. The delicacy of Vicente’s sculpture is a study unto itself as these works represent an originality of three-dimensional form rarely seen or recognized in recent Western sculpture. Some are made from gessoed foam core, others from small pieces of painted wood. The height rarely exceeds a foot, and often less than eight inches. To study these forms involves concentration as if one were analyzing a lyrical theorem, an oxymoron, if there ever was one. They are paradoxical and assured, clear, and yet, also ambiguous. They are a type of sculpture that exceeds any reference point to how we think about art today. It returns our consciousness to those who worked in caves and enclosed dwellings from some prelinguistic epoch.
My only professional connection to Esteban was in 1999 when, surprisingly, we were each awarded the Premio Arcale by the Municipality of Salamanca. He was given the prize in art, I for criticism. Given his age and the condition of his health at the time he chose not to travel from New York to Spain for the ceremony. My disappointment was that I never had the occasion to shake the artist’s hand.