Elective Affinities: Alfonso Ossorio and his Masterful Friends
Angels, Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet at the Parrish Art Museum
July 21 to October 27, 2013
279 Montauk Highway
Water Mill, NY, 631-283-2118
(Reviewed at The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, February 9 to May 12, 2013)
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and Jean Dubuffet (1902-1985) were friends of the privileged collector Alfonso Ossorio (1916-1990). Heir to a Philippines sugar fortune, Ossorio lived and worked during his creative life in East Hampton, New York. A gay practicing Catholic, he aspired to synthesize Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Art Brut. This exhibition, presenting the three men as peers, aims to reveal the elective affinities of two famous painters, who themselves never met, and, also, to demonstrate what Ossario, who was friends with both men learned from each of them. It includes one large Pollock masterpiece, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist); some important smaller paintings and art on paper; and a number of works such as Collage and Oil (1951) that reveal him struggling. And, in a marvelous demonstration showing how consistent Jean Dubuffet was in the period 1946 to 1958, it presents both his little drawing Corps de dame (Body of a Lady) (1950) and the majestically large Paysage métapsychique (Metaphysical landscape) (1952). Very different, they both are first-rate pictures.
That Pollock and Dubuffet can happily cohabit as near equals is, of course no surprise. What here is up for grabs is Ossorio’s artistic relationship with these two modernist masters. He tends to place figurative elements or shapes not unlike Dubuffet’s in a Pollockesque all over field. So, for example, Perpetual Sacrifice (1949) floats faces in a field of white lines; Crucifix: Seek & Ye Shall Find (1951) deploys a heavily painted field of lines on a shaped canvas, with a crucifix shape giving form to that field; and Martyrs and Spectators (1951) sets the outlines of a crucifixion scene in a framework of black and white. Advent (1951), the best of Ossorio’s paintings on display runs lines of green, red and yellow around a vertical standing figure. He lacks the single-mindedness of Pollock at his best and, also, the very high level of excellence of Dubuffet in this period. You have the sense, rather, that driven by his awareness of the greatness of his friends’ art, Ossorio was experimenting restlessly without ever achieving real resolution. So, for example, Red Family (1951) uses a figure like some Dubuffets; and Head (1951) employs a drawn field akin to some of Pollock’s weaker pictures. But where Pollock mastered a language of personal abstraction, evidenced in his great little painting on paper Number 22A, 1948; and Dubuffet immersed figures in flatted fields, Ossario, a gifted eclectic always remains uncomfortably suspended between abstraction and the figure.
This Eurasian Catholic must have been a fascinating personality. And it must have been tricky for him to befriend and collect two such different and apparently overwhelming figures. But he isn’t a great artist. In the catalog essay Alicia Longwell says that Clement Greenberg, who admired both Pollock and Dubuffet believed that “an artist had to suppress any hint of representation to achieve a level of distinction in art making.” This statement, which is emphatically not correct, misrepresents Greenberg in an unfortunate, very misleading way. What is the case is that a great artist must be single minded. Connoisseurship is out of fashion—it is commonly said to be politically incorrect. Ossario was a well connected artist; an interesting artist; a skilled artist: but what this misguided exhibition inadvertently shows is that he was minor. Successful curators need to be connoisseurs.