Sometime in early 1952, Jackson Pollock almost ate dinner with Jean Dubuffet. The hard-drinking American Abstract Expressionist had agreed to host the French Art Brut pioneer and his wife in his East Hampton home, but at the appointed hour, Pollock was a no-show. Pollock’s neighbor, patron, and fellow painter Alfonso Ossorio had arranged this abortive meeting between his two heroes. He later recalled: “The idea was that we would have dinner at the Pollocks’, but Jackson decided it would be simpler if he and Dubuffet didn’t meet. With the host missing, it was the four of us and it was rather embarrassing … I have no recollection of seeing them together.”
This snub partly sums up the problem with the Phillips Collection’s current three-man show, “Angels, Demons, and Savages.” Co-curated by Phillips Director Dorothy Kosinski and Curator-at-Large Klaus Ottmann, the exhibition is designed to illustrate how avant-garde ideas flowed from France to America, between Dubuffet and Pollock, with Filipino-born American artist Ossorio operating as a wealthy, jet-setting go-between. As Parrish Art Museum Director Terrie Sultan writes in her foreword: “This exhibition illuminates a key moment in the history of American Abstract Expressionism that was profoundly influenced by the cross-cultural exchanges between these three artists.” Through 55 splattered and scraped paintings and works on paper, “Angels” argues that both Jackson Pollock and the history of Abstract Expressionism are more complicated than one might think—and that Ossorio deserves a better spot in the pantheon.
While the resulting show delivers plenty of visual pleasures, it’s not clear that the work of this trio needs to be seen and understood together. Pollock and Dubuffet made an impact on Ossorio’s work, but barely seem to have made an impression on one another.
Born in the Philippines and educated in Britain prior to becoming a naturalized American citizen, Ossorio was multiethnic, Catholic, and gay, providing a stark contrast with Pollock, a Wyoming-born farm boy. It’s easy to imagine the trouble Ossorio might’ve had fitting into the macho boys’ club that was American Abstract Expressionism at mid-century. Add Ossorio’s split career—acting as a painter, a collector, and a globetrotting art-world middleman—and he seems to have been a man out of time.
Yet Ossorio recognized Pollock’s importance early, and acquired foundational pieces, including “Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist).” On loan from the National Gallery, “Lavender Mist” remains as startling today as it must have been when first shown: A forest of slick spidery lines in black, silver, white, and pale pink and blue assaults the viewer, eradicating any conventional sense of composition. Crowded arcs, dollops, and slashes appear almost to float in front of the canvas, encroaching into the viewer’s personal space.
With “Lavender Mist,” Pollock abandoned traditional notions of easel painting: He poured and dripped household enamels onto canvas tacked horizontally to the studio floor, creating disorienting structures.
Ossorio’s oil paintings are clearly indebted to Pollock. “Full Mother” (1951), hanging in the show’s first room, is a cramped tangle of lines and colors, drizzled, poured, and pooled across a flat grey ground. It’s figurative, yes, and appears like some sort of crude religious icon, but Ossorio has fully adopted Pollock’s methods.
Jean Dubuffet, “Corps de dame–Château d’Etoupe,” 1950
Yet Ossorio’s work from just a year earlier speaks to different influences: In an untitled work from 1950, ornamental doodles and nightmarish disembodied heads are meticulously rendered in ink, wax, and watercolor. These forms are symmetrically arrayed on a piece of torn Tiffany & Co. stationery, looking like some sort of psychosexual medallion. The result is reminiscent of outsider art by, say, Swiss mental patient Adolf Wölfli—whose work Jean Dubuffet championed as part of his Art Brut collection. Ossorio would eventually display this large collection in his own East Hampton estate for a decade.
A link between Pollock and Dubuffet, however, is elusive. Pollock purportedly admired Dubuffet’s strangeness, but the two artists made very different pictures.
Dubuffet’s paintings here are chalky—like pink and brown clumps of clay, seemingly applied with a trowel and left to dry in the sun. “Corps de dame–Château d’Etoupe” (1950) is typical of Dubuffet’s body horror: Two spindly arms, a pair of breasts, and a tuft of pubic hair are incised into the thick surface of the painting, appearing to float unattached to the colossal human form in the center of the composition.
Dubuffet’s lines, surfaces, and colors seem antithetical to Pollock’s elegant monochrome figurative works from 1951. True, Pollock also depicts torqued bodies and heads—but in a manner more akin to late Picasso, reflecting an idea of art as controlled and deliberate, even when produced with brio.
Ossorio, contrasting with both, is unafraid of cranking up the volume—spinning biomorphs reminiscent of Spanish abstractionist Joan Miró into visionary religious imagery. His palette is loaded with saturated magentas, yellows, and orange-reds, giving his work a lurid, psychedelic look.
It’s true that the narrative of postwar American painting offered in the 1940s and ’50s by critics like Clement Greenberg demands a corrective. As Greenberg wrote in 1948 for the Partisan Review: “[American abstract painting] has in the last several years shown here and there a capacity for fresh content that does not seem to be matched either in France or Great Britain …The American artist has to embrace and content himself, almost, with isolation, if he is to give the most of honesty, seriousness, and ambition to his work.” Greenberg thought Paris was lost; only the American painter as loner hermit crank could save us.
The problem is that Pollock seems to have accepted the hermit crank idea. Despite his enthusiasm for Picasso—or at least for being compared to him—Pollock never went to Europe. Not only did Pollock insult the contemporary French paintings that Ossorio collected, he had no patience for Dubuffet’s Art Brut: “Jackson wasn’t interested … He didn’t feel it was serious,” Ossorio recalled. “I don’t remember Jackson showing any great enthusiasm for Art Brut.”
Ultimately, “Angels, Demons, and Savages” is a fine introduction to Ossorio, an unusual character on the margins of postwar abstraction. Unfortunately for Ossorio, he staked out territory for himself between two irreconcilable titans—both a little mad in much the same way, but unable, it would seem, to break bread together.