“(My) relationship to abstract expressionism is a very obvious case of admiring and doing differently.”
Upon entering the expansive, white-lit space of the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in Manhattan last year, the show, appropriately entitled Blood Lines, 1949-1953, is a dazzling display of work that envelopes the gallery like a huge, brightly-colored Persian rug—and what a great body of work it is.
Most remembered for his expansive, found-object assemblages (known as Congregations), Alfonso Ossorio was an important part of the Abstract Expressionist movement, in which Jackson Pollack and Jean Dubuffet were his contemporaries.
Born in Manila, Philippines, to a wealthy sugar family, Ossorio was schooled in English boarding schools early on, then in the 1930s attended Harvard University. After a brief stint in the military, he embarked his career as a professional artist. Upon moving to East Hamptons, New York, he befriended many in the art world, becoming a painter amongst painters and a collector/patron. Blood Lines is indicative of that very influence, most importantly, with such artists as Jackson Pollack and Jean Dubuffet.
Bold, bright, and forever changing, the work of Alfonso Ossorio is of spiritual realms, one that evokes mythology, birth, death, and the universe. For example, Untitled, (MR408) c.1949 clearly speaks that very thing—a Dali-like configuration of biomorphic, supernatural images drawn in red, black, and orange colors, swirling around an stark nucleus, while a pastel background holds everything together—like graffiti scribbles on a 1970s NYC subway car panel; contained bursts of linear energy exploding.
The bulk of his pieces are done in wax-resist format: a technique where he would apply watercolor on paper, draw over it with wax, then apply more watercolor over the drawing, creating an overlapping body of lines, colors and forms.
Themes of maternity and the complexities of child birth are present as well. Stemming from an uneasy childhood, Ossorio had to cope with being gay in a conservative, religious household. This feeling is most apparent in both Tatooed Couple, 1950 and Untitled (MR399), c.1951. The former reads like a Picasso drawing—overlays of reds, earth-browns and blues; large, patchy arms, hands and legs grabbling about; breasts with drawn ink images—the nucleus of a tortured family environment. Mother and father bewildered; tattoos with inscriptions of MARY HOPE and JOE; children trapped in a kind of inescapable embryo—all is conveyed here most nakedly. The latter is like a de Kooning, yet with intensity and friction; the swirling circles forming out of abstraction; forms of a Rubenesque figure facing us with two heads beside her (son and daughter?); a human figure torn amongst swirling circles, lines and color, colliding with frantic intensity, with both figure and faces appearing very sad and lonely.
Ossorio was not only a painter and a craftsman, but a purveyor as well. Untitled (MR323), c.1950, conveys an ever-present array of wax, ink, and lines, intertwining in kinetic frenzy, an activity surrounded by a pitch black border that, by close observation, could well represent a Japanese Sumo wrestler or Shogun warrior—a manner that lends much force and presence within all that bright, linear and striking activity within. It comes to mind a Pop cartoon character, or bubble letters synonymous to ones seen on NYC graffiti streets—elements later found in the Neo-Expressionist work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Ossorio was surely ahead of his time—the constant experimenting of new ideas, concepts, and traditions that creates something new and different very time.
Lastly, Blood Lines 1953-54, is both fascinating and mind boggling. A large, dark shape surrounds itself by shades of light yellow and blue hues, working together in close proximity, while small, clear images swim and swirl like human procreation (sperms and eggs in flight). The biomorphic shapes, with its eyes and beaks, remind me of Joan Miro, also known for his treatment of the surreal and the biology of things real or un-real.
Given the power and vitality of this great artist and this great exhibition, Alfonso Ossorio will always continue to visually delight, intrigue and sustain us for a very, very long time.
This exhibit at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York closed in 2013. The gallery represents the work of this late artist and mounts exhibitions periodically. They also have for sale a number of catalogs and books on the artist. To find out more, go to www.michaelrosenfeldart.com.