Visitors encounter the first room of the Phillips Collection exhibition “Angels, Demons, and Savages” as a kind of explosion, all the more intense for its tight containment in a small physical and chronological space. Side by side are works of the French advocate of “raw” art Jean Dubuffet, the American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, and the Philippine-born artist and advocate Alfonso Ossorio. The work is colorful, intense, energetic, brute and forceful, and there is enough of it in a relatively small space to catalyze feelings of attraction and repulsion, and intimations of kinship and contrast between paintings that seem at first deeply connected, and then later just as deeply different in their aims and technique.
And then there’s a second explosion, sparked by the least known of the three artists on display, Ossorio, who emerges not just as an important figure in the history of transatlantic intellectual ferment of the mid-20th century, but as a formidable, passionate and moving artist in his own right. All of this is more than enough to make “Angels, Demons, and Savages” — which explores Dubuffet’s supposedly savage style, Ossorio’s religious inspiration and Pollock’s demonic energies — an exciting and rewarding exhibition.
Ossorio is the middleman, the friend and patron of both Pollock and Dubuffet, who never met, yet knew each other’s work in part through their mutual admirer. Born into great wealth in the Philippines in 1916, he immigrated to the West, studied at Harvard, served in the U.S. military during the Second World War, and set up as a painter and collector in New York after he was demobbed in 1946. But he was thrice an outsider to the art cults of New York in the late ’40s and ’50s: A devout Catholic from the other side of the globe, a wealthy man who would later maintain an enormous estate in the Hamptons, and a gay man who would live together for decades with a partner who helped make his estate a social gathering place for artists and intellectuals.
Which meant that Ossorio could never check any of the boxes that now seem so emblematic of the art ethos defined by Ossorio’s friend, Pollock, the quintessential “Greatest Living Painter” in America according to an infamous 1949 article in Life magazine: Neither American born nor Bohemian, and not according to the prejudice of the day sufficiently masculine either.
But he could paint, and his painter’s eye made him keenly alert to the vigor of other artists’ work. Ossorio discovered Pollock in the late 1940s, and started purchasing his work, including the iconic “Lavender Mist,” which the National Gallery of Art has lent to the Phillips Collection for this show (and it looks spectacular in the space). Around the same time, Dubuffet showed his work in New York, and Ossorio befriended him.
A complicated chronology links all three artists during the period in question, roughly 1948 to 1952, with Ossorio visiting Dubuffet in Paris; Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, house-sitting in Ossorio’s West Village home; and Dubuffet spending time in New York in 1951-52. There was a robust exchange of letters and art between Ossorio and Dubuffet, and for a decade, beginning in 1952, Ossorio housed Dubuffet’s large collection of outsider art at his Long Island estate, dubbed the Creeks. Ossorio and Pollock became near neighbors on Long Island, and Pollock had intimate access to Dubuffet’s work through Ossorio’s collection.