All three confronted the terror and possibility of abstraction, the liberating chaos of moving beyond figurative work, and perhaps, too, the indefatigable need of the eye for some kind of order, even if it means imposing it without any license from the artist himself. One particularly powerful painting in the show, Ossorio’s 1952 “Reforming Figure,” reveals how far the artist would push into pure abstraction, but its title, with the words “reform” and “figure” in it, plays on myriad ideas unleashed by nonfigurative art, including the definition of reform as moral improvement and reform as a verb suggesting the coming back together of something that had been scattered or broken.
“Reforming Figure” hangs in the same room with “Lavender Mist,” which is hung opposite one of Dubuffet’s 1958 “texturologies” (paintings that tried to depict the idea of soil), “Confiture matiere lumiere (Texturologie LIII).” The palette of this wonderfully smooth landscape of meaningless small dots and drips is closely linked to the Pollock masterpiece, and the act of homage (through confrontation and a failed effort to surpass) is obvious.
In a nearby painting, the 1952 “La Maison abandonee,” one can see why Dubuffet, who often painted earthy, pseudo-primitive figures with archaic sexual and magical energies, would need to confront a more all-over kind of abstraction. Translated as “The Abandoned House,” the painting shows an almost stick-figure house pushed and crabbed to the top of the canvas, which is otherwise filled with a mottled, clotted irruption of earthiness. The house at top is negligible, the “abandonment” below richly rendered, and any painter who could do that would surely need to test his abilities against the ferocious blizzards of painting without any house at all.
The argument behind this exhibition is very particular: That there was much more interchange between abstraction in America and abstraction in France than has commonly been acknowledged, and that Ossorio was essential to that exchange. One might turn that around, however, and allow poor Ossorio to be more than a middleman, and argue rather that he was harvesting in an individual and idiosyncratic way exactly what he — the outsider, the intellectual, the cross-cultural artist equally at home or equally homeless in East and West — needed for his art.
In any case, it’s clear that his time has come. The best of his work emerges from this exhibition as profoundly different in sensibility from either Dubuffet or Pollock. It is not flat, or bluntly primitive as in Dubuffet’s sandstone-colored 1950 “Corps de Dame — Chateau d’Etoupe.” And its many layers are carefully assembled and held distinct, unlike Pollock’s confusion of depth.
More striking, Ossorio’s work seems somehow very Catholic, as if he inspired by the primitive and inexhaustible decorative energies of a rustic church, in which every niche is overstuffed and every wall covered with iconography. Overlays of blunt white lines often suggest not just the architecture of stained glass but also the theological architecture of a church that built its power on a borrowed, suppressed and reinvented polytheism. Angels, children and mothers are everywhere in Ossorio’s work and so too, in a way hard to define, a kind of joy.
“There is very little inactive, empty space in the world,” Ossorio once said. One sees that in a curious and intriguing way in a 1950 watercolor, ink and gouache work on paper, “Tattooed Couple,” in which the familiar architectural white lines define an erotically charged man and woman, covered in crude but colorful body art. The two figures blot out the space of a beach behind them, their tattoos blot out the surface of their skin, and the whole assemblage blots out the blankness of the canvas, so that art, and the world itself, comes to seem like a filling in, or covering up, of emptiness.
If Pollock’s work is filled with the energy of one very particular mind, if Dubuffet’s work attempts to summon some kind of pre-cultural, raw energy, then Ossorio’s work is simply filled with multiple energies, observed, contained and never completely harmonized. It is exciting to see it in its proper context, and even more exciting to see it hold its own.
Angels, Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet
is on view at the Phillips Collection Feb. 9-May 12.