Among ‘Angels, Demons, and Savages,’ guess which can fly
By Philip Kennicott
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.
A dinner party that would have finessed an introduction between Dubuffet and Pollock foundered when the latter failed to show up. But there’s no doubt that all three men were engaged with each other’s work, that Pollock’s bad manners masked some kind of anxiety about Dubuffet’s influence, and that all three were grappling with similar aesthetic issues and challenges.
The most essential of these was how to squeeze a little more life out of painting, after the artistic revolutions of the first half of the 20th century, and the cataclysmic violence of fascism, war and genocide in Europe. Both Pollock and Ossorio had early periods of surrealist-inflected work, and in his fascination with outsider art--often the product of mentally ill artists--Dubuffet remained close to the dream-like, associative and unstable imagery of the surrealists as well.
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.