Jackson Pollock's Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund © 2012 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
WASHINGTON D.C. - When I was in Washington, D.C. the other day, I checked in at that beloved small museum, The Phillips Collection. Any institution with lots of works by Arthur Dove and Milton Avery is top of the list for me, as those are two of my all-time favorite artists. But the Phillips, partly housed in a formidable red-brick mansion, also has a thought-provoking new show called “Angels, Demons and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet.” It’s on view until May 12, and then in July it moves to the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton.
Most people would look at that title and say: Ok, but who’s Ossorio? Turns out, Alfonso Ossorio is one of those fascinating hinge figures of art history. I’ve seen his paintings here and there, and he’s in the art history books, but didn’t know how important he was in terms of fostering the art of the legendary Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet, who were his close friends.
Alfonso Ossorio at the Creeks, 1952. Photograph by Hans Namuth ©1991 Hans Namuth Estate, Courtesy Center for Creative Photography.
The Phillips refers to Ossorio as “heir to a vast Philippine sugar fortune,” which is nice work if you can get it. He owned the famous Hamptons estate The Creeks for 40 years, and lived there happily (it’s now owned by Ron Perleman.) His own work, as the show amply demonstrates, was quite strong, and moved from Surrealism to his own form of art brut, the outsider-ish work so famously popularized by his friend Jean Dubuffet.
The exhibition takes pains to show how Pollock, whom Ossorio met through Lee Krasner in 1949, wasn’t just a lone wolf, working away in Hamptons solitude. He used Ossorio’s studio extensively, and evidently they traded ideas and probably influenced each other. Ossorio then became close with Dubuffet, embarking on a long correspondence and housing the Frenchman’s huge extensive art brut collection for a decade at The Creeks.
Alfonso Ossorio's Untitled, 1951. Ossorio Foundation, Southampton, New York.
If boffo paintings are your thing, well this show has them, including No. 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), a High-Drip masterpiece on loan from the National Gallery of Art, crosstown from the Phillips. It was owned by Ossorio—he was big on collecting both artists in this show, and he could afford it.
A few of Ossorio’s works from the show stayed with me, including Reforming Figure, 1952, an ink, wax and watercolor with a dense all-over patterning that recalls Pollock; and Untitled, 1951, with several overlaid figures, including a haunting face in the background and some stick figures made out of sand. Ossorio had a real interest in experimenting with materials, and his open-mindedness is clearly the part of the reason he was able see the greatness of Pollock and Dubuffet so early. There aren’t a lot of artist/collectors who have made a significant contribution on both fronts, but we should count Ossorio as one of them.