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Alfonso Ossorio

(1916—1990)


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(1916–90).

Painter, assemblage artist, printmaker, and collector. An idiosyncratic artist with roots in surrealism, he contributed to abstract expressionism in the 1950s. Later, he concentrated on richly inventive assemblages that constitute his most original work. These gradually became more overtly sculptural over time. Wealthy and cosmopolitan, openly gay in a tough-guy era, responsive to Catholic themes in a secularized creative milieu, Eurasian in a virtually all-white art world, he made his luxurious East Hampton estate a central venue in the social life of the New York avant-garde who frequented eastern Long Island. Born in Manila, he was educated in Catholic boarding schools, first in England and from 1930 in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1933 he became a U.S. citizen. During summers between his four years at Harvard, he worked in England with sculptor and engraver Eric Gill. Following graduation in 1938, he studied at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence for a year before moving to Taos. There he encountered Betty Parsons, who first showed his surrealist-oriented work in New York in 1941. From 1943 until 1946 he served in the U.S. Army as a medical illustrator, posted in Illinois. Subsequently attracted to abstract expressionism, he embedded unconventional imagery in spontaneous and gestural brushwork before altogether doing away with representation, albeit temporarily. After buying his first Jackson Pollock painting in 1949, Ossorio established a supportive and admiring relationship with him. His purchases included the masterful Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) (National Gallery, 1950), as well as works by Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner. Eventually he built a first-rate contemporary collection, including works by his close friend Jean Dubuffet, as well as important abstract expressionists such as Willem de Kooning and Clyfford Still.

In 1950 Ossorio returned for the first time since childhood to the Philippines to execute a religious mural commission. While there, he also produced a notable group of small, mostly abstract paintings stylistically attuned to the work of Pollock and other abstract expressionists. After spending most of 1951 in Paris with Dubuffet, in January 1952 he took possession of the sixty-acre East Hampton property, known as The Creeks, where he lived most of the time for the rest of his life. (Built shortly before the turn of the twentieth century by Paris-trained painters and decorative arts enthusiasts Albert Herter [1871–1950] and his wife, Adele McGinnis Herter [1869–1946], the establishment passed after Ossorio's death to billionaire entrepreneur Ronald Perelman.) Here Ossorio restored the mansion to elegance, transformed the gardens into a horicultural wonderland, exhibited his distinguished art acquisitions, and in the decade before 1962 housed Dubuffet's unprecedented art brut collection. Stimulated by this outsider art, in the late 1950s he began adding miscellaneous trinkets and other found items to his paintings, forming hybrid objects he dubbed “congregations.” Eventually, as the accumulative impulse overwhelmed his interest in painting, the richly ornamental mixed-media pieces took on a thoroughly three-dimensional nature. Reflecting untrammeled imaginative play and a fascination with the bizarre, they demonstrate also the power of objects to encode thoughts, desires, and emotional states. Ossorio died in a New York hospital.

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Subjects: Art.


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