Alfonso Ossorio: Congregations

Born in Manila, the Philippines, of Hispanic-Filipino-Chinese heritage, and educated at Harvard University and the Rhode Island School of Design, Alfonso Ossorio (1916-1990) became an American citizen in 1933. Ossorio had the financial independence to pursue his artistic interests and had his first New York show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1941. During World War II, Ossorio served as a medical illustrator in the U.S. Army. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ossorio met several artists who would profoundly influence him throughout his career--Jackson Pollock, Jean Dubuffet, and Clyfford Still. He met Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, in New York in 1949 after buying a painting of Pollock's. Two years later, Ossorio joined the couple on the East End of Long Island with his purchase of "The Creeks," a magnificent East Hampton estate where he lived for more than forty years.

In 1959, Ossorio began to explore alternatives to conventional painting techniques. In an exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery in December of that year, he exhibited Interlocked, his first painting with embedded objects--sand, gravel and bits of shell. He continued to experiment by adding mosaic, glass, china, plastic and costume jewelry. Nails, bolts, screws and coins began to be dispersed in his paintings. By 1960, the works were seething with a Byzantine opulence. The artist had replaced palette and brush with an astounding array of found materials--eyeballs from taxidermy shops, antlers, seashells, bones, teeth, handcuffs, chains, photographs of the human figure, driftwood and much more. Up to several months could consume the preparation and gathering of materials. Ossorio haunted hardware stores and junk shops in lower Manhattan, broke dishes at home, and ordered horns and bones by the dozens. In 1969, Ossorio's Congregations became even more elaborate, with the construction of INXIT, a large assemblage constructed on a wooden door and frame, lavishly encrusted with objects of all stripes, opening to a panel covered with mirrors and still more objects.

In Ossorio's art, European artistic, anthropological, literary and psychoanalytic ideas commingled with ecstatic and fearsome Hispanic Catholic spirituality and iconography and the latest American aesthetic innovations. Although unhappy about his characterization by critics as a Surrealist, he never abandoned the Surrealist's taste for "convulsive beauty," especially the kind found in unexpected juxtapositions. For Ossorio, "the realization of how splendid things can be, even if they are horrible," is what enables art, like religion, to "inspire awe."

The revived interest in Surrealism and the emphasis on the body-as-contemporary-battlefield have created a context for the understanding of Ossorio's apocalyptic storminess. The exhibition will focus on this important work in the light of Ossorio's complex heritage and relationship to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.

Alfonso Ossorio: Congregations will remain on view through September 28, and will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue including critical essays by curator Klaus Kertess, and historian and author Ellen Landau. Landscape historian Leslie Rose Close will contribute an examination of the gardens at The Creeks as they relate to Ossorio's art.