Camaraderie on canvas

When I think of Jackson Pollock, I picture him working alone in his studio in East Hampton slinging paint across a canvas on the ground, oblivious to the art world around him. It’s easy to forget that the personal lives and relationships of artists deeply influenced their work, a topic brought to the forefront in Angels, Demons and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet on view now in Washington D.C. at the Phillips Collection. The exhibition traces the relationships between Jackson Pollock, Alfonso Ossorio, and Jean Dubuffet, three artists working simultaneously across continents in similar abstract styles during the period of 1945 to 1958.

"Alfonso Ossorio at the Creeks," 1952. Photograph by Hans Namuth ©1991 Hans Namuth Estate, Courtesy Center for Creative Photography.

The 53 paintings and prints in the exhibition tell the story of how Pollock, Ossorio and Dubuffet influenced each other through not only their close friendships, but also through the sharing of ideas, techniques and even studio spaces. Ossorio, both an artist and collector, bought one of Pollock’s paintings in 1949 and was later introduced to him and Lee Krasner through art dealer Betty Parsons. Pollock then prodded Ossorio to travel to Paris in November of the same year to meet Dubuffet and purchase some of his works. Ossorio’s collection would later be hung in an East Hampton estate purchased in 1951 at the suggestion of Jackson Pollock. Dubuffet wrote a monograph on Ossorio in 1951.

Pollock, Ossorio and Dubuffet were concurrently challenging the canon of painting by forging their own abstract styles. All three grappled with abstraction versus figuration, and each had an interest in process and materials. It seems not a coincidence that Pollock returned to figuration for a period during 1950, as in Number 7, 1952 when he was living in Ossorio’s New York studio.  You can see the influence of Dubuffet in Ossorio’s abstract figural paintings such as Reforming Figure. In the same work, you can see how Ossorio took from Pollock the overall gestural abstraction that fills the rest of the canvas. Dubuffet was highly criticized in his native France, but found solace and praise in New York among Pollock and Ossorio in the burgeoning Abstract Expressionist scene.

Jackson Pollock, "Number 1, (Lavender Mist)," 1950.

While angels, demons and savages are literal subjects in the exhibition’s works, they also serve as metaphors for the personal battles that each artist addressed through their artistic practices. Pollock was a known alcoholic with a volatile personality. His anxiety is palpable in a painting such as Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), a great example of his “‘demonic’ gestural force.” Ossorio struggles with his Catholic upbringing and incorporates different representations of Christian iconography and values throughout his canvases. Dubuffet fights the idea of art in general, and after abandoning the medium several times, he returns during this period to explore the art of the mentally ill in his “art brut” paintings. The emotionally charged themes throughout the exhibition make clear why these artists got along so well as friends and confidants.

This exhibition gives a rare glimpse into a web of relationships between artists, collectors, critics and dealers that helped shape the Abstract Expressionist movement as well as the aesthetic of each individual artist. Although strong relationships between artists are frequently discussed in writing, it is illuminating to see how these close ties manifest visually when canvases are hung side by side.

Angels, Demon, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet will be on view at The Phillips Collection until May 12, 2013.