February 13, 2011

Back to Basics

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The phrase “abstract expressionism” usually evokes images such as Jackson Pollock’s spiritual and seemingly chaotic fields drizzles, Franz Kline’s bold, sublimely forceful black-on-white paths or Mark Rothko’s meditative expanses of color. Figure drawing and representation in general was deemed too literal and conventional for the portrayal of humanity, and overlooked by art critics.

However, in the past twenty or so years, many art historians are reconsidering the history of abstract expressionism and studying the works of less well-known artists. Marika Herskovic, for example, documented 265 artists participating in important annual exhibitions during the abstract expressionist era in her survey. It turned out that although media attention was clearly focused on big names such as Pollock and Rothko, the younger artists inspired by these almost mythological giants were, while clearly influenced by abstract expressionism’s radical creative energy, attempting to explicate the full potential of figuration.

Salvatore Grippi was one of these artists. Born in Buffalo in 1921, Grippi fought in many major invasions in Europe during World War II, and attended the Art Student League under the G.I. Bill from 1945 to 1948. He studied at Stanley William Hayter’s famous studio  Antlier 17, and eventually founded the art department in Ithaca College. The Johnson Museum’s concise exhibition of mostly still life and figural pieces represent works from the 1940s to as late as 2009, representing an impressive lifetime of influences and innovation.

Traces of many major late 19th-20th century art movements can be clearly pinpointed in Grippi’s art, from the Kandinsky-esque colorful ink drawings, still life paintings composed in the palette of Analytical Cubism to a crowded figure drawing that definitely recalls Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Identifiable objects can be found in every image, some more obvious than others. Unlike Abstract Expressionists who titled their pieces puzzling names such as “Cathedral” and “Easter Totem” or simply “Painting,” most of Grippi’s titles are quiet and straightforward: “Figures,” “Still Life” and “Action Figure.” While most abstract artists valued criticism and interpretation, Grippi wants the picture to do all the talking.

The earliest pieces from the 1940s, mostly sketches, looked like student studies of Braque or Picasso’s compositions, signs of an artist struggling to find a unique and singular perspective. His style in the 50s seemed much more matured and solidified, with a particular and inimitable style appearing in Grippi’s work. Figures from 1958 illustrates a cluster of faceless bodies tangled together, an orderly, claustrophobic mess with suggestions of body parts here and there. What starts out as limbs would dissolve into lines and shades trying to almost free themselves from the representation and descending into abstraction. Heavily influenced by his experience in WWII, Grippi captured the pain, anguish helplessness and confusion of war through a thorough, suggestive study of the human body.

Most of the exhibition is made of various still life pieces — bowls, salt and pepper shakers, spoons, boxes, bottles — harmless, pedestrian things portrayed with genuine emotion that make them anything but “still.” His 1984 oil painting is a massive 49 and three-quarter inches by 49 three-quarter inches large-than-life interpretation of what seems to be an everyday slightly disorganized kitchen countertop. The dominant colors are shades of brown, beige and black, and although the painting is representational, the painter does not seem to be particularly concerned with perspective or accurate depiction of texture.

According to Grippi, these still life paintings are constructed from memory, where common objects “move flotsam-like in a borderless expanse” and the entire image “approaches the memory of the beach invasions of WWII.” Everything is bursting with an arrested sense of restlessness, and each object  seems to be lounging in its own reverie despite the painting’s unified composition and color scheme.

The center piece of the exhibition is another still life from 1963, a huge painting that almost covered the entire wall. Here, the visual description of the objects are much more realistic, but the entire piece is drenched in what was suppose to be California’s sunlight. Yet, instead of a warmer hue, Grippi chose a cool, industrial shade of red. It’s hard to tell if the red represents an exaggeration of the sun’s warmth or suggestions of blood and violence, both of which form a chilling contrast with the calmness and ease of the innocent apples, jars and brown paper bags featured in his still lifes.

Original Author: Lucy Li