The best examples of Alfonso Ossorio’s art synthesize elements of Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Art Brut. Golden Child (1950) has shades of Pollock’s early Surrealist-inspired canvases as well as the dynamism and verve that characterize Abstract Expressionist compositions. Ossorio adds his own stamp through his signature wax-resist method (rubbing wax onto a work’s surface before applying water-based pigment on top) to create a unique texture.
A pioneering artist in his own right, Ossorio was also a devoted patron of peers such as Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet: born into a wealthy Filipino family in Manila in 1916, Ossorio had the means to collect as well as to create. After becoming a US citizen in 1933, he studied Fine Art at Harvard and the Rhode Island School of Design before—like many artists of his generation—joining the army during the Second World War, serving as a medical illustrator.
He showed with Betty Parsons Gallery in Manhattan in the early 1950s, and was adopted into the Abstract Expressionist group. During the same period he met Jean Dubuffet in Paris, and became a devotee of his Art Brut aesthetic.
There was mutual respect: both Pollock and Dubuffet spent a lot of time at Ossorio’s East Hampton estate, called The Creeks, and Dubuffet wrote a book entitled Peintures initiatiques d’Alfonso Ossorio about Ossorio’s studio practice in 1952.
Yet their reputations have since eclipsed his. While Pollock and Dubuffet’s auction records are $58.4m and $24.8m respectively, Ossorio’s is $479,532, for Untitled (1951) at Christie’s Paris last December.
A critical and commercial reappraisal may be on the cards. Pollock and Ossorio were shown as peers and collaborators in the opening exhibition of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s downtown Manhattan space in 2015, when Number 14, 1953 (1953) by Ossorio was installed next to Pollock’s Number 27, 1950 (1950). Institutional support for Ossorio’s work is deep—more than 60 international collections such as the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art own examples.
Meanwhile, the Ossorio Foundation has collaborated on a current exhibition of paintings, sculptures and works on paper made by Ossorio over a 30-year period at Sotheby’s S|2 (“Alfonso Ossorio: Works from the Foundation” until 9 June).
The influence of Pollock and Dubuffet on Ossorio’s art is palpable; from early abstract canvases such as Persistence (1950) and wax-resist watercolors from the 1950s, including Golden Child, to radical mixed-media assemblages, called “congregations”, that he made in the 1970s. Yet in each of the works, such as Mother and Child (1972), in which he combined a wide array of objects into an intricate collage, we are reminded that he was an independently innovative artist whose legacy deserves reconsideration.