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The Nomadic Brush

John Grillo’s work, rooted in Bay Area abstraction, has followed its own migratory path over the painter’s almost 80-year-long career.

John Grillo, Untitled, 1946, watercolor on paper, 15 x 18 inches

John Grillo, Untitled, 1946, watercolor on paper, 15 x 18 inches

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In life as well as art, John Grillo was something of a nomad. His penchant for frequent changes of location was notable, especially given the fact that the majority of other artists in his generation preferred to identify their practices with one or two cities for the duration of their careers. Grillo’s periodic change of location usually prompted changes in style and subject that were sometimes quite abrupt, but even when he sustained a stylistic focus, it was oftentimes marked by a fluid and casual attitude that preferred an elegant and slightly evasive lyricism to any overdramatic rigidity. Indeed, from the very beginning, Grillo’s work relied on the sensuality of pure color and the subtle evocations of fluid paint manipulation, attributes that set his paintings apart from the Sturm und Drang that characterized the work of the majority of artists associated with Abstract Expressionism.

Grillo worked as a mature artist in at least six different places before he finally settled into his current studio in Wellfleet, Mass., where he continues to live and work at the age of 96. He was born in a small town near Lowell, Mass., finding his way in 1935 to the Hartford Academy of Fine Art in Connecticut. It was then that Grillo was initially exposed to the spectacular collection of paintings at the Wadsworth Atheneum, prompting the young artist to specialize in portraits as well as scenes depicting the Depression era’s poor and dispossessed. In 1939, he painted a large mural depicting a family of three sitting down to dinner with no food on their plates, evoking the same pathos-inflected social poetics that we might associate with the work of Honoré Daumier.

Soon after the United States entered World War II, Grillo enlisted in the Navy and was eventually assigned to duty on Okinawa, where he continued to paint and draw scenes of everyday life in and near the bases where he was stationed. He also spent some influential time in Shanghai, China, where he was exposed to Asian art and Buddhist temples. After the conclusion of hostilities, Grillo was discharged in San Francisco in 1946, where he decided to parlay his GI Bill benefits into advanced study at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Beginning in the fall, he spent two remarkable years there developing an advanced, unique and mature style of abstract painting that was buoyed by the school’s remarkable learning environment, which was in so many ways the product of the transformative leadership exerted by the school’s director, Douglas MacAgy.

MacAgy’s hiring of Clyfford Still in 1945 is the most oft-cited example of that transformation, and it is certainly true that Still exerted a powerful influence over many of the school’s students and faculty. But MacAgy’s grand plan didn’t end with Still. He also hired several other artists of note, including Ansel Adams, who founded the first fine-art photography program in the world in 1946. That same year, Sidney Peterson initiated the Workshop 20 film collaborations, fostering innovative work in the area of experimental cinema. To act as a counterbalance to Still’s commanding and often bombastic personality, MacAgy hired Henry Miller confidant Jean Varda, who, shared a houseboat-studio docked in Sausalito called The Vallejo with Gordon Onslow Ford. Like Ford, Varda had spent time in Paris before the war, and both were on familiar terms with André Breton’s circle of Surrealists. Because of this background, Varda contributed a playful and worldly attitude to the school, emphasizing collage processes and a bright, ebullient chromaticism that Still despised because he thought it to be excessively “French.”

Although Grillo did take a class from Mark Rothko in 1947, he never studied with Still. He also worked with David Park and Elmer Bischoff, as well as Hassel Smith and Clay Spohn, the latter also having spent some time amidst Parisian Surrealists in the late 1920s. In an interview conducted by Dorothy Seckler in 1964, Grillo is quoted as saying “I painted with Hassel Smith and Clay Spohn. Clay Spohn was the most influential because he was completely free. He would want you—he gave no real principles. He simply encouraged you, which was very helpful.” Indeed, the anarchic influence exerted by Spohn seems to be an important key to understanding subsequent development of Grillo’s work, because Spohn himself eschewed stylistic consistency and was nothing if not iconoclastic. In so many subtle ways, he was the earliest avatar of a brash and irreverent style that, almost two decades later, would be said to typify the unique characteristics of northern California painting and sculpture. This is the movement that was called “Funk” in a landmark exhibition curated by Peter Selz in 1967. Funk is “hot rather than cool; committed rather than disengaged, wrote Selz in his catalogue essay. It is “bizarre rather than formal; it is sensuous; and frequently it is quite ugly and ungainly.” Northern California Funk was, in fact, the most ambitious, searching and distinctly American advancement and transformation of the “marvelous” aspirations of pre-war Surrealism to have taken place anywhere in the postwar period.

Grillo is often credited as being the most purely gestural of the painters associated the late 1940s heyday of abstract expression at the CSFA. But purity of gesture aside, the fact was that, even though Grillo’s work from the mid to late ’40s was abstract, it remained much more rooted in Surrealist automatism than that of many of his San Francisco compatriots, even as many of those artists also tended to be somewhat more indebted to Surrealism than their better-known counterparts associated with the New York School. According to Breton, automatism was a technique very much like psychoanalytic free association, its purpose being to loosen the control of the conscious mind so that archetypical images emanating from the subconscious depths could come to the fore, casting the artist’s role as one of psychic switchboard operator rather than purposeful artificer. It was this aspect of Surrealism that was particularly influential in the work of artists such as Joan Miró and André Masson, and it also informed the collage practices of other artists such as Max Ernst and Joseph Cornell. It almost goes without saying that it was also the aspect of Surrealism that was most enthusiastically embraced by many first-generation Abstract Expressionist artists working on both coasts.

During the two years that he spent at the CSFA, Grillo carried the automatist emphasis on spontaneity forward, but also took it in a unique direction by imbuing it with ebullient color and an anxiety-free lyricism. This is clearly evidenced by the many watercolor and gouache works on paper that he executed during the period, all emphasizing the lyrical flow of diluted paint, the lively interplay of vibrant color and the canny enlivenment provided by graphite and charcoal linear elements that often seem to coalesce into mysterious pictograms. The compositions of these works had an off-kilter and rootless aspect that made them seem indifferent to any purposeful confrontation with the finitude of the pictorial rectangle, that being the hallmark of the “existential” aspects of the Abstract Expressionist ethos. Running counter to that mandate, Grillo’s paintings demonstrated that you could paint in an Abstract Expressionist style without embracing the Abstract Expressionist ethos of “confrontation with the canvas.” Thus, Grillo’s work could be seen as anticipating the much later work of artists such as Jay DeFeo and Elizabeth Murray, not to mention the recent explorations in painterly abbreviation that the critic Raphael Rubenstein has called “provisional painting.”

The key point here is that Grillo’s work deviated from the program of Bay Area Abstract Expressionism as much as it participated in it, this by way of emphasizing a lighter and more supple painterly touch that announced its playful indifference to the muddy color and tar-like surfaces favored by most of his peers. And within that lightness of touch, as well as in his provisional compositional structures, we see the beginning of a nomad’s approach to organizing painterly and pictorial space, which emphasized the free interplay of color and atmosphere while minimizing any reliance on structured composition. But in 1948, Grillo again changed locations, and this led to a change in his work. He moved to the East Coast, with the intent of studying with Hans Hofmann in both New York and in Provincetown during the summers. It would soon become clear that both artists had a lot in common, especially in terms of their attitudes about color modulation and the seeking of ideal relationships between bold gestures and precisely organized pictorial structure. Also, it seems that at this time Grillo was looking for a way to give his compositions some more stability, and Hofmann’s doctrine of color-form composition may have represented a way to achieve that end.

It might seem odd that Grillo would leave the CSFA at that very moment when all of MacAgy’s curricular designs were reaching their zenith of public recognition, but Grillo was never one to follow any crowd, and at that moment, it clearly had become Still’s crowd. Also, another possible reason for his move was that it took place the same year that Hofmann originally published his collected lectures under the title The Search for The Real. Even if Grillo had not read the book, he most certainly would have heard about it, since the book been given a laudatory notice by Clement Greenberg in The Nation. Fifteen years earlier, Hoffman himself had taught at UC Berkeley, leaving behind several former students such as Worth Ryder and Erle Loran, both eager proponents of Hofmann’s ideas about pictorial plasticity, which were characterized as being more derived from Cézanne and Cubism rather than from anything related to Surrealism.

In fact, during the mid-1960s, Grillo himself came to teach at the UC Berkeley Department of Art Practice for a brief period, although by that time he had almost completely worked through Hofmann’s influence to paint a series of expansive color fields featuring lustrous oscillations of bright yellow. These works reached back to the Impressionist’s fascination with light and atmosphere, directly addressing sheer, unmediated visual pleasure.

Grillo joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1967, teaching there until he retired in 1991. During much of that time, he made abstract paintings that featured geometric configurations, some of which evoke elements of the landscape. But starting in 1973, Grillo’s work suddenly lurched toward figuration, in some ways coming full circle to the social realism that preoccupied him during his early years at the Hartford Academy. In fact, he painted another major mural on the university campus, the subject being an honorific portrayal of the poet Emily Dickinson. But Grillo’s new figurative work also revealed a strong expressionist influence, often focusing on the subject of grotesque circus performers in a way that echoed Max Beckmann’s explorations of similar subjects. For a brief time, Grillo abandoned color, choosing to work exclusively in black and white.

But he could not stay away from color for long, and when it returned in the early 1980s, it did so in a very dramatic way. He was still preoccupied with figures cast in the roles of circus performers, but when color returned, the figures seemed much less expressionistic and much more of a piece with the French tradition of late modernist figuration exemplified by such artists and Balthus and Picasso, not to mention the painters associated with the Italian transavanguardia such as Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente.

Grillo’s late figurative work often focused on the portrayal of large, full figured women, oftentimes centrally featured in multi-figure compositions. In these works, the term “voluptuous” rushes to the fore, not only as a way of describing the Rubenesque physical attributes of Grillo’s subjects but also the ebullient lushness of the palette with which he worked, itself evolving out of the lively abstractions that he painted just prior to turning toward the figure.

After 1991, Grillo moved to Wellfleet. The move precipitated a gradual return to abstraction, and it is interesting to see in what ways the most recent paintings come full circle to his earlier preoccupations from the late 1940s. In these most recent works, we still see the lightness of touch and the generosity of color that have always been hallmarks of Grillo’s work, with the only difference being the embrace of the kind of mature understatement that grows out of a prolonged immersion in the studio experience.

By Mark Van Proyen

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: September 2013

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