In his fluid, luminous paintings and collages, Esteban Vicente conjured an aesthetic utopia.
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For decades, the New York art world has been defined by ever-shifting borders. Art neighborhoods come and go—and sometimes return. The East Village scene of the 1980s is presently enjoying a rerun just a few blocks to the south, in the Lower East Side’s burgeoning cluster of young galleries. In this shifting geography it is nearly impossible to keep track of any given era’s stylistic currents and crosscurrents, much less render confident judgments about the value of what we see.
What, in the Chelsea of 1998, was of lasting importance? Of all that is on view in the Bushwick of this very moment, what will be remembered even a decade from now? It was not always thus. In 1950, members of the New York art world knew what counted. And they knew it with a confidence nearly unimaginable now.
In the years after the Second World War, the New York dealers who showed painting by the American avant-garde numbered less than a handful—besides the legendary Betty Parsons there were only Lou Pollock, of the Peridot Gallery, Richard Egan and Samuel Kootz. Talent 1950, a group show at the Kootz Gallery, featured a high percentage of artists who became historical figures, among them Elaine de Kooning, Larry Rivers, Al Leslie, Hyde Solomon, Manny Farber, Franz Kline and Esteban Vicente—the last of these a perfect illustration of a point the critic Harold Rosenberg made in “The American Action Painters,” an essay published by Artnews in 1951.
In those days, New York was taking the place of Paris as capital of the avant-garde. Surveying the artists who were carrying out this historic usurpation, Rosenberg said that a member of the New York “vanguard” is typically “not a young painter but a reborn one. The man may be over forty, the painter around seven.” What he meant was that the most adventurous New Yorkers, soon to be gathered under the big tent of “Abstract Expressionism,” had arrived at their signature styles only very recently. Of all these late arrivals, Vicente’s was perhaps the latest. His first mature paintings—abstractions serenely quivering with pictorial incident—did not appear until 1948 or ’49. By then he was nearly 50 years old.
Born in 1903, in a small town in the province of Segovia, Spain, Vicente grew up in Madrid. Among his earliest memories were visits to the Prado with his father, a former army officer who had taken a job with the Bank of Spain. At the age of 17, Vicente gave military school a try but left after three months to enroll in Madrid’s Royal Academy of Beaux-Arts. He had taken classes there the previous year and would return to the Academy a decade later, even though he had by then exhibited his paintings in Madrid and Barcelona. Vicente spent most of 1929 in Paris, where he visited Pablo Picasso in his studio in the rue la Boétie. Returning to Paris in 1930, he met the Surrealist Max Ernst and showed his work in the Salon des Surindépendants. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he returned to Madrid. After a stint as a camouflage painter with the Republican forces, he left for New York, where he settled on Minetta Lane, in Greenwich Village.
Though he occasionally exhibited during this period, Vicente was dissatisfied with his work. Experiments with Cubism and Surrealism had not led him in productive directions, and it seemed, for a time, that he would settle into a marginal position as a competent practitioner lightly touched by modernism. Then came the transformation that won Vicente a place in Talent 1950, at the Kootz Gallery, and in that year’s Whitney Annual. Dramatic developments like these are ultimately inexplicable, and yet the ferment of the New York art scene in the late 1940s was surely a factor in Vicente’s case. In those years he met and got to know the work of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and other members of the generation that still stands as the most significant in the history of American art. As the 1950s began, Vicente had earned a place in their never very orderly ranks with the flat, luminous forms and calmly magisterial gestures that he would deploy, with inexhaustible freshness, until his death in 2001.
A charter member of the artists’ Club, that casual but crucial meeting place on 8th Street, Vicente also served on the committee that organized the 9th Street show of 1951—a sprawling display of the various trends and tendencies that had attracted the “Abstract Expressionist” label. Though great billows of all-American rhetoric helped this movement find a secure place on the map of postwar culture, its deepest roots were in European modernism. Moreover, several of its leading figures were born outside the United States. In addition to Vicente, there were Rothko (born in Russia), de Kooning (the Netherlands), Arshile Gorky (Armenia), Hans Hofmann (Germany), and the gestural sculptor Ibram Lassaw (Alexandria, Egypt). Perhaps the time has come see Abstract Expressionism as an international style that needed the openness and the energy of New York, that international city, to emerge and flourish in all its exuberant variety.
Undeniably an abstract painter, Vicente is an expressionist only if we apply the term with a degree of latitude. Glowing with an atmosphere uniquely its own, each of his canvases evokes—and celebrates—a distinct place in the geography of his imagination. To immerse ourselves in one of these fields of color is to sense the joy the artist felt as he realized his vision of this place, yet it doesn’t seem quite right to say that his art expresses that emotion—or any other. Vicente doesn’t send us messages about the state of his feelings. Rather, he presents us with images that stir in us feelings that range from joyful pleasure to quiet surprise.
For all the recognizability of Vicente’s mature style, there is nothing predictable in his modulations of hue, line and space. And no one, not even the artist himself, could have known that he would subject the medium of collage to a thoroughgoing transformation. The process began in 1949, with Vicente traveling westward to spend a semester as a visiting professor at the Berkeley campus of University of California. As Elaine de Kooning tells the story in “Vicente Paints a College,” an essay in the September 1953 issue of Artnews, he arrived on campus ahead of his studio supplies and could not replace them. It was Sunday and all the shops were closed. Unwilling to sit idle, he cut up the colored pages of a Sunday newspaper supplement and arranged the fragments in a composition that morphed a bit later into a painting. Within a few seasons, collage had become central to his oeuvre. In a statement published by the magazine It Is in 1958, Vicente said, “I prefer to think of collage as another mode of painting rather than a separate limited and confined media.” As de Kooning pointed out in her Artnews essay, this was a quietly renegade position with a surprising impact on the very idea of collage.
The medium was born in 1912 when Georges Braque or possibly Picasso—historians are still contesting the point—pasted a piece of paper to the surface of a painting. Thus a bit of the real world, a small but palpable fact, disrupts the coherence of a pictorial fiction. In de Kooning’s phrase, collage is an art of “abrupt jumps.” Vicente, however, had no use for abruptness. Nor was he interested in collage’s tendency to emphasize the physical surface of an image. Rather than work with scraps of newsprint and other found materials, Vicente covered pieces of drawing paper with monochrome coats of paint. Tearing them into strips and patches of color, he provided himself with paper fragments that function like brushstrokes. Thus his collages are as fluid as his paintings, and their depths are as invitingly luminous. In the late 1960s, he extended his collage-method into three dimensions with small assemblages of wood, called Divertimientos. These are accomplished forays into the realm of sculpture, yet Vicente’s was a pictorial sensibility. What mattered chiefly for him was the image that challenges us to create a third dimension in the course of looking. And that image could be a painting or a collage. As de Kooning notes, when we look at Vicente’s work “from a distance or in reproduction,” it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference.
Collage appeared as a challenge to the settled premises of painting. In the hands of a Dadaist like Kurt Schwitters or a Surrealist like Max Ernst, it becomes an attack on painting’s continued existence. Yet Vicente saw the two mediums as compatible—nearly identical twins with complementary possibilities. Likewise, line and plane merge and change places in Vicente’s images, as do solid and void. Acquiring a tranquil grandeur in his best works, these reconciliations seem to have had an influence on his early critics—even Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, who disagreed about nearly everything. Nonetheless, it was Greenberg, along with the scholar Meyer Schapiro, who selected Vicente for the Kootz show in 1950, and Rosenberg singled him out as “one of the leaders in creating and disseminating” Abstract Expressionism. Perhaps it was the serenity of Vicente’s compositions that ushered these belligerents into a state of détente—on the subject of his art, at any rate.
Though it is abstract, the generative energy of Vicente’s forms evoke—one might say that they represent—the fecundity of life itself. It is tempting to conclude that Vicente lived through his art. To paint was not merely his vocation but the medium of his existence, and so his style continued to develop until the end of his long life. The contrast with the art and life of his fellow Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko is instructive. Toward the end of the 1960s, Rothko had begun to feel trapped by his best known achievement—the large purple canvases that, despite their darkness, open onto luminous depths. The demand for these works was high and, though Rothko desperately wanted to move on, he found that he could only repeat himself. The achievement of a signature image brought with it a paralysis that, exacerbated by other factors, drove him to suicide. This is a tragic story, in many ways the opposite of Vicente’s. Now, the opposite of tragedy is comedy, and yet “comic” is not a word that attaches itself to Vicente’s art or his life. What we need is a word for a way of being—and of creating—that transcends the opposition of tragedy and comedy. “Pastoral” suggests itself, though several qualifications are necessary.
According to the poet Alexander Pope, writing in 1717, the “pastoral is an image of what they call the Golden age,” a time of shepherds and shepherdesses at peace—and occasionally in love—amid the beauties of a bucolic paradise. The harmony and happiness that pervade a poem or a painting in the pastoral mode are of course imaginary—the products of wish-fulfillment, it might be said, and yet it would be just as reasonable to say that a pastoral poem by Pope or a painting of Arcadia by Claude Lorrain presents a rural utopia as a model for emulation. Let us see, the pastoralist suggests, if we can’t make ordinary life more like this—less hectic, more graceful and possibly even more humane. Suggestions like these became avant-garde directives in the rhetoric of utopian modernists like Piet Mondrian, of de Stijl, and the “form-masters” of the Bauhaus. They, of course, proposed an urban pastoral: the metropolis made livable by a perfectly balanced blend of beauty and functionality. Vicente, too, is an urban pastoralist, but in a gestural style far removed from the geometries of de Stijl and the Bauhaus.
His urbanity shows in the sophistication of his pictorial decisions—which translucent maroon to play off a cloudy gray, which line to set afloat in a billowing field of orange and which to tie to a hint of architectural structure. To trace these choices is not merely to carry out an exercise in formal analysis. It is to engage with the artist’s feelings, his presence, for Vicente made no pictorial move that was not motivated by his need for an all-encompassing resolution of contraries. His oeuvre is a paradise where beauty comes alive not only to itself but to its limitations. For Vicente offered his art not in the naïve expectation that it would rid life of its imperfections, but, rather, with a deep understanding that only in the realm of the aesthetic is perfection imaginable.
By Carter Ratcliff