Concrete Improvisations: Collages and Sculpture by Esteban Vicente
Esteban Vicente in America: Collage, Color, and Somewhere In Between
May 15 – July 31, 2011
Concrete Improvisations: Collages and Sculpture by Esteban Vicente at the Meadows Museum is an impressive and comprehensive (80 works dating from the last half of the 20th century) show dedicated to the collage and sculpture work of Abstract Expressionist-era powerhouse Esteban Vicente.
The exhibition is curated by Dr. Lynn Gumpert, director of New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, Dr. Ana Martínez de Aguilar, director of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente, Segovia, and Dr. Edward J. Sullivan, the Helen Gould Sheppard Professor of the History of Art at NYU.
In an adjacent gallery hangs Esteban Vicente in America: Collage, Color, and Somewhere In Between, a companion exhibit that puts Vicente into context with his peers and protégés. It’s an exceptional addition to Concrete Improvisations.
If you’re unfamiliar, Esteban Vicente was an American artist born in Spain in 1903. Although 20 years younger than Pablo Picasso, you’ll notice the similarities in their life scripts – born in Spain, early adulthood spent in Paris (the center of the art world at the time), departure from Spain in protest of the Spanish Civil War. But where Picasso spends the rest of his life in France, Vicente and his American wife move to New York and Vicente spends the rest of his life in America. He died in 2001 but worked right up to his death. The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente, in his Spanish hometown of Segovia, exhibited work executed from 1999 and 2000 (his 97th and 98th year of life!) as “Color is Light.”
Vicente taught painting at a number of colleges and universities over the second half of his life – he was called “the best painting teacher in the United States” – but he always maintained his home and studio in Binghamton, New York.
He was a part of the New York School – an informal group of vanguard artists, poets, writers, dancers, and musicians working in the 50s and 60s in New York. Contemporaries were visual artists Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell; poets and writers (“the beats”) Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs; composers Phillip Glass and John Cage; the Judson Dance Theater, choreographers Martha Graham and Paul Taylor; and jazz artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, and Thelonious Monk. Quite the company of interesting friends!
Vicente spent the first half of his life as a landscape and portrait painter. It’s notable that his first collage was done when he was almost 50 years old! As a late bloomer myself, I find this incredible body of work – literally a lifetime’s worth – done from ages 50 to 98 – very inspiring indeed.
Enter the Meadow’s large gallery upstairs and to your left to find the title wall of the show center stage with a large portrait of the Hollywood handsome Vicente. Walk quickly around the room scanning dates and you’ll see the work is organized by decade.
More work waits for you in the smaller adjacent galleries on each side. Finally, behind the large gallery are ephemera from Vicente’s extraordinary career including show announcements, personal letters from life-long friends, photographs, and more. Located here, too, are a series of small sculptures (“divertimientos” or toys).
Off the back gallery a 1964 filmstrip featuring Vicente runs continuously. It is composed of a series of photographs depicting a mature Vicente working on a collage. What’s really interesting is hearing his voice – a booming bass with a delightful Spanish accent – and listening to him talking about his process and his philosophy about creating art. He is dynamic when discussing his collages – how tone, color, and all the purest elements complement each other. He explains that artists must first learn to draw what they see around them and later develop the skill of portraying a “sensation.”
The earliest collages in the show are more monochromatic and smaller than his later works. In Untitled, 1951, Vicente glues lots of small, cut pieces to his canvas. The pieces appear sharp and the entire piece looks like shattered glass. His early palette is often black, shades of gray, shades of cream, and maybe kraft paper-brown. Interestingly, he continues to work with this palette most of his life – even while other works burst into color – in fact, establish him as a purist color genius!)
You’ll notice in some of the earlier work a certain lack of negative space or “white space.” The canvases are full from edge to edge and as such and lack a strong focal point. In this way, they are reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings – a contemporary in both time and company.
The show contains a nice cluster of collages from the mid- to late-1950s. These pieces seem cluttered and chaotic in comparison to his later work. You’ll notice the size of the cut pieces – they’re still smaller than in his later pieces and the surface is much more irregular – there is a good deal of overlap which makes the surface “thicker.” The texture created by these layers and the wrinkles created by the glue are aspects of his work that disappears as his style matures, simplifies, and becomes more serene.
A couple of these works (Labels, 1956 and Untitled, 1956) use everyday item labels as one of the types of applied paper. You and I are used to seeing everyday objects portrayed as art (beginning a decade later with Warhol and the entire “pop art” movement), but this must have been daring work indeed in 1956. It’s interesting to see enduring products and logos over 50 years later, although I’m sure that’s an unintended consequence. Vicente seems to be saying, “Look, I can create art with common paper labels found in my kitchen!” The traditionalists must have rolled their eyes – which makes Vicente an even more likeable fellow.
He uses paint in these collages too – eventually he began to paint paper and then cut or tear it to create his work. He explains in the filmstrip that this practice allows him full control of his color.
Look at the difference in a representative work from just 13 years later. Just a few large pieces of painted paper; torn not cut; softer and quieter. His color sense is very pure and very joyful. You’ll see many works from the 60s through the 90s with these delicious summer colors.
What I most loved about the story told by the almost five decades of work exhibited here was the story of an artist continuing to learn and develop, continuing to experiment. In the work we watch a man growing older, more confident, more content, more serene. The works of his old age are happy dreamy works – and unlike many of his contemporaries whose professional lives burned out, Vicente is a role model for the productive aging artist.
Before I get too sentimental, here’s an example of one of his “toys.” These little sculptures were presumably formed out of found objects in his studio. While these were made just to amuse himself, you can see the care he took in constructing and painting them. What fantastic large-format public art these would make! The toys are further evidence that Vicente was an artist because he saw art in everything and he “couldn’t not” be an artist. Notice how cubist in style these are – and think about how Vicente’s early years in cubist dominated Europe continued to influence him his whole life.
While you’re enjoying the Meadows, you must walk across the hall to see the companion exhibit Esteban Vicente in America: Collage, Color, and Somewhere In Between. The exhibit opines that Vicente became enraptured with collage due to his European Cubist roots and their interest in collage; also that at the time, collage was barely considered a decorative art form – certainly not fine art – and as such, had no rules. In many ways, Vicente pioneered the modern multimedia approach to art we now see everywhere.
This show contains two really lovely late Vicente paintings from when the artist was in his nineties. They are evidence of that first posthumous show, Color is Light, at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente. The two (Horizon, 1995 and Untitled #9, 1998) are misty, dreamy, delicately painted color showcases. They are the type of works you’d never get tired of looking if you owned them.
And finally, another great Esteban Vincente painting, this one from 1966, the virile and bullish Untitled, 1966 (P66 – 01). It hangs next to a Rothko and has a similar style, but the color! The palette is bold masculine blue, rust, olive and violet and makes no apologies.
This show provides context to Vicente’s roots, his influences, his contemporaries and protégés. It leaves you wanting to see more of Vicente’s work, which I’d say, means that it does its job!
Esteban Vicente was an artist’s artist – an innovator, a teacher, an example of how to live a full and long life. The shows really are magnificent and I highly recommend you spend an afternoon enjoying them.