While at his death at the age of 97 Esteban Vicente had always been considered one of the core members of the New York School, the current exhibition of his work at the Parrish Museum in Southampton illustrates that in certain areas, Vicente’s approaches and painterly priorities often placed him at odds with central tenets of what we now consider abstract expressionism.
Perhaps most immediately, Vicente deviated from the norms in that, rather than complete spontaneity wrought by sheer impulse through unconscious motivations, he strove to constantly maintain a measure of deliberate structure and order in the manner he organized the picture plane. Constantly seeking to conceptually explain complex images in terms of simplified structures, over time his gestural approach became more refined, allowing the nuanced juxtaposition of elements to create extremely subtle rhythms in which shape, light and pigment combine to orchestrate the works’ compositional flow and visual impact.
Born in 1903 in Turegano, Spain, Vicente enrolled at Madrid’s Real Academia de Bellas Artes where he originally studied sculpture before switching to representational painting, later commenting on the switch that he “always made the heads too small anyway.” During this period, he also became involved in the “Generation of 27”, an influential group of avant-garde poets and artists that included Óscar Domínguez, Luis Buñuel, and the painter and sculptor Maruja Mallo before he moved to New York in 1936 during the Spanish American War.
By the late 1940’s, Vicente had moved completely away from his more representational works and was committed to exploring abstraction, looking for inspiration towards American Modernists such as John Marin, Arthur Dove, and Marsden Hartley, as well as Hans Hoffman, all of whom influenced Vicente’s integration of subtle gradations of color as a means of conveying both concrete form as well as emotional content.
Interestingly, these influences were to continue throughout his life and career, with the earliest works in the exhibition containing many of the same pictorial elements and overtones that are present in many of the more recent paintings. In “Untitled” (oil on canvas, 1950), for example, the analytical use of pigment is employed to define form as suggestive and luminous splashes of color and also serves to define a rhythmic sense of space within the confines of the picture plane. Moving chronologically forward, these same techniques and approaches are continued throughout as is evidenced in paintings such as “Number 8” (oil on canvas, 1958), “Untitled No. 5” (oil on canvas, 1961), or “Symphony” (oil on canvas, 1996).
Towards the end, as he sought even more simplified forms as the work evolved, echoes of his American Modernist antecedents became even more pronounced in works such as “Countryside” and “Color Luz” (both oil on canvas, 1999) which are redolent of Milton Avery in their luminous use of light and color which is both boldly gestural and poetically melodic.
Additionally, offered as part of the exhibition are a selection of more than 30 works on paper by Vicente’s close friends from the East End, colleagues from the famed New York artist group known as “The Club”, and former students from his over 30 years of teaching as a founding member of the New York Studio School. Including works by Chuck Close, James Brooks, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Alfonso Ossorio among others, the emphasis is less on the aesthetic connections between these artists and Vicente than the fact that they all were part of a rather unique and dramatic chapter in the history of contemporary art. (This is particularly apparent by the inclusion of a work by Salvadore Dali, who was associated with Vicente from art school in Madrid but for whom, due to Dali’s fealty to the Fascist Generalissimo Franco, was someone that Esteban vocally derided and truly despised).
Also included in the exhibition at the Parrish, are large-scale color images from 1993 of Vicente by photographer Laurie Lambrecht that chronicles a day in the life of the artist’s studio along with a video, together providing an existential snapshot into Vicente’s approach to art and painting.
The exhibition at the Parrish Museum in Southampton titled “Esteban Vicente: Portrait of an Artist” continues through April 10.