Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet at the Phillips Collection

Abstract Expressionism is forever the American art movement. Like the myth of the Old West, with its solitary heroes and uncompromising visions of greatness, it has become an archetype of the freedom, boldness and gut instinct brilliance that, despite doubts, convolutions and conflicting social mores, is synonymous with our Land of the Free.

Among the mystifying surface aspects of Abstract Expressionism, and one that also borrows from the Wild West playbook, is the seeming lack of narrative convention. It alludes to an intelligence of history from which it stands drastically apart, searching in its wildness for something new and bountiful that lies beyond the horizon.

There are many artistic predecessors of Abstract Expressionism—from the Russian painters Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, to the European surrealists and early American modernists like Arthur Dove—but for much of the American public around 1950 who had not been privy to this work, it was a cultural ambush. Picasso was still the apex of contemporary, and French Impressionism was still perfectly in fashion. Then Jackson Pollock walked through the door with his cowboy’s swagger and a cigarette dangling from his mouth like a weathervane and began flinging paint like he was fighting off demons.

The creative force of Abstract Expressionism impelled the global shift of artistic prominence from Europe to the United States, and its singular significance in shaping postwar American culture is widely noted. What is less broadly discussed, but equally important, is the movement’s effects on Europe, which up until then had been sole sovereign of its artistic legacy since before the Roman Empire.

At the Phillips Collection through May 12, “Angels, Demons and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet,” examines this transcontinental arc with a gorgeous exhibit that focuses on the relationship and mutual artistic influence between Pollock (1912-1956), the French painter Jean Dubuffet (1901-85), and Alfonso Ossorio (1916-1990), a lesser known American painter and collector who served as conduit and liaison. Featuring major works by all three artists, as well as ample prints, drawings and works on paper, “Angels, Demons and Savages” takes its audience into the rapidly evolving process of these artists during the postwar period of 1945 to 1958.

The great thing about Pollock’s representation in this show is how clearly his process and influences are displayed. Pollock has become an artistic entity since his death, referenced more frequently as a signifier than a painter. Here he is shown not as Pollock the myth, but as Pollock the artist, with drawings, prints and collages exhibiting a deeper contemplation and calculation behind his work than his adulated drip paintings allow.

A small, untitled ink drawing shows a paw-like foot in the bottom corner spiraling out of a tornado-like black mass. Here Pollock’s exalted slashes and curls are more determined, coming not from the unrestrained momentum of a paint-sopped mixing stick, but executed directly by hand. This and other stylized figurative works on paper illuminate his ongoing pursuit of figural expression, as well as his compositional tendencies, which owe greatly to Eastern calligraphy and tapestries.

It is worth noting, however, that Pollock’s large drip canvases on display are still among the most stunning painterly opuses ever created. They are even more powerful when displayed beside Dubuffet’s soil-deep landscapes.

A master of surface texture and comic brutality, Dubuffet, with his signature “low art” art brut style, simultaneously lambasted and reinvigorated the European scene. Dubuffet littered his paints with sand, tar, rocks pebbles and other earthy materials, and his subject matter at the time walked a fine line between abstraction and visual mockery. The result was as if all the landscapes and portrait studies from the previous centuries were scorched and burned, and all that remained were ashes and mutilated fragments, completely unraveled and deformed.

More so than Pollock or Dubuffet, Ossorio is was driven to implement his philosophy and intellect directly into his work. Like the surrealists that influenced him, he was interested in the idea of art as actively permeating the subconscious. He was a technical dynamo—he worked as a medical illustrator during the war—and his smaller works are like ghoulish illustrations. His paintings, whether figurative or abstract, are like gaping holes in the earth, out from which the core boils. He contained and manipulated his expressions and gestures impressively, turning drips into faces or bodies, as if taming an explosion.

Early into their developments, Pollock, Dubuffet and Ossorio all mastered the understanding of a structure and insistency that thread their oeuvres together. There is a successful suggestion, if nebulous, that finds the proper marriage of mood, color, tone and style.

The artistic and conversational exchanges between these three artists can be traced throughout the rest of cultural history up until now—our collective appreciation of overcoming traditional boundaries and ceaseless interest in innovation that has now reached a subliminal level can probably find its roots in the unpredictable art of the 1950s. As the focal point of the art world shifted from Europe to America, the exchange between these protagonists helped bridge the ever-widening gap between the continents and paved the road for generations to come.

“Angels, Demons and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet” at the Phillips through May 12.

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