The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2011

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MAR 2011 Issue

ESTEBAN VICENTE Concrete Improvisations: Collages and Sculpture

On View
Grey Art Gallery - New York University
January 11 – March 26, 2011
New York

“Labels” (1956). Colored paper, printed paper, ink, charcoal, gouache, and pastel on cardboard. 48 7/8 x 35 3/8 in. Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente, Segovia.
“Labels” (1956). Colored paper, printed paper, ink, charcoal, gouache, and pastel on cardboard. 48 7/8 x 35 3/8 in. Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente, Segovia.

Of  Spanish ancestry, Esteban Vicente (1903 – 2001) is a lesser-known but seminal member of the New York School. His masterful collages, which follow in the Spanish avant-garde tradition of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Juan Gris, now are reintroduced to the public at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, in the same neighborhood where the Ab-Ex revolution began (by way of the Cedar Tavern, the 9th Street Show, and the Club).

Vicente’s collages are an integration of painterly Spanish “disembellishment,” Cubist infrastructure, abstract colors, and the Ab-Ex process. Combining pigment, surface, canvas, and paper, Vicente transformed the physical proprieties of painting into a vision informed by a new spirituality. 

The exhibit focuses on 60 colored paper collages and 20 “found wood” sculpture-assemblages that together constitute a substantial part of his overall output (not counting the work he destroyed in his ultra-self-critical way). As an immigrant (he had left Franco’s Spain and moved to New York in 1936 with his first wife), Vicente was in the habit of reading daily newspapers to improve his English. By 1949, when he was a visiting professor at Berkley and far from his studio, he was using newspaper cutouts for art material. The first collages shown here date from that period, which is also when, back in New York, he rented a studio on East 10th Street, sharing the floor with Willem de Kooning. The masterpieces “Untitled” and “Labels” (both from 1956) are an homage to Gris’s “The Bottle of Anis del Mono” (1914), as well as to Sonia Delaunay-Terk, El Lissitzky, Kurt Schwitters, and Robert Motherwell, all of whom used labels, juxtapositions, and interplay of fields of abstract color in their collages to conjure a mysterious nostalgia.

Vicente was a curious cultural anthropologist, documenting all the levels of distortion that only inebriation from Old Quaker bourbon can produce (as evidenced by one of the labels in the “Untitled” collage). Trained as a sculptor, he broke up patches of color by cutting out abstract shapes and filling them with a differently colored paper.

He piled and layered abstract geometric shapes, torn by hand, from papers that had been pre-painted in matte tones and finishes, adding a gestural touch of a brush dipped in bright colors here and there, as if underscoring approximate shapes.

“Untitled (Divertimiento)” (c. 1968–97). Painted wood . 8 1/4 x 3 1/2 x 1 7/8 in.  Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente, Segovia.
“Untitled (Divertimiento)” (c. 1968–97). Painted wood . 8 1/4 x 3 1/2 x 1 7/8 in. Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente, Segovia.

Vicente revived the geometric collage à la Hans Arp and married it with action painting, breathing life into the forgotten art of “dreaming in colors” championed since 1936 by Alberto Magnelli in his color cut-ups. His friendship with American and Spanish poets also resulted in such collaborative works as a collage with jigsaw-shaped letters with lines of poetry by Antonio Machado, William Carlos Williams, and Dylan Thomas, several of which are on view here. He also collaborated with Peter Viereck, whose “Nostalgia” was Vicente’s contribution to the famous folio, 21 Etchings and Poems (1960). And before Andy Warhol got into the act, Vicente placed a Campbell’s Soup label in the center of a collage, next to a label for Carolina Rice, Domino Sugar, Del Monte, and Kraft Parmesan Cheese.

He also constructed small-scale assemblages called divertimientos (toys) from square bits of found wood in his Bridgehampton farmhouse-studio. These 20 mostly polychromatic freestanding sculptures are direct descendants of sculptural assemblages by Gino Severini, Man Ray, and Lawrence Vail, among others, and akin to compatriots Picasso and Eugenio Granell (another exile from Franco’s Spain).

Some divertimientos are covered completely with white plaster, such as two untitled works from 1968 – 95 and 1967 – 95, giving them a material allure. Other “toys” are hybrids of plastic and wood with architectonic elements, or in the shape of a human figure with its hands raised, as in the painted wood “Untitled (Divertimiento)” (1968 – 95). The multiple years printed on the labels of his assemblages are indicative of the way he would return to his whimsical improvisations several times over three decades, improving them each time.

André Breton, who discovered various American artists during his five-year hiatus in New York, once commented that Ab-Ex is the American “contribution to surrealism.” We could categorize some of Vicente’s works as surrealist, but the artist would have rejected such a label; in truth, he was an “action collagist.”

In a video assembled from photographic slides and an audio recording, we can see and hear the artist in his studio around 1964, pinning colored bits of paper to a cork bulletin board and changing the arrangement over and over until he was satisfied, explaining his process to an audience of high school students. 

"Untitled (Divertimiento)" (c. 1968-95). Painted wood with pastel crayons. 11 7/8 x 4 3/4 x 3 1/8 in. Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Esteban Vicente, Segovia.

“Collage, in this expressionist technique, is reduced to a non-ideological, purely physical process. If custom makes laws, then Vicente has quietly broken those of the collage. But are there any laws in this territory?” wrote Elaine de Kooning in ARTnews (September 1953), reproduced in the catalogue published by the Grey Art Gallery in collaboration with Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Esteban Vicente (a one-artist museum) in Segovia, and the State Corporation for Spanish Cultural Action Abroad, in conjunction with his retrospective.

Paired for the first time, Vicente’s collages and assemblages reveal compositions in which colors and shapes meld into each other, baroque amalgams with the startling effect of looking as if they were drawn directly onto paper or canvas. This exhibit offers a fresh perspective on Vicente’s work and his place in a tumultuous, revolutionary era.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2011

All Issues