Angels, Demons, Savages: A Tale of Art and Culture

Last week I attended a gallery talk at the Phillips Collection here in Washington. The Philips is a private art gallery with a focus on modern art, one of the first private museums to open to the public in the US.

Their current special exhibition hits very close to home — quite literally. The exhibit explores the relationship between three mid-twentieth-century modern artists, Jackson Pollock, Jean Dubuffet, and Alfonso Ossorio. Ossorio, the lesser known of the three, was Filipino-American.

Original image by Renee Alfonso

The relationship between Pollock and Dubuffet is somewhat known throughout art history, but somehow Ossorio doesn’t get as much mention. Some of the interpretation in the exhibit cites his focus on being more of a collector as a probable cause of this oversight. The narrative brought to life a cross-cultural story that spanned continents, cultures, and the cultural phenomenon that was the abstract expressionist movement.

Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950. Jackson Pollock 1950.
Image courtesy National Gallery of Art

The exhibit format itself was a traditional art gallery fine art show, with the large and dynamic abstract expressionist pieces hung on white walls. In some instances smaller works were grouped together, but the larger works seemed to be the clear focus, and in some ways represented the overarching idea of the exhibit most clearly.

During a special night event at the museum, I attended a gallery talk given by one of the curators at the Phillips. While the talk was insightful however, I felt that it had too much of a formalist approach – focusing too much on the technicalities of fine art practice and art in itself, with little else interpretation.

Red Family Alfonso Ossorio 1951. Image courtesy Phillips Collection.

Paysage métapsychique (Metaphysical landscape) Jean Dubuffet 1952.
Image courtesy Phillips Collection.

That was perhaps the greatest unease I felt about the exhibit. While it certainly did bring to light a story that enriches the existing history of modern art, so much more could be extracted from the complex relationship of the three artists. From a more traditional standpoint, how the personal story and journey of Alfonso Ossorio also affected his work could have been fleshed out more to provide deeper, more riveting interpretation.

Culturally and socially rich stories told through art create the most interesting types of fine art exhibits in my view, and this exhibit is certainly not lacking depth. The overall experience however was entirely lackluster, and I wonder if those who visited and were unfamiliar with Ossorio will even remember his role in this story after they leave.

I would still recommend seeing this exhibit to those interested in this unique cross-cultural narrative that allows us to rethink our ideas about modern art and abstract expressionism. At its core, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, opening a dialogue for questions about the intersections of art, cultural exchange, and our interpretation of history.

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