Conrad Marca-Relli: The New York Years, 1945-1967by Craig Olson
Knoedler & Company, September 12- November 14, 2009
Conrad Marca-Relli was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1913 and died in Parma, Italy in 2000. The child of Italian immigrants, he was primarily a self-taught artist who received little formal training. After finishing high school in 1930, he studied for a year at the Cooper Union. He would go on to become a member of the New York School’s first generation, and a pioneer of what would come to be called Abstract Expressionism. During the Great Depression, Marca-Relli was employed as an artist through the federally funded Works Progress Administration, where he came into contact with fellow workers and progressive artists including Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and John Graham, who exposed him to the developing modernist ideas of the time.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Marca-Relli was actively involved in the avant-garde art world in Greenwich Village. He helped to found the now infamous artists’ group known as the “Eighth Street Club,” whose members included de Kooning, Kline, and Jack Tworkov, among others, and he assisted the art dealer Leo Castelli in the organization of the Ninth Street Show, arguably the first comprehensive display of Abstract Expressionist work. During these years, the artist’s achievements were widely recognized, and his paintings entered the collections of the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1951 he married Anita Gibson, the daughter of the Peruvian poet Percy Gibson, and the couple remained together until the artist’s death, at age 87. In 1953, he purchased a house near Jackson Pollock’s home in Springs, East Hampton. Three years later, it was Marca-Relli who identified Pollock’s body for the police after his fatal car accident.
This exhibition starts with work from the mid 40s, shortly after Marca-Relli’s service in the U.S. Army during World War II. There are surreal dreamscapes and circus themes, stacked and flattened buildings, shadow-faced human forms, and a horse—all with allusions to Giorgio de Chirico and Cézanne. It’s after 1953 that the artist’s most famous and groundbreaking body of work is developed—large-scale collages composed of cut and torn pieces of canvas, linen, burlap, or scrap metal, at times over-painted with loose brushstrokes. It’s this work that garnered the artist his first museum retrospective in 1967 at the Whitney. The show’s curator, William C. Agee, would write the often-quoted assertion that, “Conrad Marca-Relli’s achievement has been to raise collage to a scale and complexity equal to that of monumental painting.” A dubious accolade indeed.
Marca-Relli never exactly fit into any of the subsequent competing histories of American art. Not flat enough for the formalists, not impersonal enough for the minimalists, and not hands-off enough for the conceptualists. Outliving many of them, he rode the line of independent self-expression and artistic exploration with a natural volatility that lies outside the absolutes offered by the aforementioned parties. He said painting is “a continuous attempt at solving insoluble problems” and added, “You just keep working and you never get it clear to yourself.” He cut the shapes for his collages quickly and intuitively, the kind of automatic action favored by his contemporaries, and a method that allows for accident and gesture. By fixing and manipulating these shapes on a surface, the artist formulated a jigsaw mentality of give and take, an uroboric censure of forms. “Untitled” (1951), for example, is a swirling mass of absence and presence. No fixed identity can relax in the spaces offered here. Forms rise to the edge of perceptibility and recede into the fog of unknowing. Density and transparency play against edges both material and metaphorical, whose differences can only be detected through sudden, subtle shifts in direction. The entire surface of this image is marked by a series of black marks—the burnt-out reprise of silent action, or the physical insistence of a permeable identity.
It’s within these careful passions that this work seems most alive today, decades after its initial life. It gestures toward a selective surrender where some things must be denied entrance to the core of the self. Outside the confines of everything we think the work ought to be and inside the receptive phases of our imagination. It can approach and enter permeable identity and exit on the assertion of an active, autonomous, and idiosyncratic consciousness. Not the popular image of an image reimaged. Instead, it’s something more akin to mental compost, growing such sweet things out of such corruptions.