The 1950s were an explosive period in American art. It was then that New York became the preeminent center of the art world and abstract expressionism synonymous with the avant-garde. In fact, abstract expressionism had such an overwhelming critical hold on the definition of art in the fifties that the contributions of many contemporaneous figurative expressionists had been obscured completely or represented as less rigorous until not too long ago. Countering the prevailing trend of complete abstraction, many of the New York School painters, including such artists as Robert Goodnough, Grace Hartigan, Larry Rivers, and, most prominently, Willem de Kooning, who worked with the figure, did so not to contradict abstraction but to extend it. Klaus Kertess noted in his 1988 essay “The Other Tradition” that, as a matter of fact for de Kooning, “abstraction and figuration were not mutually exclusive, just as easel scale and mural scale were not.”
For many decades the story of abstract expressionism¾America’s first truly international art mode¾has been bound up with the careers and lifestyles of about a dozen artists who exhibited in New York in the ’40s. But in the past twenty or so years, many art historians have reconsidered the history of the movement by investigating ignored artists. Ann Eden Gibson, for instance, cites social, philosophical, psychological, and political reasons in her book Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics (1999) for the exclusion of certain artists’ work from the canon. In her survey, New York School Abstract Expressionists: Artists Choice by Artists: A Complete Documentation of the New York Painting and Sculpture Annuals; 1951–1957 (2000), Marika Herskovic documents 265 artists participating in these important annual exhibitions that featured the best of art happening in New York City at the time.
One of these underrepresented figurative expressionist members of the New York School featured in Herskovic’s book is Salvatore Grippi, who was born in 1921 in Buffalo. After participating in the major invasions in Europe during World War II, Grippi came back to New York and attended the Art Students League under the G.I. Bill from 1945 to 1948. From 1951 to 1953, Grippi was at Atelier 17, the famous printmaking studio run by British artist Stanley William Hayter, who taught printmaking to Pollock and Rothko, among many other abstract expressionists. (Grippi would later contribute an etching to the well-known portfolio Twenty-One Etchings and Poems , including work by such artists and poets as Frank O’Hara, Franz Kline, Grippi’s brother Peter Grippe, and Dylan Thomas.) From 1953 to 1955, Grippi worked in Florence, Italy, with the support of a Fulbright Scholarship. He taught for several years at the Cooper Union Art School before moving to California to teach at Pomona College. In 1968, Grippi was asked to start the art department at Ithaca College and taught there until 1991. He still maintains a studio in Ithaca.
This compact exhibition of Grippi’s work includes still life and figure abstractions from the 1940s to the ’80s and works as recent as 2009 that demonstrate the artist’s continued interest in those themes that had their origin and were intensified by Grippi’s experiences in World War II. A sense of human conflict and existential angst is particularly evident in Grippi’s early abstracted figure drawings and collages, reflecting a certain affinity with nearly contemporary artists like Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon. The still life paintings included in the exhibition, on the other hand, demonstrate that Grippi had adopted the gestural style and methods of action painting, engaging a kind of process of discovery in the act of painting, as mundane objects like paper bags, milk cartons, bottles, cups, and fruit shapes emerge from thick layers of paint. While Grippi is not necessarily known as a sculptor, he did make a few forays into three dimensions with small bronze sculptures in the 1960s and much later abstract wood constructions, all the while adhering to his interest in the expressive qualities of the human form.
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art