Ossorio looked up to Pollock as an artist who "had broken all the traditions of the past and unified them, who had gone beyond Cubism." Indeed, Pollock's drip-based automatism gave Ossorio tools to access and grapple with his personal wounds and fantasies. The Victorias Drawings that Ossorio made in the Philippines during an extended stay in 1950 have been called his "breakthrough works" and have also been said to "share DNA" with the works of both Pollock and the French founder of Art Brut, Jean Dubuffet. In fact, Dubuffet was so enthralled by Ossorio's works of the early 1950s that he developed a new form of art writing to be able to describe them.
In 2016, in celebration of the late artist's one hundredth birthday, Manila's León Gallery assembled the largest collection of Ossorios to be exhibited in the country-- a total of sixteen works-- all never before exhibited in the Philippines. Among them were some of the artist's remarkable Victorias Drawings, executed with layers of wax, gouache, watercolor, and Chinese ink. It has taken time for Ossorio's art to be fully appreciated in his home nation, even longer than it has taken in the United States. His varied works--always intense, often jarringly strange, and occasionally gruesome--were shaped by his youthful sexual turmoil and lifelong morbid fascinations.
Ossorio then came to the United States as a teenager to attend the Portsmouth Priory from 1930 to 1934. Portsmouth Priory was a Benedictine high school run by monks in Providence, Rhode Island. Ossorio became an American citizen in 1933 and then in 1934 began his undergraduate education at Harvard, where his mentors and friends included Eric Gill, Philip Hofer, Lincoln Kirstein, and Paul Cadmus. Despite his father's objections, Ossorio majored in fine art, completing a thesis titled "Spiritual Influences on the Visual Image of Christ." During summer studies with Eric Gill in Sussex, England, Ossorio did research on medieval art and created wood engravings. After graduation he briefly studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, painting in tempera. Discovered by the famed art dealer Betty Parsons, he had his first show--of fastidiously rendered, Surrealist-tinged images--at the Wakefield Gallery in 1940.
While stationed at Camp Ellis in Illinois, Ossorio was assigned to draw surgical procedures, many of which were very graphic and gruesome. He stood on a ladder, looking down on surgeries that often involved grievous war injuries suffered by soldiers, and sketched the procedures. After his discharge from the army in 1946, these macabre visions would invade and influence his art. In the summer of 1948, while vacationing in The Berkshires, Ossorio was sketching flowers in a meadow when he met a 25-year-old ballet dancer, Edward (Ted) Dragon, who was there picking nosegays. They moved in together the following year and remained devoted to each other until Ossorio's death in 1990.
Around the same time, Ossorio also had his first encounter with the paintings of Jackson Pollock--which he at first thought were too messy--and soon afterward, he made his first purchase:
You see I hadn't met Pollock, and it was simply by going to Betty's gallery and seeing a show of his. I think it was as late as 1947 or '48 that I suddenly realized the so-called drip panels had an intensity of organization, had a message that was expressed by its physical components, was a new iconography. I didn't get all of this as coherently as I'm now saying it--it was a visual thought more than an analysis. And then I bought a painting, a big panel 8 x 4, of Jackson's.Ossorio and Ted Dragon soon met Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner; Ossorio's Pollock needed some repairs and Pollock essentially gave it back to him as a new painting. A close friendship blossomed between the couples--Ossorio spent the summer of 1949 at the Pollocks' home in the Hamptons--and the timing was fortuitous, as Pollock was making some of the best work of his career and staying away from drinking. At Pollock's urging, Ossorio then met and visited the artist Jean Dubuffet in Paris, where the two had an immediate and significant connection. With his exposure to Pollock, Krasner, Dubuffet, and to a lesser degree, Clyfford Still, Ossorio now was surrounded by a constellation of ambitious, advanced artists, and in this situation his own art was set to blossom. Critic John Yau says that between 1949 and 1953, Ossorio "seemed to find his place in the world."
Being in the Philippines opened up feelings of personal turmoil for Ossorio, whose sexuality conflicted with the values of his devout Catholic upbringing. Artistically liberated by the examples of Pollock and Dubuffet, Ossorio poured his feelings into a series of works, now known as the Victorias Drawings, that dealt with childhood, birth, sexuality, mythology, and religion. Executed with a wax resist technique, the series was drawn on Tiffany stationery, which was then often cut into irregular shapes that rhymed with Ossorio's fantastic imagery. Hybrids of recognizable figuration and all-over abstraction, the Victorias works have phenomenal psychic energy: an aura of spiritual and supernatural intensity. Although Ossorio has occasionally been characterized as a "lapsed Catholic" that is not at all the case. The intensity of the Victorias Drawings is grounded in faith and religious conviction. Ossorio believed that "if you want to be serious, there is very little that is not religious."
So in the summer of 1951 this opportunity came to buy the place I'm now living in, the old Hearst place in East Hampton. I had accumulated a number of pictures all of which were sitting either in my father's home or bank. I bought it but didn't move to East Hampton until the summer of 1952. I've been there ever since even in the winter. And apart from a few trips to Paris and Turkey and Greece I've done very little traveling since.
Fernando Zóbel de Ayala, another wealthy Harvard-educated artist who was also a distant cousin, visited Ossorio at The Creeks in 1955 and recorded his impressions in a vivid diary entry:
Spend most of the night talking with Alfonso Ossorio; in fact, between the two of us, we finish a whole bottle of scotch, and I get into bed at 4:30 in the morning. We talked mainly of painting and of being a painter. The gist of his remarks, repeated over and over again with variations and a kind of anguish: "Don't let them stop you."
He (Ossorio) lives and paints at high pitch, burning the candle at both ends. He is spending and living on his capital.... Loathes compromise, any attempt to popularize. "Art must be difficult to see, difficult to understand."
Ideally, he would like to see people forced to choose between buying an automobile and buying a painting. About 10 years older than I, unquestionably good, with a desperate, Dostoyevskian sort of goodness. Completely generous, completely humourless. Inflexible and full of pratfalls. Completely committed to his art, which, for him, is an extension of religion.His visit with Ossorio left a lasting impression and is a clear source of inspiration for Zóbel's Saetas series of the mid-1950s, which employed paint ejected from hypodermic syringes to create dynamic webs of abstract imagery. Through Zóbel, Ossorio's embrace of Pollock's modernism would eventually influence notable artists in both the Philippines and Spain.
Ultimately, Ossorio is best seen as an individual and as an artist who held on to his differences while both finding inspiration in the works of his friends and disseminating their influence. In a late interview, when discussing his relationship to Abstract Expressionism, Ossorio offers his career as "an obvious case of admiring and doing differently." He continues to explain that he "chose other freedoms" and remarks that "similar freedoms can lead to different results." Writer Lee Rosenbaum has something similar to say: "What I think of Ossorio--the artist speaking in his own distinctive voice--is the 'outsider' work of this art world insider."
Alfonso Ossorio truly was, as Fernando Zóbel observes at the end of his 1955 diary entry, "gorgeously out of touch with reality."
The works of Alfonso Ossorio are presented with the permission of the Ossorio Foundation