Alfonso Ossorio

Alfonso Ossorio, “Saint Martin and the Beggar”, 1940, Ink, Gouache, and Watercolor on Paper, 52 x 37 cm, Ayala Museum, Manila, Philippines

Born in August of 1916 in Manila, Alfonso Ossorio was an abstract expressionist artist of Hispanic, Filipino, and Chinese heritage. At the age of fourteen, he moved to the United States and attended Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island, graduating in 1934. Ossorio studied fine art at Harvard University from 1934 to 1938, and continued his studies at the Rhode Island School of Design. He became a United States citizen in 1933.

Discovered by art dealer and collector Betty Parsons, Alfonso Ossorio had his first show, featuring his Surrealist-influenced works at New York’s Wakefield Gallery in 1940. Following World War II service in the US Army as a medical illustrator, tasked with drawing surgical procedures on injured soldiers, he took some respite in the Berkshires, a region in western Massachusetts known for its outdoor activities. It was there at the 1948 Tanglewood Music Festival that Ossorio met Edward Dragon, a ballet dancer, who would be Ossorio’s life-long partner. 

Through his connection with Betty Parsons, Ossorio became acquainted with the work of Jackson Pollock. Becoming both an admirer and a collector of Pollock’s expressionist work, he and Pollock soon developed a close friendship and reciprocal influence on each others work. Later in 1951, through critic and art historian Michel Tapié, Ossorio established a contact between Pollock and the young Parisian gallery owner Paul Facchetti who realized Pollock’s first solo exhibition in Europe in 1952.

In Paris in 1951, Ossorio and Edward Dragon frequently met with artist Jean Dubuffet and his wife Lili. While they were visiting, Jean Dubuffet wrote the text for his monograph on Ossorio entitled, “Peintures Initiatiques d’Alfonso Ossorio” and introduced Ossorio to art critic and collector Michel Tapié. Tapié organized a one-man show at the Studio Paul Facchetti of Ossorio’s small, luminous “Victorias Drawings”, which Ossorio made while visiting the Philippines. Produced using Ossorio’s experimental drawing technique of wax-resistant crayon on Tiffany & Co. stationary, the works in this series are counted as some of Ossorio’s most innovative. 

Dubuffet’s interest in art brut opened up new vistas for Ossorio, who found release from society’s preconceptions in the previous unstudied creativity of insane asylum inmates and children. In the 1950s, Ossorio began to create works resembling Dubuffet’s assemblages. He affixed shells, bones, driftwood, nails, dolls’ eyes, cabinet knobs, dice, costume jewelry, mirror shards, and children’s toys to the panel surface. Ossorio called these assemblages congregations, with the term’s obvious religious connotation.

On the advice of Pollock, Ossorio and Edward Dragon purchased an expansive 60-acre estate, The Creeks, in East Hampton, Long Island, New York, in 1951, where they lived for more than forty years. Alfonso Ossorio died in New York City in 1990. Half his ashes were scattered at The Creeks estate and the other half came to rest nine years later at Green River Cemetery, alongside the remains of many other famous artists, writers and critics. 

Alfonso Ossorio’s works can be found at The Creeks, the Harvard Art Museum in Massachusetts, the Honolulu Museum of Art, the Housatonic Museum of Art in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, among others.

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