MuseumsWeekend

Action at an Impasse: Esteban Vicente and the Art of Collage

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Esteban Vicente in his 10th Street Studio, New York City, c.1959 (Photograph by Rudolph Burckhardt. All images courtesy of The Harriet and Esteban Vicente Foundation).

ASHEVILLE, North Carolina — Esteban Vicente was a lyrical abstractionist whose work over eight decades redefines that category. A current exhibition at the Asheville Art Museum, Esteban Vicente: The Art of Interruption, takes its title from Elaine de Kooning’s insight into her longtime friend’s technique: “Collage has generally been the medium for an art of interruption, of abrupt jumps that break the initial momentum of mood, of plastic structure or of literary content.”

Born in 1903 in Turégano (Segovia), Spain, and schooled at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid, Vicente rejected figurative painting and never looked back. After working on collage independently, he soaked up surrealism in Paris and arrived in the US in 1936. He taught at Black Mountain College and in New York City where he was a leading player in the crowded field of abstract artists. He remained a unique specimen — a lapsed Cubist who improvised strategies for advancing abstraction and collage. In his later years he made a successful return to oil painting, inspired by the gardens of his Long Island home. He died in January 2001.

His body of work pivots from bright palettes and energetic curves to meditative monochromatic blocks, from biomorphic imagery through mixed media sculpture and color field studies. He even flirted with Minimalism and Pop. Along the way he also produced a body of abstract drawings, stunning in their meticulous geometries and warm atmospheres. Because he switched among disparate techniques and styles, he poses a challenge to a museum that wants to chart a coherent evolution.

In response, The Art of Interruption focuses on how Vicente translates modernist designs for painting into the diction of collage. Braque and Matisse loom as his chief influences. Like those two artists, he often resorts to jigsaw patterns and semi-schematic presentations to create depths from surfaces. As a result, no piece is quintessentially “Vicente.”

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Esteban Vicente, unknown location, c.1968 (Photographer unknown)

The exhibition includes a short film of Vicente at work on a collage, produced by Warren Schloat Productions in 1964 and recorded in the artist’s New York studio. This informative documentary, despite a loud, distracting beep that sounds intermittently during the course of the film, helps the visitor appreciate the high risks wagered in the art of collage. We see Vicente tearing sheets of colored paper as he explains the resulting constraints. In his handling of the tattered colored sheets, which he strategically applies to the canvas base, it’s as if he’s painting. He discusses the marriage of accident and intention that dictates the open-ended design. The unwieldy outlines, frayed borders, and wrinkles and warps of the colored strips on the canvas or board create an alien language, to which he adapts by further applications of paper and paint. There’s a crude elegance to it. Vicente is philosophical, patrician and playful.

The early abstract oil paintings foreshadow the collages and mixed media paintings of his mid-to-late career, which dominate this show. “Untitled” (1945) is a tableau of reds and yellows interrupted by gorgeous folds of Vermeer-like blue. The painting’s intricacy is built around hypnotic striations, flared and spiky edges and cellular patterns made visible by interlocked and overlapped contours and angles. All of this magic is the product of painstaking brushwork. The paradoxically frozen motion achieved in the later collages derives from his early discipline in thickly applied oil paint on relatively small canvases.

The anomalous forms withhold references to real objects yet suggest natural processes — the discoloration of autumn leaves in the two “Untitled” (1945) oil paintings, and smoldering fires and ash-strewn landscapes in collages like “Untitled” (1964) and “Untitled” (1988).

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Esteban Vicente, “Untitled” (1960), collage, charcoal on paper

His black-and-white works combine paper cutouts, charcoal and paint, and occasionally, gouache, tempura and ink. These are executed with a mystic’s concentration. They kept attracting my attention, even in a gallery dominated by Vicente’s audaciously colored, larger works.

The heavily drawn outlines of the black-and-whites never distract from their redolent webs of gray, white and black. “Untitled” (1960) uses charcoal and thin strips of black paper that look like ink. Much of the page is untouched. As a result, in the center, the image’s squares and shaded lines disclose a secret poetry of glyphs and rectangles and crosshatching. The longer I stared at the penciled squares, pasted paper, rigorous lines, mild erasures, and hazy blurs of the blending stump, the more it seemed as if the elements were all coming together before my eyes. The drawing is a perfectly orchestrated, interconnecting marvel.

The exhibition’s big, brassy hits are the big, high-keyed collages Vicente completed in the late 1960s, after the peak of wall-sized Abstract Expressionism had long passed. But Vicente double-downs on AbEx’s ambition. Instead of painting with oils, he uses large colored cutouts. The miasmic flow of “Hawaii” (1968) might be a nod to contemporaneous late-period work by his fellow Spaniard Joan Miró, if it weren’t for the fact that “Hawaii” is not as easy on the viewer as Miró’s surreal aquariums. Vicente’s collage relies on jagged paper cutouts pasted to make a punctuated field of red, blue, and dark gray formations. Each is judiciously arranged, floating on a sea of light brown underpainting.

The haphazardly torn pages gain from the creases that occur in the pasting process. Their island-like shapes reinforce the cartographical title. “Hawaii,” like its companions, “Kaahumanu” (1969) and “Mota” (1968), foreground the captivating juxtaposition and collision that drive collage — the friction that mobilizes incongruent forms. The more you stare at their hard outlines, the more resonant are the borders of the inserted shapes and painted backgrounds. The pictures could be nature’s own collages — archipelagos from a bird’s-eye view, gargantuan flora up-close, and primary-colored rock formations that invite the eye to circumambulate their colorful ridges.

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Esteban Vicente, “Hawaii” (1968), collage, paper on board

“Untitled” (1969) is a standout minimalist masterpiece. Its tossed-off buoyancy is seductive: a nestled white form, created by pre-laid stencil, is surrounded by sprayed red paint; into this white center Vicente sprays blue paint and adds delicately painted black lines resembling folds of flesh — or the tinted hollow of a seashell.

Collage itself is sometimes the very subject. “Untitled” (1980) lays long vertical strips of colored paper side by side. Each torn-and-pasted band resembles a key on an imaginary optical piano. Even though the work seems preparatory or half-finished, it invites us to enjoy its beguiling chromatic appeal as just that.

Working in dialogue with his peers, some of Vicente works reference turning points in the art history he both made and witnessed. “Untitled” (1973) mimics Mark Rothko, gently parodying his solemnity while equaling his extreme, brooding vision. The collage is made of sharply delineated blocks of orange, where smaller green, blue and slate-colored rectangles tumble like blocks off a facade. The mesmerizing monochromatic collage “Untitled” (1972) is another Rothko homage. The charcoaled lines burrowing into the paper create the opulence of a monochromatic oil painting. Its serene bands darken and brighten with a mesmerizing horizontal back-and-forth motion.

There are a few unfortunate duds. Sometimes the rough-and-ready qualities of collage interest Vicente too much. The pretentiously titled “Primavera Series: Triana” (1985) is a sad mishmash. Pale papers are cut-and-pasted on a similarly hued backdrop. The swatches and bands form an amalgam of bandage-like tape, brown packing tape, and strips of perforated cardboard that somehow soften rather than exacerbate the textural overload. The bland coating of oil paint is incomplete in the corners, turning the weave of the bare canvas into a backup player in a dull ensemble.

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Esteban Vicente, “Untitled” (1973), charcoal on paper

On leaving this demanding exhibition of over thirty works, the visitor might linger over questions about Vicente’s eclectic approach. After joining the ranks of action painters and color field painters, he discovered how paper itself could achieve those same effects and reinvigorate both collage and abstract painting. This is his most important legacy, and yet his easily recognizable participation in those art movements can eclipse his individuality. Still, the question I kept asking myself during and after the visit was: How can a display of mixed media works that often look improvised and unassuming linger in the mind so monumentally, as if they were giant sculptures or primitive totems?

In the large work of papier collé, “Landscape” (1970), what looks like a leafless white tree dances on the pasted-on black background. It is positioned above a correspondingly supple pairing of blue and yellow cutouts, referencing water and sunlight. The taut contrast and semi-opaque symbolism are unforgettable. But there’s more to Vicente’s collages than crafty mystification. His interlinking forms make sweet music of the haphazard, distressed and multi-textured materiality of the natural and manmade worlds. The paintings, drawings, and collages fluctuate in size, mood and coloration. In turn, the works lead to a profound appreciation for the otherwise subliminal effects of our bric-a-brac reality — like freeform clouds breaking up, coursing and overlapping across a blue or gray sky.

Esteban Vicente: The Art of Interruption — Painting, Drawing, Collage continues at the Asheville Art Museum (2 North Pack Square, Asheville, North Carolina) through January 12, 2014.

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