We happened upon a painting cryptically titled Number 14–1953 on our latest visit to the Whitney Museum of American Art—our first to their new Renzo Piano-designed outpost in New York’s Meatpacking District. We were there for the Frank Stella retrospective and, of course, to see the classics from the permanent collection. And, As always, the curators hung the textbook classics and familiar favorites along with a few little-seen pieces by “overlooked” artists. In their Abstract Expressionist survey that meant personal favorites like Franz Kline’s Mahoning, Willem De Kooning’s Door to the River, and Lee Krasner’s monumental The Seasons. Masters all, of course, but the collection’s rarely displayed moments are often the most satisfying. In this case the prize was Alfonso Ossorio.
We didn’t know much about the work of Mr. Ossorio, but here he was given ample wall space right next to Mr. Pollock. Good company and an interesting juxtaposition. Number 14–1953 is a nice counterpoint to the allover, widescreen approach of Pollock.
Pollock’s work looks like it done swiftly, all spontaneous action, the evidence of sweeping thrusts of the arm throwing pigment down across the surface and letting gravity take control. The arcs and implied speed of the gestures show that Pollock stood at some distance from the canvas. Conversely, the Ossorio is smaller and looks to be done up close with great attention to detail. It feels like a true labor of love, one painstakingly built over time. Sure, there is an allover composition and there are spontaneous, chance moments throughout, but it’s a process-heavy piece with layer upon layer of material, pigment and process. It looks like a science experiment or an excavation.
There’s so much going on that it’s difficult to orient yourself, eyes darting all over the surface checking out the details that just keep on coming. And it’s difficult to figure out what exactly it’s composed of. Is it a photograph that’s been manipulated in the darkroom by burning and dodging? Is it a collage with bits of newspaper strewn about, all peeled back and pasted over again? Has the canvas been torched like a Albeto Burri piece? Or56 maybe it’s ink that’s soaked in and spread throughout the canvas? It’s really hard to tell, but in a word it’s gorgeous. And in reality it’s ink and wax on board.
At a glance it looks like a black and white piece, but upon closer inspection hints of color peer through like smoldering embers just below the surface. Red, violets, and deep cobalt blues dominate the palette, seething beneath a lava flow of gestures.
We spent nearly twenty minutes looking at this thing. Great art reveals new things over time and in just this short window of time we were transfixed and consumed, absorbing every detail.
Photographs don’t do Number 14–1953 justice, but since you can’t take it home with you, photos will have to do.