Artist to Know: Alfonso Ossorio

Liz Catalano
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Christie’s Brings Work by 20th-Century Collector, Patron, and Outsider Artist

For most of his adult life, Alfonso Ossorio was not taken seriously as an artist. The world knew him as a wealthy, eccentric collector and a friend to Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Jean Dubuffet. Critics declared that Ossorio’s painting experiments were derivative and unworthy of inclusion in the broader Abstract Expressionism movement. Though he moved within the 20th century’s most elite art circles, Ossorio never conformed to their expectations. More than 30 years after his death, scholars and collectors are beginning to revive his lost legacy. 

Christie’s will present one of Alfonso Ossorio’s abstract paintings from the 1950s in the upcoming Post-War & Contemporary Art sale. The timed event will run through July 21st, 2021 at 10:00 AM EDT. Get to know Ossorio before the auction ends.

Alfonso Ossorio in his East Hampton estate, 1952. Image by Hans Namuth, courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona.
Alfonso Ossorio in his East Hampton estate, 1952. Image by Hans Namuth, courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona.

Childhood was a comfortable time for Alfonso Ossorio. Born in 1916 in Manila, Ossorio was of mixed Spanish, Filipino, and Chinese heritage. His father, a wealthy sugar magnate, ensured that the artist and his brothers had access to private schools and quality education in England. The family later settled in the United States. Against his parents’ wishes, Ossorio pursued the arts. He studied at Harvard and the Rhode Island School of Design before hosting two solo exhibitions of his work.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Ossorio voluntarily joined the military. He spent several years sketching gruesome surgeries as a medical illustrator. The experience left a permanent mark on his art. He returned to civilian life and discovered a new, dark edge in his paintings. Shortly after Ossorio met his life partner, Ted Dragon, he also encountered Jackson Pollock. 

Pollock was just breaking into Abstract Expressionism at the time. Ossorio saw Pollock’s potential and invested heavily in his success. Ossorio drew upon his wealth and social connections to give Pollock opportunities and a much-needed monthly stipend. Pollock returned the favor with friendship and induction into his social circle. Ossorio soon got to know Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, and their mutual friend in Paris, Jean Dubuffet. The avant-garde artists inspired and influenced each other. Pollock’s famous drip technique appears in several of Ossorio’s early works, and Ossorio’s darker themes appear in Pollock’s later paintings.

Alfonso Ossorio, Untitled (Abstract Figure), c. 1950. Image from Christie’s.
Alfonso Ossorio, Untitled (Abstract Figure), c. 1950. Image from Christie’s.

The upcoming Christie’s auction will offer an untitled Ossorio painting from this period. The artist executed the piece around 1950, shortly before he purchased his famed East Hampton estate. Dominated by shades of mustard yellow and rust, the grease pencil, wax, and watercolor on board piece alternates between explosive marks and flowing lines. Careful examination reveals a concealed figure shown from the side. A swab of red indicates the figure’s mouth, and blue swirls suggest the hands. Christie’s presents this painting with an estimate of USD 30,000 to $50,000. 

The occasionally manic energy in Ossorio’s work distanced him from the mainstream art world of the 1950s and 60s. He quickly grew dissatisfied with Abstract Expressionism and left it behind. Ossorio instead pursued an independent visual language. Working alone, Ossorio explored his Catholic spirituality, queer sexuality, and familial relationships. 

Art critic Edward Lucie-Smith describes Ossorio as an “insider-outsider” who only ever flirted with Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, and Art Brut. “He is all of these things and none of these things…” Lucie-Smith wrote for a recent Sotheby’s exhibition. “He is in fact one of the real unclassifiables of mid-20th century art – very much a player, but unwilling to sacrifice his identity to any concise description.”

Ossorio continued making art until his death in 1990. In his late career, he turned away from two-dimensional paintings to create complex assemblages of found objects. Ossorio combined seashells, doll’s heads, and other cast-off items to make his colorful, low-relief sculptures.

Alfonso Ossorio, The Skull, c. 1950. Image from Christie’s.
Alfonso Ossorio, The Skull, c. 1950. Image from Christie’s.

While the art market largely ignored Ossorio’s contributions during his lifetime, interest in his work has spiked within the last few decades. Many of his paintings appear in public museums and private collections around the world. Though Ossorio’s rise to fame in his native Philippines has been posthumous, recent auction results are promising. Filipino auction house León Gallery set Ossorio’s auction record in 2018. His painting, alternately titled Ascencion and Cross-Section, sold for PHP 21,000,000 (USD 418,000). 

Ossorio is gaining ground in the Western art market as well. In 2014, Christie’s Paris auctioned The Skull for EUR 277,500 (USD 328,450), nearly seven times the high estimate. Prices for Ossorio’s paintings have routinely passed USD 150,000 within the last few years. Thanks to a series of dedicated gallery shows and a new generation of critics, this oft-neglected artist and patron is returning to the spotlight. 

Alfonso Ossorio’s untitled painting from the 1950s will be available with Christie’s through July 21st, 2021. Bidding will start to close at 10:00 AM EDT. For more information and to place a bid, visit Christie’s

Want to know more about leading artists of the 20th century? Check out Auction Daily’s profile of Sri Lankan contemporary artist Senaka Senanayake.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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