Trying to explain Esteban Vicente’s placement outside the abstract expressionist pantheon, Meadows Museum’s director Mark Roglán blamed this historical ignominy on the alphabet. “V” comes at the bottom of the list of important painters of the 1950 and 1960s.
Funny, the “V” never hurt Velasquez standing out from his contemporaries. Or what about Vermeer or Van Gogh?
No, Vicente, the subject of a new exhibition at the Meadows Museum, Concrete Improvisations: Collages and Sculpture, is an artist more often discovered by aficionados than taught in college classrooms because of art history’s tendency to dote on artists who are boldly representative of an era or who represent a critical inflection point in style. According to this rubric, Vicente’s early kinetic work is not quite as dramatically expressive as Pollock. His early vibrant color schemes – with all their fragmentation and spatial sense – are not as inventive or punchy as De Kooning. And his later work, which around 1962 settles into a life-long project of working fields of color to various emotive effects, are still not as immersive or flamboyant as that cranky, cocky showman, Rothko.
Yet, despite surface similarities, Vicente was never really after the same thing as Rothko. If Rothko’s works immerse the viewer, Vicente’s works reach out. These pieces whisper, seek to communicate something of their emotion residue. Vicente wants to move you, but unlike Rothko, he never seeks to consume you. This work is more structural, direct, and immediate. And while those ambiguities of style may have limited the amount of ink spilt on the study of Vicente’s life, it makes the artist’s work no less visually satisfying.
Looking at this survey of Vicente’s work, which originated at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, an image of the artist emerges as a patient, deliberate craftsman – the kind of personality happy spending a career as a songsmith in the studios of Tin Pan Alley, churning out hit after hit in an effort to find that perfect balance between simplicity, clarity, and emotive vigor.
There is a series of studies Vicente made in 1958 included in this exhibition that illustrate this persistence on a small scale. Creating an etching to accompany Peter Viereck’s poem “Nostalgia,” Vicente works through a series of compositions that pair a quote from the poem and cut-out black shapes, scattered or overlaid to convey something of the mood of the line (“their shadows grow monstrous”). In the first piece the text is legible; the shapes are individual fragments arranged about the bottom half of the paper. By the time he has worked through the four renditions, the text is reduced to compositional scribbles and then it disappears altogether, Vicente settling on an arrangement of the black that joins letter-shaped pieces and cutouts into a single craggy hunk that possesses an ominous, weighty presence on the paper.
This series speaks to Vicente’s continual discovery in the power of simple forms and perfectly hewn compositions of color, texture, and shape. His early kinetic works from the 1950s give way to heavier, luscious studies in color: warm oranges and blacks, deep reds or fiery yellows, blocks of ochre. Although there is a period when Vicente pulls materials from popular sources for his collages – cutout advertisements and one notable picture of a Campbell’s soup can – Vicente is mostly interested in assembling materials for the way they add texture and spatial drama to canvas surface. Reproduction of his 1960s work can feel flat and dull; in person, this composite layering and perfectly balanced color has umph.
Along the back wall of the central gallery at the Meadows there is a series of larger collages from Vicente’s Hawaiian phase, made while he was an artist in residence at the Honolulu Arts Institute. They are bold, vibrant, populist canvases, full of rich sensuality and realer-than-real hues. It is a transition point for the artist, whose later work softens and allows more air, space, and light. As Vicente’s palate changes, beiges, off-whites, and strips of unpainted canvas help organize the pieces around obstructed geometrics, allowing their expressive pop to come from planes of rusty orange or light blue that radiate soft beauty.
Arriving at these simpler works, it is not surprising to learn that the artist was also a lifelong teacher. There is such a studied patience to Vicente’s method. And in that way, this exhibition offers more than just a large collection of lovely abstract works. It bears witness to the dedication of a singular craftsman, whose making and remaking, whose refusal to settle or recapitulate, was ever-engaged in a struggle to coax from his materials a more clear, concise, and perfect expression of his full-throated voice.
Image at top: Untitled, 1985 (detail). Colored paper and gouache on canvas; 25 7/8 x 39 3/4 in. Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente, Segovia