Exhibition | JOHN GRILLO | The Abstract Expressionist Years

John Grillo

John Grillo was born July 4, 1917 to Sicilian immigrant parents. The eldest of three, Grillo and his family lived in Lawrence, Massachusetts until the Depression moved them to Hartford, Connecticut. It was in Hartford that Grillo’s interest in art blossomed. Inspired by his father’s own work in sculpting and painting and the vast portrait collection at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Grillo enrolled in the Hartford School of Fine Arts in 1935. It was here that he learned the basics of portrait and landscape painting, his education being influenced largely by the Ashcan School of artists and Social Realist subject matter. 1

World War II began and in 1944, Grillo was drafted into the Navy and was sent to the Pacific Theater. While stationed in Okinawa, Grillo continued to paint scenes of life in the service. However, after listening to the advice of his good friend Joseph Atkinson, he realized that he did not “have to draw representationally.”2 He embraced aspects of Surrealism and found the work of Robert Motherwell influential. Grillo began experimenting with the materials he could find such as coffee grounds, utilizing more inventive methods of employng these materials by incorporating splatters and spills into his compositions. 

When Grillo’s military tour ended in 1946, he took advantace of the G.I. Bill and enrolled in the San Francisco School of Fine Art. He studied there for two years, painting whatever he could get his hands on whether it was canvas, or old doors he found in the school’s basement. “In the space of two short years from 1946 to 1947, Grillo played a seminal role in the San Francisco branch of a movement that would revolutionize America art. Today, Grillo is acknowledged as perhaps the first and purest “Action Painter” on the West Coast, and one of the most influential painters of San Francisco’s school of Abstract Expressionism.” 3

When Grillo’s G.I subsidies ran out, he could no longer stay in California. It was then that he decided to move to New York. In New York, Grillo found Hans Hofmann who became his mentor and close friend in the years they worked together. Grillo’s work with Hofmann helped him to circulate his name, and eventually, Grillo earned his first one-man show at the Artist’s Gallery in 1948. Grillo continued to grow with Hofmann, and in 1951, he began experimenting with a more geometric style, culminating in the “Mosaic Series."  In 1953, he returned to his dynamic and explosive compositions, but his paintings were no longer as intuitive as his earlier abstractions. They were an extension of the earlier work but now possessed a greater compositional structure.

Throughout the 1950’s Grillo never stopped changing and experimenting. As the decade progressed, his palette lightened and in 1958, he began his “Yellow Paintings.” Noted scholar, April Kingsley’s essay on Grillo’s work of this period adds historical perspective and reference to these defining compositions. 

“The sun comes out in many mind’s eyes at the mere mention of John Grillo’s name.  His first show at Howard Wise on a stormy miserable day in 1961 had such great impact--It was like walking into a room full of sunshine. It seemed 10 degrees warmer in there. Everyone was so depressed by the bad weather and their spirits lifted as soon as they entered the room, etc. that no one forgets the experience. One artist called Grillo the Renoir of Abstract Expressionism, another compared him to Rubens for his sensuality. One critic brought up Turner while another waxed eloquently about Venetian luminosity in his regard. All these references still seem apt when you see these gorgeous, light filled canvases.

One reference which was not made at the time might be made now, and that is to Futurism, especially to Boccioni’s Dynamic States of Mind series. The Futurists said it for Grillo when they declared their intention to “render dynamic sensation,” and to “enclose the universe in the work of art” (statements in Max Kozloff’s Cubism/Futurism). Spiraling forms, dazzling color chords, dynamic diagonals and jumpcut spatial locations, fast rhythms, fleeting, fragmentary shapes, a sound that bordered on cacophony--these are some of the attributes Grillo shared with the Futurists. The density and intensity of modern life experience is revealed in both situations.

Like the Futurists, Grillo painted pure energy. Unlike them (primarily because of his Abstract Expressionist training with Hans Hofmann) he wasn’t tied to the world of object or specific mechanized forms of action. Thus the noisy, heated super-charged world they depictured seems controlled in comparison with the explosive painterly manifestations of Grillo. He often responded to the four corners of his canvas much as they did, with diagonals rushing in from or out to them, creating vortices that spun out laterally from the center or epicenters.” 4

For over twenty years, (1946–1967) John Grillo explored his unique vision of abstract imagery. “When I began teaching drawing and painting at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (1967), being confronted daily with the nude model, I became intrigued with the figure and representation again. My figurative work informs my abstraction and the reverse is also true. All figurative work is abstract-colors and shapes on a flat surface. Now in my nineties, I am taking the advice of Matisse who said that an artist should cut out his tongue so that the work can speak for itself.” 5

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1 Robert Whyte, “Before San Francisco, 1938–1945”. From John Grillo—A Painter’s Life of Expression, Museo Italo Americano, San Francisco, p. 3, 2002.
2 Robert Whyte, “Before San Francisco, 1938–1945”. From John Grillo—A Painter’s Life of Expression, Museo Italo Americano, San Francisco, p. 4, 2002.
3Thomas Albright, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–1980, Univ. of California Press, 1985, p. 39.
4 April Kingsley, “John Grillo,” Grace Borgennicht Gallery, exhibition essay, October 10–26, 1978.
5Grillo–Abstract Expressionism: The Formative Years 1946–1949, Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Fields Publishing, 2010, p. 129.

Essay compiled by Julia Keefe