b. 1916, Manilla, Philippines, d. 1990, New York, NY
Alfonso Ossorio (1916, Manilla, Philippines, d. 1990, New York, NY) was educated in English Catholic boarding schools before coming to the United States in 1930 to continue his studies at Portsmouth Priory in Providence, Rhode Island and eventually attended Harvard University. He received his BA in 1938, after successful completion of a senior thesis titled Spiritual Influences on the Visual Image of Christ. After graduation, Ossorio studied at the Rhode Island School of Design. His first solo exhibition took place in 1941, at the Wakefield Gallery, a small space run by Betty Parsons in New York. In 1946 he settled in New York, where he encountered the nascent style of abstract expressionism before eventually purchasing the East Hampton estate known as the Creeks in 1951 where he would spend the majority of his time.
Ossorio’s work of the early 1940s was dominated by surrealist still lifes, landscapes, and portraits executed with haunting detail and an unnerving precision of line. In the late 1940s, he began to explore abstraction, forming vital friendships with Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet, whose work he also collected. Despite their vastly different approaches to painting, Pollock and Dubuffet each showed Ossorio the value of reaching inward for inspiration rather than starting with an object or world external to himself. Ossorio’s detailed surrealist imagery began to morph into more abstract and overtly expressionistic work, while his artistic fascination with religion and sexuality grew.
In the early 1960s, Ossorio began to create his own visionary assemblages, which he labeled congregations. In a 1968 interview, Ossorio explained this term for them, stating “I have taken to calling them congregations simply because they all work together and the parts are unified to a final end, working for one final effect.” Within deep wooden frames, Ossorio brought together such disparate found objects as glass eyes, shells, animal bones, shards, pearls, feathers, and driftwood—synthesizing beauty with decay, refinement with crudeness, and reanimating these dead objects as vivid art.
From the mid-1960s until Ossorio’s death in 1990, his work was included in numerous exhibitions in the United States and abroad, including Documenta III (Kassel, Germany, 1964); Contemporary American Sculpture (Whitney Museum, 1966); Dada, Surrealism, and their Heritage (MoMA traveling exhibition, 1968); 30 Years of American Art (Whitney, 1977); and Alfonso Ossorio 1940-1980 (Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, 1980). Ossorio’s work is in many institutional collections including the Centre George Pompidou in Paris, the National Gallery of art in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.