Whitehot Magazine

Sarah Grilo’s New York Years, 1962-1970: Abstract Art With A Social Conscience by Donald Kuspit

Sarah Grilo. Photo: Lisl Steiner. Courtesy the Estate of Sarah Grilo and the Institute for Studies on Latin American Art (ISLAA).


By DONALD KUSPIT February 14, 2024

Sarah Grilo (1917-2007), an Argentine painter, moved to New York in 1962, after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961, in recognition of the lyrical abstractions she painted in Paris between 1957 and 1961.  She stayed in the United States until 1970, when she moved to Spain, in opposition to the Vietnam War.  But there was probably another reason:  New York had become a difficult place to live in.  “New York in the 1960s saw countless strikes and protests.  And sometimes protest boiled over into violence.  The recession of 1969 helped send New York spiraling into an era of drugs, poverty, and violence.”  It was surely time to leave New York.  But it was inspiring:  the paintings Grilo made during her New York years are her most original, daring, risk-taking—unexpectedly innovative, for they were no longer lyrically Parisian but epically New York, perhaps in acknowledgement of the fact that New York had replaced Paris as the capital of the artworld.  They incorporated raw graffiti, a gross anti-aesthetic people’s art—an art of the American underclass—and fused it with refined aesthetic gesture and color—an art of the European cultural elite.  Graffiti was becoming increasingly visible on the streets and subways of New York.  In 1972 Mayor John Lindsay declared war on graffiti.  “One must throw art into the gutter,” Courbet said, and graffiti was an art of the gutter—subversive anti-establishment art—low art rather than high art—people’s art rather than art of the socially and economically elite.  Grilo’s New York paintings are an ingenious synthesis of refined gestures and gross graffiti in a fluid field of subtle colors charged with intense feelings.  They are one-of-a-kind masterpieces, poignantly aesthetic and socially critical at once.

Grilo began as a self-taught artist, like many probably concerned to express herself, objectify her feelings so she could understand herself.  But in 1944, at the age of 27, she began to study at the studio of the prominent Catalan artist Vicente Puig, known for his portraits and figure paintings.  In 1949 she had her first one person exhibition in Madrid, showing works that mixed cubism and figuration, indicating that she was aware of modernist art while maintaining an interest in traditional art.  Her paintings eventually abandoned the figure, becoming increasingly abstract—“pure,” non-objective.  She had become an unequivocally modern artist:  in 1952 she joined the Artistas Modernos de la Argentina under the direction of the poet and painter Aldo Pellegrini, in 1928 founder of the first surrealist group in South America.  Argentina’s Artistas Modernos exhibited in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum and Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Modern Art before it dissolved in 1954.  Grilo then moved to Paris where, from 1957 to 1961, she painted the lyrical abstractions which brought her the recognition of the Guggenheim Fellowship and brought her to New York—the post-Paris center of the art world.  

Sarah Grilo, Pintura, 1953. Oil on canvas, 23 ⅞ x 26 ⅜ in. © The Estate of Sarah Grilo. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

Pintura and Pintura no. 53-4, both 1953, the earliest works in the exhibition of Grilo’s paintings at Galerie LeLong, show that she was already a self-confident master when she joined Argentina’s Artistas Modernos.  She had an uncanny style of her own, a sort of surreally abstract style, as the two absurdly figurative sculptures—bust portraits of bizarrely mechanical heads precariously mounted on thin rods—that confront us in Pintura suggest.  But perhaps what is most telling about the two Pintura abstractions is that they herald the mastery of color evident in the New York paintings.  In them Grilo plays what Kandinsky called the keyboard of colors with remarkable virtuoso subtlety.  In Green Painting, 1963, along with Orange and Mauve as well as Pines, Ochres and Green, also 1963 geometry contains and fuses with color, making it more insistently present and emotionally evocative.  Color field painting became a la mode late in the 1950s and early in the 1960s, but the color in a typical American color field painting was “hard” rather than “soft,” “cold” rather than “warm,” “distancing” rather than “inviting,” “withholding” rather than “giving,” as such “hard edge” abstractions as those painted by Gene Davis and Jack Bush are, to allude to two among many similar color field painters.  

All of Grilo’s New York paintings are inviting rather than off-putting, subtly lyrical rather than pretentiously epic, even though they have an epic content—the Vietnam War (1955-1975), raging when she was in New York, and when New York was “a city on the brink” of collapse.  In the 1960s there were numerous protests against the Vietnam War, many using graffiti as an instant means of expressive communication.  Graffiti “art” “was flourishing in Washington Heights, Brooklyn, and the Bronx,” and eventually on every subway car in the city.  It was in-your-face in every public space; one couldn’t help seeing it, “getting the message”—a message critical of the Vietnam War and implicitly of the American government, more broadly American society.  And in New York in the 1960s Grilo painted what can only be called high graffiti art—oil paintings in which graffiti was used ironically to criticize the Vietnam War, as Win, it’s great for your ego, ca. 1965-1966 makes clear, and to insist that America’s going, 1967--implicitly to hell.  Grilo sardonically mocked Our Heroes, 1966--implicitly soldiers--and to criticize America’s response to the enemy, as Unfair (Red China), 1966 suggests.  Fight, 1968 conveys the conflict decisively, as the yellow horizon line that divides the dark canvas—an abstract field and battlefield in one—in half.  The work suggests that North and South Vietnam are both blackened by guilt.  But the identities of the antagonists are beside the point of the conflict.  There is an apocalyptic bleakness to the picture—a generalized sense of catastrophe. 

Sarah Grilo, Our heroes, 1966. Oil on canvas, 52 x 46 in. © The Estate of Sarah Grilo. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

Grilo offers us an abstract protest art, as Protesta, 1973 makes clear, at a time when protest art was grounded in realism, as Rudolf Baranik’s anti-war Vietnam Elegies, 1967-1974 show.  She brilliantly goes against convention, holding her own as an independent innovative master, eloquently abstract as well as socially critical.  Her visionary criticism was communicated—the paintings were meant to be read not just seen--with abstract eloquence, gestural and geometrical means implicated in each other.  Her paintings give graffiti aesthetic credibility even as they suggest that abstract gesture is a kind of graffiti—“writing.”  A fusion of so-called low and high art, not to say kitsch and avant-garde art, public graffiti and intimate gesture, Grilo’s protest paintings are one-of-a-kind masterpieces that hold their aesthetic own even as they make a daring social and political statement.  They are a contradiction in terms:  social realistic art—critical realism—and ingeniously pure art, for they purify gutter art—to recall Courbet’s words—by giving it aesthetic and emotional significance.  Crude graffiti and refined gestures are aesthetically at odds, but for Grilo they are both kinds of language, as Homage to my language (letter N), 1965 suggests.  Grilo is clearly a master of both. WM

Author's noteAll quotations about New York are from Wikipedia.  


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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