[Originally published in Arts and Culture magazine]
In a video accompanying his stellar exhibition at the Meadows Museum, Esteban Vicente notes that, in French, “collage” means “to glue.” If we weren’t informed otherwise, we’d be left to assume it’s fully synonymous with “to delight.” His work is largely lyrical and, if we give ourselves over to it, it’s likely we’ll begin to resemble the Adam of Medieval legend — our eyesight will inexorably be transmuted into sunlight. Vicente’s work is decidedly joyous and, in fact, he noted that his contemporaries were sometimes less fortunate with regard to disposition. He stated, “My generation — Pollock, Rothko — they ended up destroying themselves and their work. For me, I look at it from an entirely different point of view. I do what I like to do, and that is a blessing. So I am in competition with nobody — except myself.” Given the results, it must have been an extraordinary case of interior rivalry.
One of his earlier works, “Labels,” has a gloriously affable quality. It’s a stacking of cardboard, colored paper, printed labels, charcoal, gouache and pastel. The piece has a verticality that engages the viewer in a composite world of sky-blue, earthy brown and the remnants of a skirmish with consumerism — soap and sugar packaging, as well as labels for rice, milk and, surprisingly, Campbell’s soup. The latter was included in Vicente’s collage six years prior to Warhol’s groundbreaking work depicting “the” soup can by six years. This isn’t wholly mysterious since the Spanish-born Vicente moved to New York in 1936 and became part of the movement of first-generation Abstract Expressionists. He was a prolific artist who helped organize shows, including the “9th Street Exhibition,” that ushered in a host of artists collectively known as the “New York School.” The group included Elaine and Willem De Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg and Franz Kline.
The centerpiece of this exhibition is “Black Susan.” It has the look of something derived from nature — thus the name suggestive of a black-eyed susan bloom — as well as a weathered vortex. It’s distinctly painterly despite the fact that it, too, is made of torn paper and assembled brilliantly to evoke emotional depth and chiaroscuro. It exhibits a curving sweetness that, while not as cheering as some other pieces, moves us toward a plane on which the hugeness of nature is acknowledged and paid homage.
Along with his collages, the Meadows also displayed his “divertimientos” or “juegos,” (toys in English). The pieces are highly geometrical and offer proof of his familiarity with Cubism, Constructivism and assemblage. And, if this isn’t enough, you can put Vicente’s work in greater context by visiting the museum’s adjacent show of paintings by his contemporaries, including Picasso, Rothko, a host of other luminaries, as well as one of his students, Chuck Close. The show is punctuated by a moving statement issued by Vicente: “The great mistake of many artists is that they close their eyes to the past…. You have to look back to tradition. The artist has to be part of something. Art belongs to a traditional line that reaches back and it will go on forever.”
Well said. And, better yet, well demonstrated by the collages and small sculptures composing this remarkable show. It’s nearly unbelievable that Vicente has been relegated to a less recognized canon of artists. This show should change that. It’s always a joy to witness the excavation of genius.