New York

Conrad Marca-Relli

Whitney Museum of American Art

During the years between 1952 and 1967 Conrad Marca-Relli has experimented with many variations on the theme of large-scale collage as a “complete pictorial system.” His recent Whitney Museum retrospective is a clear exposition of an exceedingly cohesive and sound development. If Marca-Relli’s work is not distinguished by a totally original approach to form and figuration, it is certainly the record of a fine and commandingly tasteful sensitivity to the substance and material of his oeuvre.

A cue to all of Marca-Relli’s production, in distinguishing it from that of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, is that despite his use of rough slices of canvas or metal, his works possess a certain polish and spare elegance, more akin to European standards and methods than to that traditionally “crude” American lack of finish. Marca-Relli was for a long time attracted to the formal order and topographical effects of both ancient and Renaissance architecture. Beginning in 1952, after bouts with semi-Surrealistic and automatic images, influenced by de Chirico, Miró and Gorky, among others, he introduced collaged raw canvas into his paintings. This technique seemed to provide a plastic and literal equivalent for the textures and volumes of the classic structures which had inspired him. The restrained, yet monumental scale to which Marca-Relli has enlarged these early attempts, making collage more than a mere corollary to painting, constitutes a not to be overlooked contribution to American art.

Contacts with de Kooning and Pollock in 1953 provided Marca-Relli with a more slapdash biomorphic vocabulary, loosening up and coloring the previously tempered and static order of his first monochrome collage-paintings. He has always vacillated between an expressive abstraction based on the figure, and an instinctive urge for a non-allusive and classical harmony. This is as evident in his series of sleeping and seated figures (1953–54 and 1965–66) as it is in his vinyl and metal collages, aluminum reliefs (1962–64) and sculptures (1966–67), or in his now greatly condensed non-figural paintings done this year.

Marca-Relli reached a highpoint around 1956–57, when the freely biomorphic fragments became a par, of a dense overall matrix, energetic and “open,” yet also tautly composed, in such works as The Warrior (1956), Trial, (1956) and The Battle (1956). Attempts to introduce color volumes, opposing the materiality of collage swatches with the illusionism of painted areas during the later fifties (Pamplona, 1958) seemed to have compromised both the clarity and discretion of earlier solutions, and Marca-Relli returned to a more denuded, cubic vocabulary after this. Shapes were “pegged” into place with small rivet-like dottings, and broader forms locked into an increasingly flattened and spaceless field around 1961. The riveted and polished sheets of Runway 3 (1963) or Lockheed 200 (1964) fully establish the material reality of the surface which Marca-Relli had been continually seeking; this was further projected into the shallow aluminum reliefs of the same period. These simple, intersecting and balanced clusters are bound together by industrial springs, their only hint of potential movement. Their dense, economic shapes have now been extended into free-standing sculptures, and into the new paintings, both of which exhibit, once again, Marca-Relli’s admirably pristine craft and formally classical bent.

Emily Wasserman