New York

John Grillo

Grace Borgenicht Gallery

One of the unspoken rules of painting in the ’50s was that beauty, alone and resplendent, was not to be tolerated. God forbid that it should be consciously pursued. John Grillo happens to be an artist of great painterly skill whose paintings, then and now, are extremely beautiful. In fact, beauty seems to be what they are mainly about. This was a mixed blessing in those macho times. On the one hand, his work appeared to lack the requisite Cedar Bar toughness, and instead brought to mind people like Bonnard or Renoir whom we were not supposed to think much of. On the other hand, his work occupied a unique niche as the most physically sensuous and seductive painting around. I remember going to a Grillo show at the Howard Wise Gallery in the late ’50s or early ’60s. It was snowing and black slush covered the streets providing an antipersonnel weapon for taxis. When I got off the elevator and stepped into the gallery I was almost bowled over by the sunlight Grillo had provided. One huge yellow and white painting covered the end wall and I wanted simply to lie down and bask. Each group emerging from the elevators had the same reaction; I remember hearing some gasps.

A lot of things have happened to Grillo since then. His restlessness led him into ceramic and bronze sculpture, a period of assemblages based on furniture, and a series of erotic figure drawings. He recently showed some hard-edge paintings which were very beautiful, but beautiful in the way Renoir was still beautiful after he had been seduced by Raphael, and, in his own 19th-century way, for a while went hard-edge.

Grillo’s current show at Borgenicht is a further development which nevertheless hints at a return to some of his earlier interests. The paintings are all landscapes, mostly quite small, in which he creates a quasi-geometrical structure while retaining his painterly sensuousness and the old Grillo yellow-orange-pale blue-pink color range. The surfaces seem caressed rather than brushed. Grillo laid on the paint in a dominantly horizontal direction, picking up reflected light and disclosing the intimate pressures of brush hairs. Grillo lets us see the paint in all its physical, untheatrical beauty, sharing his affection for it.

He uses conventional landscape imagery, but as a pretext for a display of rich color and intimate surfaces. In the three largest works he expanded the range of painterly effects, including thin blue washes near thick yellow impasto; the result was an increase in formal complexity and a further decrease in an illustrational role. It seems possible that Grillo may be returning to the kind of abstract painting he practiced in the late ’50s, though obviously inflected by all that has occurred since then. In the context of all the frankly beautiful, decorative painting that has existed since then, Grillo may be more dramatically visible. He should be recognized as the exceptional artist he has been all along.

Budd Hopkins