John Grillo (American, 1917-2014)
John Grillo was born July 4, 1917, the elder of three sons to Sicilian immigrant parents, in the small industrial town of Lawrence, Massachusetts. The 1930’s brought the family to Hartford, Connecticut where, as a child growing up, his first influences were felt, since his Father painted and sculpted. John would frequent the Wadsworth Antheneum Museum in Hartford where the collection of portraits would inspire him to become a portrait painter. In 1935 he enrolled in the Hartford School of Fine Arts where he learned portrait and landscape painting. He painted the poor and the working class and in 1939 he painted a large mural depicting a family of three sitting at a dining table with no food on their plates (based possibly on a lithograph by Daumier). During this period his major interests included the “Ashcan School”, Luks, Robert Henri, Thomas Hart Benton and Reginald Marsh, together with the works of the old masters.
During World War II, in 1944, Grillo enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Okinawa in the South Pacific where he continued to paint landscapes and scenes of life in the service. At that time he was inspired by a reproduction of Robert Motherwell’s collage, “Pancho Villa”. This soon led to his flowing and spontaneous abstractions, some of which were included in a post-war exhibition entitled, “Soldier Art” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
Grillo arrived in San Francisco at the war’s end in 1946 and enrolled in the San Francisco School of Fine Arts under the G.I. Bill. Douglas MacAgy, the director remembered Grillo as that “fiery young sailor”and gave him a studio and a lot of free reign. In Susan Landauer’s, “John Grillo, the San Francisco Years. Art of California”, May 1990: “Short on art supplies, Grillo used whatever was at hand. He threw cocoa and coffee grounds on sheets of paper to make speckled abstract patterns, tying the compositions together with washes and linear designs”.
Grillo’s first influences in this period included: Miro, Henry Moore, Mondrian, Picasso, Mark Rothko, Motherwell and Gottlieb’s pictographs. In the summer of 1947, he studied with Rothko and amassed a sizable amount of work. He then was given his first one-man show at the Daliel Gallery in Berkeley and received the Samuel S. Bender Award for painting, the funds of which enabled him to continue painting at the school.
Although he was only there for two short years, Grillo played a seminal role in the San Francisco branch of a movement that would revolutionize American Art. Today, Grillo is acknowledged as perhaps the first and purest “action painter” on the West Coast and one of the most influential painters of San Francisco’s school of Abstract Expressionism” (Thomas Albright, “Art in the San Francisco Bay Area” 1985.).
In 1948, Grillo left San Francisco for the East Coast. Arriving in New York City, he entered the school of Hans Hofmann, an artist who had a love of dazzling colors that matched his own. He also spent summers at Hofmann’s School in Provincetown, Massachusetts. A mutual respect ensued, resulting in Hofmann’s acquiring paintings of Grillo. He then had his first one-man show in New York City at the Artist’s Gallery in 1948. In the 1950’s he experimented with symbolism and action painting and grid-like paintings consisting of small squares based on Hofmann’s teachings. During the early 1950’s The Olsen Foundation acquired watercolors and paintings forming a retrospective collection that traveled to museums and colleges throughout the United States. In addition, works were being acquired at this period for some of the major museums such as: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
During this time in New York, Grillo’s friends included: Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Edward Dugmore, Alfred Jensen, Nanno de Groot, Lester Johnson, to name a few.
In the 1960’s, Grillo’s paintings evolved into a series of oversize canvases primarily in a luminous yellow range that to the critics evoked the power of light and sunshine. One artist called Grillo the Renoir of Abstract Expressionism, another compared him to Rubens for his sensuality. One critic brought up Turner, while another waxed eloquently about Venetian luminosity. Exhibitions of these works appeared at the Howard Wise Gallery and the Grace Borgenicht Gallery, both in New York.
During the middle 1960’s, Grillo was artist in residence at the University of California, Berkeley and received a Ford Foundation Grant to produce lithographs at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles. Returning to New York, he began working in three dimensions and produced fired clay and lost wax pieces cast in bronze anthropomorphic in character, one of which was acquired by the Guggenheim Museum for it’s permanent collection.
In 1965, while spending the summer in a Maine farm house, Grillo painted on found objects such as: bent wood chairs, antique victrolas, headboards, farm implements, a sauerkraut maker, and his own easel and palette. He did a series of geometric etchings, paintings and silk screens from 1968-1969.
Grillo joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1967. There he served as an inspiration to his students, initiating participatory events such as mural projects in public places, thematic performances and arts carnivals, which later led to his “Circus Theme” a series of paintings produced from 1981-83.
In the 1970’s Grillo continued Geometric paintings, this time on a larger scale in a constructivist manner. He also produced a series of voluptuous drawings, prints and paintings of female nudes ranging from innocence to those provocative in nature. Toward the late seventies Grillo created a body of work he named the “Kaleidoscope Series”. Some of these paintings remain abstract while others could easily be recognized as landscape paintings with trees, mountains and hills. Having traveled to South America in the early 1980’s, the mythology and religion of the Colombian Indians became the theme of paintings and charcoal drawings depicting El Dorado. He also created large scale vibrant paintings based on the Tango theme. “Grillo researched the origin of the dance from a form of social protest to a fashion of the times. He used the music of the dance to guide his art works” (Ellen Rubenstein, Cove Gallery, 1998). This theme was later revisited in 1998. What was unique about his circus and Tango paintings was that some were painted on both sides of the canvas and hung from the ceiling to be viewed from both sides.
Before retiring from the University of Massachusetts in 1991, Grillo produced a large mural representing the agrarian and academic elements in the history of the town of Amherst, presided over by the illustrious native poet, Emily Dickinson, levitating appropriately over the scene. The mural is installed in the Jones Public Library.
In 1991, Grillo moved to Well Fleet, Massachusetts where he presently lives and maintains a studio. In his most recent exhibition “John Grillo: A Painter’s Life of Expression. Works from 1938-2002“, more than six decades of work are represented at the Museo Italo Americano, San Francisco, California from January 18 through March 30, 2002.
In a recent interview, Grillo’s thoughts included the following: “Abstract painting is on a level with music. It’s a physical outburst from your whole being. It’s not the idea that is created and then you start painting. It’s always a challenge to shape something from nothing, to do the impossible.” As told to Jamieson Grillo, August 2001.