Esteban Vicente 1903 - 2001 American, born Spain Color Field Painters, Sculptors
By the time he quit Madrid for New York in 1936—the Spanish Civil War raging behind him—Esteban Vicente was already an accomplished sculptor and painter on familiar terms with the School of Paris. Like so many artists coming of age in Europe in the era of Art Deco, he moved comfortably among French and Spanish artistic and literary circles, which included the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, the future film director Luis Buñuel, and Pablo Picasso. In the 1920s, Vicente had experimented with figurative painting, portraiture, still life, and Post-Impressionist landscape. Vicente settled in the United States in 1936, became a citizen, and entered another period of prolonged artistic experimentation. He spent much of the late 1930s and early 1940s considering the achievements of Picasso and Cubism (especially collage and semi-abstraction), and the geometric, nonobjective abstraction of Mondrian—all the while moving in the artistic circle of the nascent New York School. Esteban Vicente's openness to new influences and friendships, including those with artists Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, assured his crucial role in the evolution of Abstract-Expressionist discourse in 1940s and 50s New York. By 1950, Vicente’s work was selected by Meyer Schapiro and Clement Greenberg for their landmark exhibition of contemporary painting, Talent 1950, at the Samuel Kootz Gallery. He would also participate in Leo Castelli’s watershed Ninth Street Show at 60 East Ninth Street the following year. Vicente’s work at this time constituted a coloristic, carefully structured variant on the compositional methods of Synthetic Cubism, in which forms of color seemed to hover and shift in a shallow field of evenly distributed light. Vicente’s unique idiom of “chromatic abstraction” evolved toward the 1960s into a form of Color Field painting; Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler represented its heroic, or large-scale, perfection, while Vicente was widely admired for his intimate mastery of the genre. Vicente maintained a vigorous teaching schedule, helping to found the New York Studio School in 1964 and instructing students at Black Mountain College, Princeton, New York University, Yale, and the University of California at Berkeley. He and his wife, Harriet, visited the East End of Long Island early in his debut with the New York School, eventually buying an old Bridgehampton farmhouse in 1964 and converting a barn into a studio boasting clerestory windows. (He strove for a similar even-tempered illumination in his work.) The couple lived on the property for nearly forty years and the surrounding garden cultivated over the years provided a vital connection for Vicente to the natural world.
Esteban Vicente's death in 2001 at the age of 97 marked the passing of one of the last surviving members of the first generation of New York School painters. Vicente has been celebrated by the Spanish government for his distinguished career in both his native and his adopted lands, and is permanently memorialized in a solo museum and cultural center—the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente—in his native Segovia. His legacy, as artist and as teacher, his vital role in the artistic community in New York and on the East End, and his lifelong pursuit of a singular vision are seen in the group of works brought together at the Parrish Art Museum. These pieces form a highly selective overview of Vicente's career, and include works in the Parrish's own core collection, augmented with key paintings from the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente in Segovia, Spain, as well as from the Harriet and Esteban Vicente Foundation in New York. Highlighting discreet passages in the artist's oeuvre, including seminal paintings from the 1950s and 60s, the exhibition reveals the fluidity and expressiveness of his approach—from the energy and light of the paintings to the mastery of his final works, where a single brushstroke can evoke a summative statement, as in Countryside (1999), a lyrical study of the view from the back door of the farmhouse to the garden and studio beyond. Vicente always remained attuned to the possibilities of experiment and invention, perhaps best seen in the "divertimientos," made from scraps of wood that lay scattered about the studio. These playful and elegant sculptures are a reminder that Vicente originally trained as a sculptor and underscore the openness and receptivity that exemplify his estimable career. [Gregory Galligan]