Sarah Grilo’s Prescient Abstraction

Sarah Grilo Americas going frame
Sarah Grilo, “America’s going…” (1967), oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 26 inches (© The Estate of Sarah Grilo; image courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.)

Among the 17 paintings by artist Sarah Grilo in Galerie Lelong’s The New York Years, 1962–1970, one work most dramatically prophesizes the dread-inducing news alerts of our time. The brushwork in beiges, browns, greens, and grays in “America’s going…” (1967) is overlain by red lettering that the artist transferred from newspapers, eerily resembling those red chyrons that flash on our phones and stream across cable news today.

Born in Argentina in 1917, Grilo was creating introspective art amid social and political unrest well before she moved to New York. Through the group Artistas Modernos de la Argentina, she became an important painter amid the male-dominated Buenos Aires art scene of the 1950s, singled out for her monochromatic, geometric, and expressionistic approaches to lyrical abstraction.

After winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961, Grilo and her husband, painter José Antonio Fernández-Muro, relocated to New York City. There, her approach took a decisive turn toward incorporating language into the picture planes, which would define her oeuvre for the next half-century until her death in 2007.

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Sarah Grilo, “Pines, Ochres and Green” (1963), oil on canvas, 44 x 50 inches (© The Estate of Sarah Grilo; image courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.)

The New York Years marks Grilo’s first solo exhibition in the city since a show at Byron Gallery in 1967. Today, much as it did back then, her work poses a puzzling question: What propelled a formerly restrained painter to introduce found text, as well as painted numerals, handwritten transcriptions, and calligraphic notes, into her canvases? This mystery is teased out through the pairing of her paintings with period photos, reviews of her work (about which critics were divided), and portraits of Grilo around the city, alongside the magazines from which she appropriated texts.

Clip of a hosiery ad, from which Grilo listed the title for “Win, it’s great for your ego” (1965–66) (photo Tim Keane/Hyperallergic)

The exhibition highlights an artist opening herself up to the city’s spontaneous diversity and bringing late modernism into conversation with a postwar pop landscape. But while it may reference Andy Warhol’s co-opting of consumer products and Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines series, Grilo’s art avoids the facile cool and sardonic complicity of Pop art. Instead, she evokes an energetic American zeitgeist sinking under the weight of its many moral contradictions. In her carefully selected transfer-texts, the country’s puritanical hopefulness seems in lockstep with its cynical salesmanship. The appropriated text in “Charts are dull” (1965), for one, highlights America’s anti-intellectual zeal for unfiltered experience, though that tagline was lifted from a magazine ad for the Plymouth Belvedere sedan.

In nonverbal paintings free of text, Grilo deploys drips, impasto, and scumbling techniques to contrast subdued grayish tones with opulent colors, lending these abstractions the aura of the ancient or otherworldly. “Orange and mauve” (1963) looks like a scintillating, ultra-magnified slide from a fission experiment while “Pines Ochres and Greens” (1963) maps fertile topographical regions scarred by blackened tracts suggesting incineration.

Detail of Sarah Grilo, “Win, it’s great for your ego” (1965–66), oil on canvas, 49 3/4 x 41 3/4 inches (photo Tim Keane/Hyperallergic)
Sarah Grilo Insert 3 Contrapunto frame
Sarah Grilo, “Contrapunto” (1970), oil on canvas, 51 1/8 x 44 7/8 inches (© The Estate of Sarah Grilo; image courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.)

Building on the uncanny, Grilo’s use of found text links disembodied human voices to their seemingly vacant or abandoned settings. “Win, it’s great for your ego” (1965–66) gets its titular slogan from a hosiery ad that the artist lifted from Ladies Home Journal. In it, numeric tallies and text declaring “WIN!” and “Twenty days OF WAR” signal a consumerist nation grappling with an ever-rising death toll on the battlefields of Vietnam.

Similarly feverish, large paintings like “Days (Four Zeroes) (1964), “Accused over crisis” (1967), and “Black Wall” (1967) are composed of dissolving monochromatic washes — whites, blacks, and grays — that mimic the controlled chaos of New York’s subway walls, storefronts, and sidewalk sheds. Like those urban structures, the paintings are emblazoned with logos and symbols, handwritten scrawling, tattered advertisements, caustic doodles, and agitprop. In this respect, these paintings encapsulate how New York’s heavily trafficked byways get transformed over time into collage-like public artworks.

In 1970, Grilo and her family left the US, in large part to prevent their sons from being drafted into the Vietnam War. Though she never returned to work in New York, the hybridity of paint and text that she adopted there became central to all of her subsequent paintings. And, as this exhibition shows, Grilo’s newfound composite art, like that of many women artists of her generation, debunks the tired myth that Abstract Expressionism was narrowly prelinguistic and self-referential. By laying numbers, words, and phrases onto otherwise abstract imagery, Grilo transforms gestural painting into an extension of language — a living response to the unspeakable.

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Sarah Grilo beside one of her paintings (photo by Lisl Steiner, courtesy the Estate of Sarah Grilo and the Institute for Studies on Latin American Art (ISLAA))
insert5 Sarah Grilo Accused Over Crisis frame
Sarah Grilo, “Accused over crisis” (1967), oil on canvas 21 1/2 x 47 1/4 inches (© The Estate of Sarah Grilo; image courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.)
Insert6 Sarah Grilo Homage to my language frame
Sarah Grilo, “Homage to my language (letter Ñ)” (1965), oil on canvas, 32 x 26 7/8 inches (© The Estate of Sarah Grilo; image courtesy Estrellita B. Brodsky Collection)

The New York Years, 1962–70 continues at Galerie Lelong (528 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 30. The exhibition was curated by Karen Grimson.

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