Summary of Conrad Marca-Relli
Conrad Marca-Relli was a Boston-born painter and sculptor who belonged to the early generation of New York School Abstract Expressionist artists. Following a period of painting Surrealist inspired imagery, Marca-Relli made a critical breakthrough with large-scale collage paintings that frequently drew inspiration from the human form to create abstract compositions of interlocking curves and angles. He is considered to be one of the first artists to raise the art of collage to a status comparable with monumental painting, which paved the way for the large "combine paintings" of the Neo-Dada artists of the 1960s.
- Early in his career, Marca-Relli recognized that for abstraction to be emotionally moving, the use of psychologically affecting shapes and textures were necessary. Contours and shapes in his work were therefore based on imagined architectural themes or figure arrangements but were deliberately left ambiguous.
- Marca-Relli took a constructive approach to image making, building up surfaces by cutting out and applying shapes to canvas or metal supports. He did not seek gestural movement or uncontrolled spontaneity, but sought to create controlled, complex compositions of interlocking forms.
- Marca-Relli maintained strong links to Europe throughout his life and did not wish to break from the traditions of the "Old World" unlike many of his contemporaries. He lived and worked in France, Spain, and Italy and looked to European painters from the Renaissance, Cubism, and metaphysical movements for inspiration.
Important Art by Conrad Marca-Relli
This untitled painting from 1940 reveals the influence of Giorgio di Chirico on Marca-Relli's early career as a painter. This strangely unpopulated square is strongly evocative of di Chirico's enigmatic imagery inspired by the architecture and melencholy atmosphere of Turin. The archway in the background indicate the scene is an imagined European city with its tilted perspective enhancing the flatness of the picture plane.
Oil on board - Private Collection
Seated Figure won Marca-Relli the prestigious Logan Medal of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954. The composition was produced during a period in which the artist focused almost exclusively on interpretations of single figures using layered planes of collaged canvas. In these works, Marca-Relli sought to explore abstract form using "the architecture of the human figure" as a starting point for interchanges between light and dark, positive and negative space.
Oil and canvas on linen - The Art Institute of Chicago
The interlocking biomorphic forms in Trial represent the increasing complexity of Marca-Relli's collage technique during the 1950s. The artist has deliberately obliterated any recognizable sections of human anatomy, yet the work suggests a myriad of jostling figures. This vast composition combines an extraordinary variety of overlapping shapes, textures and contrasts to create a sense of movement that was inspired in part by Paolo Uccello's monumental battle scenes.
Oil on canvas and collage - The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
In the late 1950s, Marca-Relli embarked on a series of works that were ambitious in their scale, complexity and color harmonies. With Surge, Marca-Relli abandoned his formerly subdued palette of off-white and ochre to introduce bold zones of color as a new formal element in his paintings. The jostling blue, red and yellow shapes that expand outwards from a tight mass at the centre of the canvas convey a sense of intense energy and movement.
Oil and collage on canvas - The Cleveland Museum of Art
Cristobal displays Marca-Relli's developing interest in new materials such as vinyl and plastic. Created in 1962, this composition abandons painterly lyricism and any reference to naturalistic forms for bold geometric planes. The nails that hold the work together are deliberately left exposed to lend it an industrial appearance that is meant to suggest "the side of a freighter" in transit.
Oil and collage on board - Private Collection
Untitled A reveals Marca-Relli's continued desire to move beyond the gestures and materials traditionally associated with painting. This assemblage of planar, cut-out aluminum shapes reveals the artist's tendency towards formal reduction and simplicity in his later years. His experiments with metal came from his need to work with more resilient material than the canvas he had relied upon for previous collage work. This material introduced a new ambiguity regarding the artwork's definition as painting or sculpture.
Aluminum, painted aluminum and screws - Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Biography of Conrad Marca-Relli
Conrad Marca-Relli was born Corrado di Marcarelli in Boston, Massachusetts to Italian immigrant parents. Marca-Relli's father was a news commentator and a journalist whose job required frequent travel, he therefore spent much of his childhood moving back and forth between the United States and Europe. He began to draw at an early age and was encouraged by his family to pursue his artistic interests, taking his first lessons during his many extended trips to Italy. There he developed a lasting feeling for the heritage of Italian art and culture and the atmosphere of European life. When he was thirteen, Marca-Relli and his parents permanently settled in New York, where Marca-Relli finished his last year of high school at night so he could dedicate his days to painting.
With the exception of a year's study at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1930, Marca-Relli was largely a self-taught painter. Following his year at Cooper Union, he established his own studio and managed to earn an income by teaching and producing occasional illustrations for the daily and weekly press. Like many of his contemporaries, Marca-Relli later supported himself by working for the Works Progress Administration, first as a teacher and then with the easel and mural painting divisions of the Federal Art Project. This period was vitally important as it not only enabled Marca-Relli to fully dedicate his time and energy to his art, but also introduced him to a community of artists, such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline, who exposed him to artistic concepts of modernism. After serving in the army during World War II, Marca-Relli returned to New York to paint. His work initially depicted stark imagined cityscapes and circus scenes influenced by the work of Giorgio de Chirico and Henri Rousseau before he turned to a form of colorful biomorphic abstraction in the early 1950s.
In 1947 Marca-Relli moved to Paris, then to Rome, where he exhibited for two consecutive years and formed strong connections with Italian artists such as Afro and Alberto Burri. He returned to New York in 1949 and immersed himself in the avant-garde art world in Greenwich Village, becoming a founding member of the exclusive "Eighth Street Club." The "Club" was a center for lectures and discussion and provided a supportive environment for the Abstract Expressionists. In the spring of 1951, the club organized an exhibition of its members, with Marca-Relli on the selecting committee. The groundbreaking Ninth Street Show was arguably the first comprehensive display of Abstract Expressionist work that garnered serious attention from art critics, dealers, and the public.
In 1953, Marca-Relli purchased a house near Jackson Pollock's home in The Springs, East Hampton, an area that was at the time developing as an artists' colony. It was at this time that Marca-Relli radically altered his painting practice. During a trip to Mexico in 1953, a lack of available painting materials compelled him to experiment with collage in order to capture his impressions of the particular light, forms, and textures of his surroundings. He developed a process wherein he intuitively combined oil painting and cutout shapes, using intense colors, layered surfaces, and expressionistic spattering to initially represent architectural forms and single figures that were inspired by de Kooning's depictions of women. As he cultivated this technique, he made more complex and dynamic abstract works with veiled references to landscape elements and figural imagery. These points of reference manifested themselves in shapes evocative of writhing bodies or in hues drawn from the natural environment.
Late Years and Death
Marca-Relli continued to investigate the formal possibilities of collage throughout his career. From the early 1960s, he gradually began to experiment with wood, aluminum, and vinyl on assemblage 'paintings.' The rigidity of these new materials led him to create carefully structured compositions of increasingly simplified forms and inspired a series of freestanding metal sculptures.
Marca-Relli's regular journeys to Europe formed an important bridge between art circles on both sides of the Atlantic. He lived and worked in London, Florida, New Jersey, Ibiza, Spain, and Paris whilst maintaining a particularly close, lifelong connection to Italy and its art world. In his final years, he lived in Parma with his wife, Anita Gibson (whom he married in 1951). Marca-Relli became an honorary Italian citizen the year before his death in 2000. That same year the Mathildenhohe Institute in Darmstadt presented a career retrospective of his work.
The Legacy of Conrad Marca-Relli
Marca-Relli's nomadic lifestyle prevented close association with the New York School; indeed, much critical attention was focused on his closest friends rather than on his own work. Yet he is widely admired by artists and critics alike for the richness and variation of his uniquely constructed images. A revived interest in his contribution to the Abstract Expressionist movement has been expressed in the recent publication of a catalog raisonne by David Anfam.