Conrad Marca - Relli 1913 —2000


Conrad Marca-Relli, an American artist linked to Abstract Expressionism and known for making large patchwork collages of cut pieces of canvas, member of the New York School of first generation Abstract Expressionists, died Tuesday August 31, 2000, at his home in Parma, Italy. He was 87.

In 1967, when the Whitney Museum of American Art organized a retrospective of Mr. Marca-Relli's work, the show's curator, William Agee, said, "Marca-Relli's achievement has been to raise collage to a scale and complexity equal to that of monumental painting."

John Canaday, reviewing the show in The New York Times, described the artist's "success in bringing restlessly energetic forms into static position without deadening them, his strong echoes of classical architecture as filtered through the Italian Renaissance, and his increasing interest in high polish."

Born in Boston in 1913, Mr. Marca-Relli was the son of a journalist whose assignments abroad allowed the family to spend years in Europe. Mr. Marca-Relli had his first art lessons as a boy in Italy. In the United States, he attended Cooper Union briefly and then, at 18, struck out on his own. He taught art, worked as an illustrator for newspapers and magazines and joined the Federal Art Project of the W.P.A., through which he met Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and John Graham. His acquaintance with them helped familiarize him with modernism.

After serving in the Army, he had his first solo show in New York in 1947: surreal dreamscapes with circus themes and allusions to Italian Renaissance buildings, influenced by the work of Giorgio de Chirico. He then switched to thickly painted, agitated abstractions, affected by an exhibition he had seen of the painter Arshile Gorky. But he was dissatisfied.

He had a breakthrough in Mexico during the summer of 1953, when, having run out of paint, he started making collages from what was at hand. Returning to the United States and inspired by de Kooning's "Women," Mr. Marca-Relli began a series of abstract collages based on human figures. These jigsaw collages consisted of raw canvas or linen stuck like shingles to a larger canvas and then painted.

He described his goal as bringing accident and gesture, qualities of Abstract Expressionism, to the usually methodical medium of collage. He cut shapes quickly, intuitively. The idea was not "speed for its own sake, but to create through free, automatic action, before conscious thought can censor out creativity," he said.

During the 1960's he applied the technique to metal and vinyl, creating works alluding to wings, fuselages and airplanes, and this activity led him to make sculptures before returning to canvas and paint. Painting, he said, is "a continuous attempt at solving insoluble problems."

"You just keep working and you never get it clear to yourself," he added.

Mr. Marca-Relli made intense small-scale abstractions and bigger figurative collages in the 70's . . . His palette, typically somber, broadened, and for a while he even experimented with spray paint, but without undoing his
essential European-inflected elegance, which was a virtue to supporters, a weakness to detractors, who complained occasionally about what one critic called "secondhand sumptuousness."

He was elegant in person, known among friends as a restless, charming hypochondriac. Writers stressed his fondness for fast cars. In 1951 he married Anita Gibson, a Peruvian and the daughter of Percy Gibson, the poet. Over the years they lived in East Hampton, N.Y., where he became a close friend and neighbor of Jackson Pollock; and also in Wayne, N.J.; Ibiza, Spain; Sarasota, Fla.; Rome; Paris; and London. The couple moved to Parma four
years ago.

Mr. Marca-Relli's work was frequently shown and collected. Among recent exhibitions were a survey last year at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice and another this year in Darmstadt, Germany. He was made an honorary citizen of Italy.


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Among the many museums which have the work of Marca-Relli in their permanent collection are:

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Yale University Art Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Lowe Art Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Fogg Art Museum, Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, Colby College Museum of Art, The University of Michigan Museum of Art, Washington University Gallery of Art, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Carnegie Museum of Art, Denver Art Museum and the Portland Art Museum.


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