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 Conrad Marca-Relli  (1913 - 2000)

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Lived/Active: New York/Massachusetts / Italy      Known for: canvas collage, surreal cityscape

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Conrad Marca-Relli
from Auction House Records.
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is a copy of the obituary of Conrad Marca-Relli from The New York Times:

"Conrad Marca-Relli, Collagist and Painter, Dies at 87"
August 31, 2000
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN

Conrad Marca-Relli, an American artist linked to Abstract Expressionism and known for making large patchwork collages of cut pieces of canvas, died Tuesday 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. Last year he was made an honorary citizen of Italy.

He is survived by his wife.


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Known for his collage-making abilities in Cubist and Abstract Expressionist style as well as paintings, Conrad Marca-Relli spent most of his professional career in New York City.  He was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and during his childhood and youth in Europe, he received his first art lessons in Italy.

In 1926, he settled in New York City where he studied at various schools including Cooper Union.  From 1935 to 1938, he was a WPA artist with the Federal Art Project, and this job was his first opportunity to devote himself exclusively to his art work.  It also brought him into contact with other New York modernists such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.

From 1948 to 1949, he was again in Europe and turned to Surrealist circus and architectural themes influenced by Giorgio de Chirico and Henri Rousseau.  In Rome, he completed his first body of important works, based on Italian Renaissance architectural themes and circus motifs. These paintings were later exhibited in New York City at the Niveau Gallery.

Returning to New York, he pursued a style of controlled, sharp edged, biomorphic shapes with urban themes.  Only by chance did he turn to collage because of a trip to Mexico in 1953 where he was impressed by the contrasts between flat white adobe buildings and the black shadows on them from the brilliant sun.  To achieve a similar look, he developed a collage method of sketching forms on bare canvas, cutting them out with razor blades, coating them with layers of paint, and attaching them to a supporting canvas in a rearranged juxtaposition. Between the attachments, he began adding paint and strips of canvas, which suggested abstract figures and anatomical fragments.

By 1960, his collages were totally nonobjective. On flat surfaces and in sculpture, he experimented with metal and vinyl sheets, which gave his work an industrial and simplified appearance.

Source:
Matthew Baigell, "Dictionary of American Art"


Biography from Karlie Corporation:
Conrad Marca-Relli, the son of Italian parents, was born in Boston on June 5, 1913.  His childhood was spent partly in Italy and partly in America until he reached thirteen when his family permanently settled in New York.  He began to draw at an early age and said that he had been painting as long as he can remember.  In his last year of high school, he studied art at night.  Later he spent a year at Cooper Union.  By this time, in the early 1930's, the Depression was making it difficult for artists to make a living.  Marca-Relli supported himself doing occasional drawings and covers for newspapers and magazines, and with a teaching job.

The creation of the WPA, in 1935, was vitally important to Marca-Relli as it was with so many artists.  Here, Marca-Relli was employed as a teacher and then with the easel and mural divisions of the Federal Art Project.  For the first time, he earned a living as an artist.  Perhaps more important however, was that Marca-Relli came into contact with artists who helped him alter his entire view of painting.

Although he spent his last years settled in Italy, during much of his career he'd been an inveterate and restless traveler absorbing the expression and vibrancy of all the cultures he'd visited. He was primarily self-taught and although de Kooning, Franz Kline, Pollock, Kline and Rothko were among his friends, Marca-Relli had followed an independent, even isolated course.  He began as a painter but ultimately turned to collage.

Marca-Relli began his public career as a surrealist painter influenced by de Chirico, Rousseau and Miro.  Nevertheless, while traveling in Italy, Marca-Relli became absorbed in texture and solidity.  The theme of his work during this time was basic horizontal and vertical elements. During a trip to Mexico, however, Marca-Relli made a discovery that was to transform the course of his development as an artist.  There he was deeply impressed by the tactile qualities of the sunlit surfaces of adobe buildings.  Confronted with a light and structural system he first discovered in Italy he sought the most suitable medium for expressing the environment in which he found himself.

According to the mythology surrounding Marca-Relli, he ran out of paint and, following the course of his work, he began gluing material and paper in order to achieve a greater incisiveness of the borders.  He immediately found that collage provided the density and texture he sought.  Initially, Marca-Relli applied collage to a series of single figure studies. The anatomy of the body and the spaces around it merge and become the "architecture" of space.  The individual figures are sometimes lying down, sleeping or seated.  These early collages were created from segments of either raw canvas or natural linen that were pinned to the supporting canvas after they had been coated with a mixture of black paint and glue.  Later, he introduced two figures to increase the complexity and expressiveness of his work. Most of these works are large, accentuating the structural quality of the human form.  Soon after he introduced volumes of color to his work.

In 1958, Marca-Relli spent a few months in the south of France. While there, his work embodied the sharp contrasts and greater translucence of the Mediterranean light.  He also reduced the number of colors to concentrate on the contrast between one dominant hue with strong blacks and whites.

In his work about Marca-Relli, William C. Agee, one-time Assistant Curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, wrote, "Canvas had become almost too pliable, and Marca-Relli now searched for materials which would offer a greater resiliency to the hand.  In 1961 he used thin sheets of metal in several small collages, but metal at that time proved too awkward and inflexible.  The next year he discovered in sheets of vinyl plastic the right combination of resistance and flexibility.  Works in 1962...use vinyl sheets nailed directly to a wooden support. Following his innate tendency to formal reduction and simplicity, the shapes gradually cast off traces of biomorphism and became progressively fewer in number, larger and more open.

Cristobal and other later works in this series assumed a planar arrangement of horizontal and vertical shapes . . . Volumes of color were added as contrasts to the more neutral and open areas of the natural shades of vinyl.  These color volumes also provided a weight, which nudges against and displaces other shapes, creating a slow internal rhythm.  That rhythm is irregular and off-beat, caused in art by a deliberate awkwardness in cutting and attaching the plastic."

Marca-Relli expanded his use of industrial material to aluminum. Ultimately, he began to work in three-dimensional space creating reliefs and freestanding sculptures.  After exploring the possibilities of plastics and aluminum, Marca-Relli returned to paint and canvas as the materials of his collages.

The body of Marca-Relli's work is evidence of his inward and outward journeys. Marca-Relli did not see himself as a maker of pictures, but as a seeker, an experimenter, a problem-solver. And although he has friends and affiliations, he listened to only one voice in his creative process, his own.  He said: "I think painters should be free to experiment. And that during their experimenting they should be alone, without any interference . . . in order to see whether what they are doing is good or not."






Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, P-R):

Conrad Marca-Relli (1912–2000)

Conrad Marca-Relli, a member of the New York School’s first generation, was a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism. He is most celebrated for his large-scale collages, composed of pieces of canvas or natural linen overpainted with gestural brushstrokes. In 1967, William Agee, then curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, praised Marca-Relli’s work, claiming that his “achievement has been to raise collage to a scale and complexity equal to that of monumental painting.” (1)

Born in Boston on June 5, 1913, to Italian immigrant parents, Marca-Relli was a primarily self-taught artist and an inveterate traveler who bridged the American and European art worlds. He spent much of his childhood moving back and forth between the United States and Europe; his father was a news commentator and a journalist whose assignments required frequent travel. When he was thirteen, Marca-Relli and his parents permanently settled in New York, where he began his first formal artistic training. With the encouragement of his father, he took night classes at a private art school. After finishing high school in 1930, he studied at the Cooper Union for a year before establishing his own studio in Greenwich Village. During the Depression, Marca-Relli, like many American artists, supported himself by working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), first as a teacher and then with the easel and mural painting divisions of the Federal Art Project. At this time, he came into contact with progressive artists, including Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and John Graham, who exposed him to modernist artistic trends. 

After serving in the army during World War II, Marca-Relli returned to New York and to painting. He initially depicted cityscapes and carnival scenes in a Surrealist style, influenced by the work of Giorgio de Chirico, Henri Rousseau, and Joan Miró, before turning to a more abstract style in the early 1950s.

On a trip to Mexico in 1952, Marca-Relli radically altered his artistic practice in response to his surroundings. A probably apocryphal story claims that a lack of paint stimulated his initial experimentation with collage at this time; however, the artist’s account states that he turned to this pictorial technique to solve technical problems related to his interest in capturing the effects of sunlight on adobe buildings. Juxtaposing pieces of light-colored canvas allowed him to define the edges of his forms and establish a sense of depth in largely white-on-white pictures. Furthermore, the collage process enabled him to work quickly and change his creation constantly since he did not have to wait for the paint to dry.

Marca-Relli initially used collage for both architectural themes and a series of single figure images inspired by de Kooning’s depictions of women. As he mastered this technique, he made more complex and dynamic pictures with multiple figures and abstract works with veiled references to architectural and landscape elements. In the early 1960s he continued to explore his interest in abstract forms and began experimenting with new materials, including metals and synthetic plastics. 

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Marca-Relli was actively involved in the avant-garde art world in Greenwich Village. He helped to found the “Eighth Street Club,” an artists’ group whose members included de Kooning, Kline, and Jack Tworkov, and he assisted the art dealer Leo Castelli in the organization of the first “Ninth Street Show,” arguably the first comprehensive display of Abstract Expressionist work. At this time, he achieved much success, and his paintings entered the collections of the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1953, he purchased a house near Jackson Pollock’s home in Springs, East Hampton, an area that was developing into an artists’ colony. Three years later, Marca-Relli identified Pollock’s body for the police after his fatal car accident. This experience moved him to paint The Death of Jackson Pollock in that same year.

As his career progressed, Marca-Relli increasingly distanced himself from the New York School. He lived and worked in London; Sarasota, Florida; Wayne, New Jersey; Ibiza, Spain; Paris; and Rome. He maintained a close, lifelong connection to Italy and its art world. Early in his career, he arranged contacts for de Kooning, Castelli, and the art critic Thomas B. Hess in Rome, and 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.

1)  William C. Agee, Marca-Relli (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1967), 9.


Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, E-O):
Conrad Marca-Relli, a member of the New York School’s first generation, was a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism. He is most celebrated for his large-scale collages, composed of pieces of canvas or natural linen overpainted with gestural brushstrokes. In 1967, William Agee, then curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, praised Marca-Relli’s work, claiming that his “achievement has been to raise collage to a scale and complexity equal to that of monumental painting.” (1)

Born in Boston on June 5, 1913, to Italian immigrant parents, Marca-Relli was a primarily self-taught artist and an inveterate traveler who bridged the American and European art worlds. He spent much of his childhood moving back and forth between the United States and Europe; his father was a news commentator and a journalist whose assignments required frequent travel. When he was thirteen, Marca-Relli and his parents permanently settled in New York, where he began his first formal artistic training. With the encouragement of his father, he took night classes at a private art school. After finishing high school in 1930, he studied at the Cooper Union for a year before establishing his own studio in Greenwich Village. During the Depression, Marca-Relli, like many American artists, supported himself by working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), first as a teacher and then with the easel and mural painting divisions of the Federal Art Project. At this time, he came into contact with progressive artists, including Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and John Graham, who exposed him to modernist artistic trends.

After serving in the army during World War II, Marca-Relli returned to New York and to painting. He initially depicted cityscapes and carnival scenes in a Surrealist style, influenced by the work of Giorgio de Chirico, Henri Rousseau, and Joan Miró, before turning to a more abstract style in the early 1950s.

On a trip to Mexico in 1952, Marca-Relli radically altered his artistic practice in response to his surroundings. A probably apocryphal story claims that a lack of paint stimulated his initial experimentation with collage at this time; however, the artist’s account states that he turned to this pictorial technique to solve technical problems related to his interest in capturing the effects of sunlight on adobe buildings. Juxtaposing pieces of light-colored canvas allowed him to define the edges of his forms and establish a sense of depth in largely white-on-white pictures. Furthermore, the collage process enabled him to work quickly and change his creation constantly since he did not have to wait for the paint to dry.

Marca-Relli initially used collage for both architectural themes and a series of single figure images inspired by de Kooning’s depictions of women. As he mastered this technique, he made more complex and dynamic pictures with multiple figures and abstract works with veiled references to architectural and landscape elements. In the early 1960s he continued to explore his interest in abstract forms and began experimenting with new materials, including metals and synthetic plastics.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Marca-Relli was actively involved in the avant-garde art world in Greenwich Village. He helped to found the “Eighth Street Club,” an artists’ group whose members included de Kooning, Kline, and Jack Tworkov, and he assisted the art dealer Leo Castelli in the organization of the first “Ninth Street Show,” arguably the first comprehensive display of Abstract Expressionist work. At this time, he achieved much success, and his paintings entered the collections of the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1953, he purchased a house near Jackson Pollock’s home in Springs, East Hampton, an area that was developing into an artists’ colony. Three years later, Marca-Relli identified Pollock’s body for the police after his fatal car accident. This experience moved him to paint "The Death of Jackson Pollock" in that same year.

As his career progressed, Marca-Relli increasingly distanced himself from the New York School. He lived and worked in London; Sarasota, Florida; Wayne, New Jersey; Ibiza, Spain; Paris; and Rome. He maintained a close, lifelong connection to Italy and its art world. Early in his career, he arranged contacts for de Kooning, Castelli, and the art critic Thomas B. Hess in Rome, and 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.

1) William C. Agee, "Marca-Relli" (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1967), 9.

© Copyright 2007 Hollis Taggart Galleries

Biography from RoGallery.com:
Although Conrad Marca-Relli began his artistic career as a painter, he is recognized as one of the American masters of collage and part of the first generation of abstract expressionism.  Self-taught, except for a brief stint at Cooper Union in New York City, he has exhibited often in New York City, Europe and Latin America.

Marca-Relli was born in Boston of Italian parents. From 1935 to 1938, he worked for the WPA Federal Art Project. He spent four years in the army before settling in New York City. Although he traveled in Europe, the United States and Mexico, his frequent trips to Italy had the greatest effect on his early paintings.

Marca-Relli's early cityscapes, still lifes, circus themes and architectural motifs are reminiscent of Italian surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico. The subdued palette and architectural starkness of these paintings create a sense of loneliness and emptiness typical of the surrealists.

Marca-Relli's monumental-scale collage works combine oil painting and collage, with materials sometimes consisting of vinyl plastics and cut-out aluminum.

His collage paintings of the early 1950s are characterized by abstract or suggested figures, reclining or seated. These early works of canvas and pigment were created by first sketching forms onto bare canvas; they were then cut out and pinned to a supporting canvas. The pinning allowed the positioning of the cut-outs, so that accident and chance mingled with the artist's initial ideas. Carefully structuring the collage elements, Marca-Relli employed intense colors, broken surfaces and expressionistic spattering.

In the 1960s, he experimented with metal and vinyl sheets for an industrial effect. Shapes were outlined with painted or actual nail holes, stressing their three-dimensional plasticity.

Over the years the collages developed an abstract simplicity, evidenced by black or somber colors and rectangular shapes isolated against a neutral backdrop.

Marca-Relli has taught at Yale University (from 1954 to 1955 and from 1959 to 1960) and at the University of California at Berkeley (1958). His first one-man show was in New York City in 1948, and in 1967 the Whitney Museum of Modern Art gave him a retrospective show.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.


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