Abstract Expressionist painter John Grillo died of heart failure at the grand age of 97, on November 26th, just over a month after a five-decade retrospective of the artist’s work at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Grillo was born in 1917 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and became interested in art at a young age. After his family relocated to Hartford, Connecticut, in 1930, he made frequent visits to the Wadsworth Atheneum, where the artist saw 18th- and 19th-century portraits that created a passion for art, which lasted for his entire life.
Grillo enrolled in the Hartford School of Fine Arts, five years later, in 1935, and began to paint landscapes inspired by the Ashcan School. In 1937, at the young age of 20, Grillo worked with Alexander Calder and Eugene Berman for Paper Ball: Cirque des Chiffoniers, a theatre production held at the Hartford Arts Festival.
The artist joined the Navy in 1944, and served in Okinawa during World War II. There, Grillo continued painting landscapes and scenes of daily life. But it was not until he saw a reproduction of Robert Motherwell’s 1943 collage Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive, that the artist began to experiment with abstraction.
The artist was discharged from the Navy in 1946, and journeyed to San Francisco, where he studied at California Institute of the Arts using money from the G.I. Bill. At this point in its history, the art school was a centremfor radical abstraction, and Grillo learned from some of the best artists of his day, most notably Richard Diebenkorn. Though the artist stayed in California for just two years before moving to New York in 1948, Grillo is still considered one of the most important Californian Abstract Expressionists.
For his first three years in New York, Grillo studied with Hans Hofmann, where Grillo’s signature style, demarcated by an interest in strong colours and grid-like patterns, was formed during this period. The warm colours of his paintings earned Grillo comparisons to Renoir and Rubens. As the artist’s career continued in the following decades, his works became more figural, but sharp contrasts and bold colours still remained. It was in the later period of the artist’s career that Grillo committed to a 25-year tenure as a professor of fine arts at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst which ended in 1992.
Over the course of his six-decade career, the artist had exhibited in over 85 solo shows. Grillo’s works are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.
The death of John Grillo was confirmed by the David Findlay Jr. Gallery, which showed the artist’s work.