Conrad Marca-Relli at Knoedler & Company

Marca RelliConrad Marca-Relli, The Samurai #2 L-3-62 (1962), collage and mixed-media on canvas, 54″ x 66-1/8″; courtesy Knoedler & Company

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Over the past couple of years, Conrad Marca-Relli’s The Battle (1956), a large-scale collage in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has shared exhibition space with Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950), a signature “drip” painting.

The formal correspondences are self-evident: Both pieces are monumental, all-over abstractions whose tactile surfaces and lilting rhythms establish a roiling, expansive elegance. The two men shared historical circumstances–Marca-Relli and Pollock were part of the hard-scrabble milieu that came to be known as The New York School–and biographical particulars: It was Marca-Relli who identified Pollock’s body after his fatal car crash in 1956.

For those of us who have marveled at how decisively The Battle bests Autumn Rhythm in terms of vigor, complexity and staying power, Conrad Marca-Relli: The New York Years 1945-1967, a swift but satisfying overview, comes not a moment too soon. Here is where the life of art is rewarded by the vagaries of commerce: Knoedler Gallery has broadened the canon in a way that historians and museums are often too hidebound or skittish to venture. Even within the exhibition’s chronological parameters—Marca-Relli died in 2000 at the age of 87, so a good 30 years of the oeuvre is unaccounted for—you watch a Modernist acolyte evolve into a Modernist master. The ride is thrilling.

Marca-Relli cut, pasted and nailed fragments of painted paper, burlap and metal with sinuous, roughhewn dexterity. Like his friend Willem de Kooning, he looked to the human form for structure and emphasis; even at their most abstract or distilled, the collages are all knees and elbows, muscle and movement. Imagine the Laocoön as defined by Cubist logic and enlivened by Surrealist process and you’ll get some idea of the slippery, magisterial power generated by The Samurai #2 (1962) or even the relatively discursive Composition (1957).

Given the range, ambition and remarkable plasticity of Marca-Relli’s achievement, why has he been slighted in standard Modernist narratives?  Maybe his profound links to the past and, especially, to the figure are insufficiently avant-garde; perhaps a brooding romanticism renders him fatally un-cool. Could be the means: Some consider collage a “small” métier incapable of embodying heroic states of feeling. Whatever the case, The New York Years establishes Marca-Relli as a figure of no small significance.

 

© 2009 Mario Naves

Originally published in the November 3, 2009 edition of City Arts.

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