For five decades Esteban Vicente (1903–2001)―an integral member of the New York School―explored color, form, and texture in vibrant paintings and inventive collages. Whether using paint or cut-and-torn paper, he crafted his works with painstaking care, attentively layering abstract shapes and varied hues. Vicente’s very early collages, however, also exude Abstract Expressionism’s spontaneity, prompting critics to dub him a pioneer of “action collage.” Indeed, this medium was as important to Vicente as his painting, and collages often made up half of his annual output. Later works feature bold, geometric forms that showcase luminous colors and delicately shifting tones. He also created small-scale sculptures called “toys” or divertimientos, which he cobbled together from bits of wood and other detritus scattered about his studio. Thoughtful yet lighthearted improvisations, his “toys” convey the artist’s whimsical side—he was well known for his formal demeanor―and reveal his hands-on, polychrome experiments with three-dimensionality.
The only Spanish-born artist of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, Vicente moved to the United States in 1936 after living briefly in Paris and London, witnessing the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and defending his country’s Republican government. By 1950 he was a fixture of New York’s Downtown art scene. That year Vicente rented a studio on East Tenth Street where he shared a floor with Willem de Kooning, became a voting member of The Club, and participated in some of the first exhibitions of Abstract Expressionist works, including Talent 1950 at the Samuel Kootz Gallery and the seminal 9th Street show. A dedicated and generous teacher, he taught art at New York University; the University of California, Berkeley; Black Mountain College; the New York Studio School; Princeton University; and Yale University among other institutions. Bringing together his collages and small-scale sculptures for the first time, Concrete Improvisations sheds new light on Vicente’s vital contributions to 20th-century art.