Abstract Expressionist painter John Grillo died of a heart failure at age 97 on November 26, just over a month after a five-decade retrospective of his work at University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Born in 1917 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Grillo 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 he saw 18th- and 19th-century portraits that created a passion for art, which lasted his entire life. Five years later, in 1935, Grillo enrolled in the Hartford School of Fine Arts 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.
In 1944, Grillo joined the Navy and served in Okinawa during World War II. There, he continued painting landscapes and scenes of daily life. It was not until he saw a reproduction of Robert Motherwell’s 1943 collage Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive that he began to experiment with abstraction.
After being discharged from the Navy in 1946, Grillo came to San Francisco, where he studied at California Institute of the Arts using money from the G.I. Bill. At the time, the art school was a hotbed for radical abstraction, and Grillo learned from some of the best artists of his day, most notably Richard Diebenkorn. Though Grillo stayed in California for just two years before moving to New York in 1948, he is considered one of the most important Californian Abstract Expressionists.
For his first three years in New York, Grillo studied with Hans Hofmann, the famed German expat whose raucously colored canvases juxtapose hard-edged shapes with gestural backgrounds. Grillo’s signature style, demarcated by an interest in bold colors and grid-like patterns, was formed during this period. The warm colors of his canvases earned Grillo comparisons to Renoir and Rubens.
As his career continued in the following decades, Grillo’s paintings became increasingly figural, although the warm colors and sharp contrasts still remained. It was in this later period of his career that Grillo had his 25-year tenure as a professor of fine arts at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst from 1967 to 1992.
Over the course of his six-decade career, Grillo had over 85 solo shows. His 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.
David Findlay Jr. Gallery, which showed Grillo’s work, confirmed the news.