Conrad Marca-Relli - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Conrad Marca-Relli
Conrad Marca-Relli was born Corrado di Marcarelli in Boston, Massachusetts to Italian immigrant parents. Marca-Relli's father was a news commentator and a journalist whose job required frequent travel, he therefore spent much of his childhood moving back and forth between the United States and Europe. He began to draw at an early age and was encouraged by his family to pursue his artistic interests, taking his first lessons during his many extended trips to Italy. There he developed a lasting feeling for the heritage of Italian art and culture and the atmosphere of European life. When he was thirteen, Marca-Relli and his parents permanently settled in New York, where Marca-Relli finished his last year of high school at night so he could dedicate his days to painting.
With the exception of a year's study at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1930, Marca-Relli was largely a self-taught painter. Following his year at Cooper Union, he established his own studio and managed to earn an income by teaching and producing occasional illustrations for the daily and weekly press. Like many of his contemporaries, Marca-Relli later supported himself by working for the Works Progress Administration, first as a teacher and then with the easel and mural painting divisions of the Federal Art Project. This period was vitally important as it not only enabled Marca-Relli to fully dedicate his time and energy to his art, but also introduced him to a community of artists, such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline, who exposed him to artistic concepts of modernism. After serving in the army during World War II, Marca-Relli returned to New York to paint. His work initially depicted stark imagined cityscapes and circus scenes influenced by the work of Giorgio de Chirico and Henri Rousseau before he turned to a form of colorful biomorphic abstraction in the early 1950s.
In 1947 Marca-Relli moved to Paris, then to Rome, where he exhibited for two consecutive years and formed strong connections with Italian artists such as Afro and Alberto Burri. He returned to New York in 1949 and immersed himself in the avant-garde art world in Greenwich Village, becoming a founding member of the exclusive "Eighth Street Club." The "Club" was a center for lectures and discussion and provided a supportive environment for the Abstract Expressionists. In the spring of 1951, the club organized an exhibition of its members, with Marca-Relli on the selecting committee. The groundbreaking Ninth Street Show was arguably the first comprehensive display of Abstract Expressionist work that garnered serious attention from art critics, dealers, and the public.
In 1953, Marca-Relli purchased a house near Jackson Pollock's home in The Springs, East Hampton, an area that was at the time developing as an artists' colony. It was at this time that Marca-Relli radically altered his painting practice. During a trip to Mexico in 1953, a lack of available painting materials compelled him to experiment with collage in order to capture his impressions of the particular light, forms, and textures of his surroundings. He developed a process wherein he intuitively combined oil painting and cutout shapes, using intense colors, layered surfaces, and expressionistic spattering to initially represent architectural forms and single figures that were inspired by de Kooning's depictions of women. As he cultivated this technique, he made more complex and dynamic abstract works with veiled references to landscape elements and figural imagery. These points of reference manifested themselves in shapes evocative of writhing bodies or in hues drawn from the natural environment.
Late Years and Death
Marca-Relli continued to investigate the formal possibilities of collage throughout his career. From the early 1960s, he gradually began to experiment with wood, aluminum, and vinyl on assemblage 'paintings.' The rigidity of these new materials led him to create carefully structured compositions of increasingly simplified forms and inspired a series of freestanding metal sculptures.
Marca-Relli's regular journeys to Europe formed an important bridge between art circles on both sides of the Atlantic. He lived and worked in London, Florida, New Jersey, Ibiza, Spain, and Paris whilst maintaining a particularly close, lifelong connection to Italy and its art world. 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. That same year the Mathildenhohe Institute in Darmstadt presented a career retrospective of his work.
The Legacy of Conrad Marca-Relli
Marca-Relli's nomadic lifestyle prevented close association with the New York School; indeed, much critical attention was focused on his closest friends rather than on his own work. Yet he is widely admired by artists and critics alike for the richness and variation of his uniquely constructed images. A revived interest in his contribution to the Abstract Expressionist movement has been expressed in the recent publication of a catalog raisonne by David Anfam.