Based on his friendships and working relationships in both America and Europe, Alfonso Ossorio’s art engaged with the abstract, gestural mark-making of Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) and the psychological expressionism of Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985). The subject and forms of Full Mother (1951), however, are unique to Ossorio’s cross-cultural experiences. A simplified figure of a woman dominates the composition. The title may point to the fact that this mother is indeed full, in view of the three large fetus-like forms in the area below her breasts. Her outstretched arms and her feet tight together recall Catholic imagery of the crucified Christ, but the application of paint, with its swirls and drips in dramatic red, rust, blue, black and white, flattens her form into a modern icon. Full Mother filters Catholic imagery through Filipino folk tradition and medieval European art to reinterpret and abstract the Madonna and Christ as the holy unification of body and soul. The sacred, gestural, and anatomical merge in a visceral image that questions the stability of the body as a site for spirituality. Perhaps based on sketches that Ossorio produced during his work as a medical illustrator during World War II, this painting creates a visual language of bones and body parts, at once anatomical and expressive. By suggesting the organs and bones within, Ossorio violates the maternal body and emphasizes the corporeal over the spiritual.
Alfonso Ossorio combined Abstract Expressionism, art brut, and assemblage, using nontraditional materials. In his youth he was educated in England but in 1930 he moved to the United States, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1933. From 1934 to 1938 he studied fine art at Harvard University, then at the Rhode Island School of Design (1938–39). After he met Betty Parsons in 1941, she presented his work at her gallery in New York. During World War II he worked as a medical illustrator for the U.S. Army in Illinois, painting in his spare time. Ossorio’s first published work was the book Poems and Wood Engravings (1936). He is best known for his “Congregations”—assemblages of shells, pearls, glass eyes, animal bones, and driftwood—which he began in the late 1950s. He also produced paintings and works on paper. In 1950 he returned to the Philippines to paint The Angry Christ, a mural for the Chapel of St. Joseph the Worker. Ossorio was a friend of artists Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985) and Jackson Pollock (1912–1956). On Pollock’s advice, in 1951, he acquired “The Creeks,” an estate in East Hampton, where he housed Dubuffet’s collection of art brut (1951–61).