Vincent Pepi, one of the expressionist masters
that helped make New York the post-war center of the art world.*
Pepi’s story is one of a committed Abstract Expressionist from the heyday of the movement but with a difference. While many in the group remained in New York, staying close to the museums and galleries that fostered their careers, Pepi followed a globe-trotting trajectory that included Mexico, North Africa and extensive periods of residence in Italy, adding an international diversity to the New York style. One of the highlights of the exhibition is a core group of early works, starting with 1949, made during a spectacularly prolific stay in Rome.
In 1949, just as the Abstract Expressionist movement was establishing itself as the up-and-coming force in New York, Pepi left town to go to Rome for two years to study at the American Academy and immerse himself in the art historical tradition to which he pointedly related his painting, giving rise to later critical accounts of his work as “academic” at heart. His teacher was Beppe Guzzi, a classically trained painter who instilled in his student a technical foundation in the figure and historic studio practices. Pepi absorbed the lessons of the Old Masters as well as the aesthetic of the Futurists such as Boccioni and Balla, and was especially taken by the work of Matta, whose whose delicate figural gestures are a clear influence on Pepi’s watercolors. The bold, graphic vocabulary and secure figural sense that Pepi developed are evident in the important early painting, Rome 404 (1949).
Like Pepi, Hofmann was a product of European refinement and the American tendency to break the rules, a synthesizer of classical form and improvisation. Pepi’s free-wheeling virtuosity always rests firmly on a compositional sense of balance that is related to his deep reverence for Cezanne. In a work as deceptively ordered as 705, the blocks of color that Hofmann also used float in a subtle lattice of verticals and horizontals.
In addition to studying under Hofmann, Pepi attended a few of the meetings of the famous “Club,” where Pollock, Kline, Willem de Kooning and the stars of the era energetically held forth and excitedly produced their manifestoes, but he assiduously avoided becoming a mere follower on the scene. His graphic design business offered independence economically. Yet his exhibition history accords with the leading lights of the period. He was part of the historically important Stable Gallery, where he showed his work in 1953 alongside many of the leaders in the movement, as well as the March Gallery on Tenth Street, where his work was shown from 1955 until it closed in 1960.
From the start of his long career to the later works, Pepi made generous use of this license to unleash bold strokes on an intimate scale. The slashes and whirling circuits of 511, painted in 1950 and one of the earliest works in the exhibition, are vigorously echoed in 1327, a watercolor made in 1996 that floats the boldly graphic wheel of red over atmospheric passages of blue and gold, a compositional idiom that his master Hofmann had borrowed in turn from Kandinsky.
When Pepi turned, as de Kooning did, to the figure in a late phase during the 1980s, he gave his classical training in life drawing the chromatic and gestural twist that was wholly expressionist, as in the loose limbs of the late watercolor and gouache, 1226 (1993).
The expressionist vibrancy of Jawlensky is felt in the portraits such as 973 (1988), with its brooding pensiveness, and the swirling colors curtained in washes of black found in 891 (1987).
Pepi’s place in the chronicles of art history is assured by his inclusion in many of the reviews of major exhibitions from the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, as well as in the scholarship of important critics. He was included in an important survey compiled in 2000 by Marika Herskovic, The New York School Abstract Expressionists: Artists Choice by Artists. He is featured in a number of prominent public collections, including the Smithsonian, the Heckscher Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, the Montclair Museum of Art, and such university museums as Brown University, the University of Greensboro and Tufts University.
Among the most insightful essays on his work is a career survey by Greta Berman, an art historian who teaches, appropriately enough, at the Juilliard School. Berman connects Pepi’s painting not only to such artistic influences as Matta, Gorky, Kandinsky and Cezanne, but to the inspirational model of music. After noting that Pepi learned to play the tenor saxophone, Berman observes: “Color and music appear parallel to him; the artist/musician improvises with both. And so it follows that Pepi’s own automatic painting and ‘line poems’ are reminiscent of works by Paul Klee, with the latter’s powerful equations of color, line and music.” Klee along with Kandinsky, an accomplished cellist, was an exemplary interpreter of the chromatic effects that could be translated from music to canvas. Pepi, too, is a connoisseur of dissonances and syncopation, as can be seen in 658 (1978), which harmonizes in a lavender key even as it riffs playfully on the looping figures he favors. The black line oscillating across the top part even looks like the musical notation for a trill. Jazz for the wall, it is one of many Pepi works you
Pepi in Rome was also developing the bright chromaticism and feather-light touch of watercolor worked wet into wet as in 543 The Kiss, an important example in the current show from 1950.
The exhibition presents several other works from the period, taking an in-depth look at Pepi’s Rome years and their lingering influence on his career. His commitment to the European source materials of his abstract art is similar to that of Conrad Marca-Relli, who also shuttled between New York and Italy and, ironically enough, ended up sharing the same studio building as Pepi in New York (the other tenant was Franz Kline). Both Pepi and Marca-Relli combined their sophisticated European experience with the raw energy of New York’s Abstract Expressionism in an idiom that was both international and original.
Returning to Manhattan in 1951, Pepi plunged into the heart of the action painting scene, taking classes with the renowned Hans Hofmann (who had trained Kline, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell and many others). The large, dynamic oil on canvas, Token, is an important example of Pepi’s action painting from this period.
No. 543, 1950
Watercolor on paper | 20” x 15”
Rome 404, 1949 | Watercolor | 15” x 20”
Born in Boston, his family moved to Manhattan, where he attended the famed High School of Music and Art. Right after graduation he found a job as an illustrator, publishing his work in Good Housekeeping magazine. After serving in the Navy, in 1946 he was admitted to the highly competitive Cooper Union. He also attended studio classes at the Pratt Institute. Two years later he moved to Mexico to study the murals of Siqueros and Rivera, a fascination he shared with Jackson Pollock among others. When he returned to New York he joined an advertising agency, setting the pattern for a career as a painter that was supported by his steady work as a graphic designer (eventually heading the graphic design team at New York University).
Token, 1962 | Oil on canvas | 46” x 44”
No.705, 1994 | Mixed Media
24" x 18"
No. 511, 1950 | Watercolor on paper | 20” x 15”
No. 1327, 1996 | Mixed Media | 15” x 21.5”
No. 1226, 1993 | Watercolor on paper | 24” x 18”
No. 973, 1988
Watercolor on paper |14” x 11”
No. 891, 1987
Watercolor on paper |17” x 14”
C Melody, 1978, Oil on Canvas | 36” x 48”
seem to hear as well as enjoy visually.
This page has been addapted from the book that accomanied Pepi's 2016 One-Man Show at the Quogue Gallery.