Esteban Vicente was born in Turegano, Segovia Province, Spain, at the beginning of the 20th century, in 1903. Almost 98 years later, he died in Bridgehampton, New York, in 2001. His lifetime journeys—artistic, intellectual and political—make his experience and the evolutionary path of his creative powers an extraordinary example of how the century’s social transitions and upheavals, the migratory patterns imposed by war and persecution, and the cross-cultural fertility marking both European and North American cultures, added in a significant way to the rich diversity of modern life
able to see and study Old Master paintings, a practice which continued throughout his formal art education.
His training was typical for European academic artists of his generation, and the lessons he learned in Madrid and later in France, where he was exposed to many modern masters of the School of Paris, lasted his entire life. Vicente developed the remarkable insight that the real value of his traditional education was that it gave him something to rebel against. This iconoclasm manifested itself many times during his career, and permitted him simultaneously to remain “inside the club” of the New York School, yet also to distance himself somewhat from his peers and thus to maintain his artistic and intellectual independence.
Prior to immigrating to the United States, Vicente in his work frequently focused (sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly) on the colors and the landscapes of the dry plains and rolling foothills of the farms and grazing lands northeast of Segovia. The relatively few canvases that still exist from these years are often dominated by deep browns, grays and ochers—earth tones characteristic of a historic Spanish palette of the 19th and early 20th centuries. While extant canvases may be few, many of his drawings from this time are known and are exquisitely drafted. He captures the local atmosphere, landscape, buildings and people in a straightforward and moving manner.
What was clear, even then, was the curiosity and restlessness that led Vicente as a young man to periods of work and study in Paris and Barcelona in the 1920s and 1930s. Later in life, he was a frequent traveler and visiting professor at many of the leading universities in the United States, as far ranging as the University of Puerto Rico, San Juan, Yale University, Princeton University and the University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles. The urge to continue innovating as an artist and to pursue artistic and political freedom triggered Vicente’s move to the United States in 1936, where he began to work in the Spanish Consul’s office in Philadelphia. After a year of teaching in Puerto Rico, he settled in Manhattan, obtained a studio on East 10th Street and commenced painting.
In 1950, the adjoining studio became available; he recommended it to Willem de Kooning, who accepted it. Phillip Guston, who was then de Kooning’s studio assistant, became a recurring visitor to Vicente’s studio next door.
With his talent, energy, and gracious personality, Vicente quickly gravitated to the center of the New York School. But he always remained somewhat aloof from it, preferring to forge an artistic vision of his own. Even though he considered himself an Abstract Expressionist, he never abandoned the formal precepts of his academic education.
As his career matured, he became increasingly independent and stylistically fluid. Perhaps it was the influence of the American painters, who accepted him as a peer, and while they often lacked the erudition of the traditional drawing and painting skills of Vicente, were not lacking in their attempts to stretch the boundaries of the traditional view of painting—exploding scale, composition, palette and form.
While he pursued many internal painting cycles in his long career, his imagery, as he passed through his eighth and ninth decades, became looser, more diffuse and ethereal. In 1964, Vicente and his wife, Harriet, had acquired a house, studio, and garden on Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton, New York. The home looked out to the south over open farming land, with clear vistas and adequate space for his studio, a guest house, and a garden that he cultivated and was devoted to for the rest of his life. This shift to a literally more transparent technique for Vicente appears to be directly correlated with the time spent at his home and studio in Bridgehampton, which, of course, has a very different atmosphere and quality of light than Manhattan. Following the purchase of the Bridgehampton house, he would spend the winter in New York, and eight months of the year in Bridgehampton among his treasured garden and East End light.
Given Vicente’s relationship with his locale—its atmosphere, light, palette and essence, whether in Segovia, Madrid or Manhattan— it should not surprise us that the work created in Bridgehampton might have unique qualities. This tendency to claim a revised methodology for his new location accelerates in the final few years of his life. While I have just argued that the change in location and atmosphere was a principal reason for Vicente’s change of style, many distinguished art historians have remarked that, in some cases, the trajectory of artists such as Monet, Picasso, and de Kooning, towards open and freer compositions in their late careers is correlated to the aging process. The poet and art critic Edward Lucie-Smith notes, “It is difficult to miss the affinity between Turner’s very late paintings of sunsets” and Vicente’s last flower paintings. “They reveal an artist so completely in command of his medium that nothing is too daring.”
Above: Esteban Vicente in his Studio, July, 1992. Photo by Laurie Lambrecht (American, born 1955). Archival pigment print, Edition 1 of 12, 24 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist, and the Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, N.Y.
Art ©2011 The Harriet and Esteban Vicente Foundation. Courtesy of Ameringer McEnery Yohe, New York; and courtesy of the Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, N.Y.