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Alfonso Ossorio: Costume Designs from the 1930s and 1940s for Ballet and Greek Tragedies

June 5 – September 7, 1999


Press Release

Alfonso Ossorio is highly regarded for his distinguished sixty-year career as an artist. Ossorio was born on the island of Luzon in Manila, Philippines, schooled in England and became an American citizen in 1933. His oeuvre begins in the early 1930s with intricate wood engravings inspired by Eric Gill which, in the late 1930s and 1940s evolved into elaborate surrealist fantasies. In the 1950s, Ossorio created dynamic abstract expressionist works and in 1960 he began to focus his efforts on assemblages of found objects such as glass eyes and bones which he called “Congregations”. A dramatic personality who was exposed to all arts through education and opportunity, Ossorio was enamored with the theater and ballet. This exhibition presents this vital aspect of Ossorio’s oeuvre not yet explored - his avant-garde costume designs created during the 1930s and 1940s.

Ossorio’s fascination with theater, costumes and design began as a child. In the Philippines and during his later school years in England, Ossorio created elaborate scrapbooks brimming with illustrations and photographs from European and American drama magazines. Many pages of his scrapbooks are collages of actors, actresses and other personalities cut out and re-assembled in witty and provocative combinations. These scrapbooks manifest Ossorio’s precocious interest in design as well as his inclination to scavenge for materials. This tendency came to maturity in the 1960s with his Congregations and ultimately with his arboretum at The Creeks, his estate located in East Hampton, New York which he shared for forty years with his partner Ted Dragon.

While a student at Harvard University (Harvard ‘38), Ossorio was offered the opportunity to wed his passion for fine art with the performing arts. In 1935, Ossorio designed for the Harvard production, The Wind and The Rain by Merton Hodge and the 1936 production of Jonah and The Whale by James Birdie. Ossorio’s earliest known costume designs date from 1935, and they are consistent with his wood engravings of this era which embrace classical and mythological themes. The 1935 costume designs depict various characters from Greek tragedies including Agamemnon, The Eumenides and The Libation Bearers all written by Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.).

Ossorio also participated as a designer as well as an actor with the Poets Theatre at Harvard. In 1937, Ossorio was the artistic director, designing visionary costumes for the first Poets Theatre production Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot as well as for the 1938 production of the Greek drama Alcestis written by Euripides (480-405 B.C.). Around this time, Ossorio created a series of seven costume designs which appear to illustrate a narrative on the creation of the world. In this series, he conveys a creation myth through elaborate costumes astutely imbued with rich symbolism.

During the late 1930s and 1940s when Ossorio came under the spell of Surrealism, he became increasingly involved with dance. Ossorio was drawn into the world of ballet through relationships with artists including Paul Cadmus, Jared French, George Platt Lynes, and Lincoln Kirstein, the notable ballet and art world figure for whom Ossorio designed a logo for Ballet Society. At Jacob’s Pillow in the summer of 1947, Ossorio met dancer and life-long companion Ted Dragon. Dragon performed with Kirstein’s Ballet Society which was the precursor to the New York City Ballet and directed by George Balanchine. In the fall of 1948, Dragon participated in the Choreographer’s Workshop which was organized by Kirstein to instruct dancers on the art of choreography. At this time, Dragon choreographed a Mozart Violin and Piano Sonata and a Hayden Trumpet Concerto. For these productions, Ossorio collaborated with Dragon, designing extraordinary costumes which reflect Ossorio’s surrealist inclination, his acute sense of color and pattern, and his meticulous draftsmanship. According to Ossorio’s inscriptions found on each drawing, these costumes were designed for Dragon as well as Beatrice Tompkins, Joan Djornp, John Krizia, Jocelyn Vollmar, and Tanaquil Le Clercq. This same year while creating these costume designs, Ossorio painted his landmark painting Gist of Ballet, a dynamic and rather apocalyptic composition layered with direct references to the ballet.

Alfonso Ossorio: Costume Designs from the 1930s and 1940s for Ballet and Greek Tragedies is the first opportunity to view this body of historic designs.