Sal Sirugo: The Artist's Artist

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The Artist’s Artist:

Sal Sirugo 1920-2013

Born in Pozzallo, Sicily, Sal Sirugo (1920-2013) came to the United States at the age of 17. Upon his arrival, he found work with the Civilian Conservation Corps, first as a firefighter in Idaho and later as a mason at Watkins Glen State Park in upstate New York. During WWII, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, and was severely wounded while on combat duty in Europe as part of the Rhineland Campaign, subsequently receiving a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. He spent the next three and a half years in veterans hospitals undergoing over 30 operations. Sirugo was introduced to art through therapy while recovering from these injuries, precipitating a lifelong reverence for painting and drawing. Just one month after being discharged, he began his formal artistic training in Woodstock, NY, later relocating to New York City. The artist quickly fell in with the Abstract Expressionist group at the height of the mid-twentieth century art movement in New York. Beginning in the late 1940s, his career spanned the twentieth century and into the 2000s. Sirugo was a member of The Club and showed his work at a number of the 10th Street galleries, including Camino Gallery and Tanager Gallery. While he was part of The Club and worked alongside artists like Lee Krasner and Grace Hartigan, he wasn’t one to boast about his work, and over time became an inconspicuous figure in the art world’s upper echelon. Artists and curators alike have referred to him as an Artist’s Artist because of his fervent approach to understanding technique and manipulating materials. Congruently, Sirugo has been called a “painter’s painter” by Jeffery Wechsler, Senior Curator of the Zimmerli Art Museum, for his condensed fields that combine spontaneity and craftsmanship to produce universes of stunning complexity. The artist was likewise admired by contemporaries such as Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell for his sincere approach to action painting and mastery of black and white shades. Left: Vita Peterson, Sal Sirugo, and Helen Frankenthaler, c. 1960

C-87, 1950, casein on masonite, 17.75 x 24 in. Exhibited: Tanager Gallery, NYC, 1962; K Gallery, Woodstock, NY, 1963; 3rd Chelsea Art Festival, NYC, 1966; 2011 Invitational, American Academy of Arts & Letters, NYC

In 1948, a month after his discharge from the army, Sirugo initiated artistic training at the Art Students League in Woodstock, NY, under the G.I. Bill. He continued his studies at the League’s school in New York City with renowned teacher Vaclav Vytlacil. With an art supply allowance of only $10 a month under the bill, Sirugo resorted to buying black and white casein paint. This was advised by Vytlacil as an alternative to more costly oil paint. Additionally, the turpentine used with it was too harsh a solvent and would exacerbate his war injuries. Right: C-144, 1950, casein on masonite, 24 x 17.75 in. Exhibited: Shown at the Feiner Gallery, 1963; K Gallery, Woodstock, NY, Solo Show, 1963, Group Show, 1969

As Sirugo started exploring the dimensions of black and white, he found no limitations to the dynamic possibilities presented by dark and light hues, drawing inspiration from ancient Chinese masters who simailarly chose to forego the heavy use of color.

"Sirugo often stains his paper with tea or coffee, and, working on wet paper, adds ink with an eyedropper, fine brushes, or Q-tips, directing the flow of the spreading ink. This careful listening to the medium gives the resulting ink drawings the appearance of being open to metamorphosis, as though they were part of the growth of primordial swamps or bogs out of which all of life once emerged." Erika D. Passantino, Curator Phillips Collection, 1994

Right: DD-4, 1952, carbon ink & Liquitex on linen canvas, 7.88 x 5.56 in.

In particular, Sirugo’s small-scale drawings have been the topic of eager discussion, as each tiny piece alternates between landscape and abstraction, evoking images of infinite space inversely proportional to their real size. Ranging in date, many of these drawings are modest in size, resembling a post card, and in some cases measure just 2 x 3 inches. Sirugo referred to these drawings as “miniature universes’’ — despite their size, they retain the presence and intricacy of earlier, larger works, condensing vast galaxies into small canvases. The absence of color in these ink drawings likewise converts the works into mesmerizing microcosms of space and time, evoking imaginary landscapes by surrendering form and saturation.

RR-13, 1960, wax crayon on rice paper mounted on board, 9 3/4 x 11 11/16 in.

M-479, c. 1980, ink on paper mounted on museum board, 3 1/10 x 3 7/8 in.

P-94, 2000, ink on acetate mounted on museum board, 4 3/8 x 3 3/8 in.

M-600, 2001, ink on CVF, 5 1/4 x 4 1/10 in. R-84, 1960, ink on paper, 1 7/8 x 3 in.

“Sirugo developed an entirely personal and distinct variation of field painting, a signal achievement that, given its early



have been widely recognized for its significance, if it were not








paintings... The usage of a small space as a concentrated focus of all one’s mental and physical powers finds exquisite expression in Sirugo’s methods, and the general dimesnions of his work have even become smaller, not larger, over the years.” Jeffrey Wechsler, Senior Curator Zimmerli Art Museum, 2008 Right: C-105, 1950, casein and wax crayons on Masonite, 10.75 x 14 in. Exhibited: Louisiana Gallery, Houston, TX, 1961; K Gallery, Woodstock, NY, 1969; Sylvia Wald and Po Kim Art Gallery, NYC, 2010

K-44, c. 1950, ink on paper mounted on board 5 1/2 x 8 7/16 in.

M-381, 1992, ink on paper, 3 1/2 x 4 7/16 in.

RC-21, c. 1952, carbon pencil on paper, diamater: 4 15/16 in.

M-678, 1998, ink on vellum, 1 11/16 x 2 1/3 in.

M-594, 2001, ink on coated vinyl film, 2 3/4 x 7 1/16 in.

C-86, 1950, casein on masonite, 18 x 23 in.

C-204, 2000, oil on cotton canvas mounted on museum board, 7 7/8 x 9 3/4 in.

C-202, 2000, acrylic and wax crayons on museum board, 8 x 10 in.

P-128, 2000, ink on acetate mounted on Perfect Mount, 3 1/4 x 5 1/2 in.

A true craftsman, Sirugo took great care in every single drawing and painting his hand touched. He was an innovator, a DIY-guy, who never met a task he could not overcome. From experimenting with art forms to building his own home and converting a school bus into a studio in Woodstock, he was meticulous when approaching any project. During his long career, Sirugo earned several awards including the Emily Lowe Award, Woodstock Foundation Award, CAPS Fellowship, Longview Foundation Award, and was twice a recipient of the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation Award. In 2011, the American Academy of Arts and Letters honored him with the Jimmy Ernst Lifetime Achievement Award. His work is held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, The Zimmerli Art Museum of Rutgers University, the Grey Art Gallery of New York University and Vassar College.


Within Small See Large: Drawings by Sal Sirugo, Graham Shay 1857, New York City


Abstract Expressionism and Individualism: Works from 1948 to 2008, Sylvia Wald and Po Kim Art Gallery, New York City


Intimate Visions, The Gallery at 6th & 6th, Tucson, AZ


From the Intimate to the Infinite, Walsh Art Gallery, Fairfield University, CT


78, 76 Landmark Gallery, New York City


Great Jones Gallery, New York City


“K” Gallery, Woodstock, NY


Tanager Gallery (Tenth Street), New York City


Camino Gallery (Tenth Street), New York City


Small Scale - Intimate Works of American Abstraction, Graham Shay 1857, New York City


Three American Painters: David Diao, Sam Gilliam, Sal Sirugo, Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, NJ


L’heure entre chien et loup, Woodstock Artists Association & Museum, NY


Painting Black, Sylvia Wald and Po Kim Art Gallery, New York City


Small Works, Carriage Barn Arts Center, New Canaan, CT


Forty Odd / 1973-2013: Selections from the Permanent Collection, Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, Woodstock, NY


Pulling at Polarities, Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York City


2011 Invitational, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City


Starting From Scratch (Repartir à Zéro): American and European Art in the Aftermath of World War II, 1945-1949, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, France


Pathways and Parallels: Roads to Abstract Expressionism, Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York City


Modern American Art 1930-1975, Gary Snyder Fine Art, New York City


Abstract Expressionism: Expanding the Canon, Gary Snyder Fine Art, New York City


Intimate Universe (Revisited), Robert Steele Gallery, New York City


Still Working, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Portland Museum of Art, Portland, OR; Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, IL; Fisher Gallery, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA; IBM Art Gallery, New York City


Italian-American Artists: 1945-1968, Luebsdorf Gallery, Hunter College, New York City


Expression Abstracted: Heads by Pepi, Rosenborg, Seliger and Sirugo, Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, NJ


Nature’s Rhythm, Gary Snyder Fine Art, New York City


Abstract Expressionism: Other Dimensions, Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris, New York, NY; Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, NJ; Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago; Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, FL


Figural Art of the New York School, Ciba-Geigy Collection, Baruch College, New York City; Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge


The Gathering of the Avant-Garde: the Lower East Side, 1948-1970, New York City


Five-Person Show, Art Galaxy Gallery, New York City


Tanager Gallery 1952-1962, Buecker & Harpsichords, New York City


Tenth Street Days, Gallery Association of New York State, Traveling Exhibition (selected by Thomas B. Hess), New York, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut


The Tenth Street Days—The Co-ops of the 50’s, Pleiades Gallery, New York City


Ciba-Geigy Collection, Neuberger Museum, NY, and Wichita Falls Museum, TX

1972,’75,’79 118 Artists, Landmark Gallery, New York City 1974

Works on Paper, Ciba-Geigy Collection, Summit Art Center, Summit, NJ


Drawing Show, Landmark Gallery, New York City


Visual R & D, Ciba-Geigy Collection, University of Texas, Austin, TX


A New Consciousness, Ciba-Geigy Collection, Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, NY


Artists by Artists, Capricorn Gallery, New York City


Weatherspoon Art Gallery, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill


Great Jones Gallery, New York City


Tanager Gallery (Tenth Street), New York City


Tenth Street, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX


Camino Gallery (Tenth Street), New York City


Provincetown Arts Festival, Provincetown, MA


Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Annual, Philadelphia, PA


Whitney Museum of American Art Annual, New York City


Peridot Gallery, New York City


Fluid Space, Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York City


National Academy of Design, NYC


New Talent, Laurel Gallery, NYC

COLLECTIONS Boston Mutual Life Insurance Co., Canton, MA Ciba-Geigy Corporation, Ardsley, NY Dillard University, New Orleans, LA Evergreen Enterprises, Taipei, Taiwan Jagiellonian University, The Judaica Foundation, Krakow, Poland The Lab, Seattle, WA Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY University of Montevallo, AL New York University/Grey Art Gallery & Study Center, New York, NY Pace University, New York, NY Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL Syracuse University, Syracyse, NY Vassar College Art Gallery, Poughkeepsie, NY Woodstock Artists Association & Museum, Woodstock, NY Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NY

AWARDS 2011 1982, ‘84 1980 1962

American Academy of Arts & Letters, Jimmy Ernst Lifetime Achievement Award Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation Award Creative Artists Public Service (CAPS) Fellowship Longview Foundation Award (Purchase)

1952 1951

Woodstock Foundation Award Emily Lowe Award

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY Judd Tully, A Second Look, Art + Auction, May 2010, p. 83 Christian Rattemeyer, The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2009, p. 254 Eric de Chassey and Sylvie Ramond, Repartir A Zero 1945-1949, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, France, 2008, pp. 86, 348, color plates 84, 224-225 (3) Ann Landi, Ripe for Rediscovery, Art News, Nov. 1996, pp. 118-119 Pepe Karmel, Still Working, The New York Times, Feb. 3, 1995 Still Working, Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1994, color plate 28, pp. 72, 87, 101-102, 152-153 Jeffrey Weschler, Abstract Expressionism: Other Dimensions, 1940-1965, Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, NJ, 1989, color plates 22-23, 4 illus., pp. 54, 56, 131-133 Natalie Edgar, The Private Worlds of Sal Sirugo, Art News, Nov. 1966, pp. 42, 43, 82 Fred W. McDarrah, The Artist’s World in Pictures, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1961, pp. 48, 81 Dore Ashton, Tenth Street Stroll, review, The New York Times, Jan. 9, 1959 Howard Devree, Modern Outburst, review, The New York Times, June 10, 1951

17 East 67th Street, 1A, New York, NY 10065 212.535.5767 |

Graham Shay 1857 is proud to represent the estate of Sal Sirgo.

Cover illustration: M-526, 1999, ink on rice paper mounted on museum board, 2.94 x 3.56 in. Front page background illustration: M-650, 1999, ink on CVF mounted on museum board, 3.94 x 3.19 in. All rights reserved by Graham Shay 1857 Catalog design: Clanci Jo Conover

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