John Grillo was born July 4, 1917 in the small industrial town of Lawrence, Massachusetts. The 1930s brought the family to Hartford, Connecticut where as a child growing up his first influences were felt, since his Father painted and sculpted. John would frequent the Wadsworth Antheneum Museum in Hartford where the collection of portraits would inspire him to become a portrait painter. In 1935 he enrolled in the Hartford School of Fine Arts where he learned portrait and landscape painting. He painted the poor and the working class and in 1939 he painted a large mural depicting a family of three sitting at a dining table with no food on their plates (based possibly on a lithograph by Daumier). During this period his major interests included the “Ashcan School”, Luks, Robert Henri, Thomas Hart Benton and Reginald Marsh, together with the works of the old masters.
During World War II, in 1944, Grillo enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Okinawa in the South Pacific where he continued to paint landscapes and scenes of life in the service. At that time he was inspired by a reproduction of Robert Motherwell’s collage, “Pancho Villa”. This soon led to his flowing and spontaneous abstractions, some of which were included in a post- war exhibition entitled, “Soldier Art” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
Grillo arrived in San Francisco at the war’s end in 1946 and enrolled in the San Francisco School of Fine Arts under the G.I. Bill. Douglas MacAgy, the director, remembered Grillo as that “fiery young sailor” and gave him a studio and a lot of free reign. In Susan Landauer’s, “John Grillo, the San Francisco Years. Art of California”, May 1990: “Short on art supplies, Grillo used whatever was at hand. He threw cocoa and coffee grounds on sheets of paper to make speckled abstract patterns, tying the compositions together with washes and linear designs”
Although he was only there for two short years, Grillo played a seminal role in the San Francisco branch of a movement that would revolutionize American Art. Today, Grillo is acknowledged as perhaps the first and purest “action painter” on the West Coast and one of the most influential painters of San Francisco’s school of Abstract Expressionism” (Thomas Albright, “Art in the San Francisco Bay Area” 1985.)
In 1948, Grillo left San Francisco for the East Coast. Arriving in New York City, he entered the school of Hans Hofmann, an artist who had a love of dazzling colors that matched his own. He also spent summers at Hofmann’s School in Provincetown, Massachusetts. A mutual respect ensued, resulting in Hofmann’s acquiring paintings of Grillo. He then had his first one-man show in New York City at the Artist’s Gallery in 1948. In the 1950s he experimented with symbolism and action painting and grid-like paintings consisting of small squares based on Hofmann’s teachings. During the early 1950s works were being acquired at this period for some of the major museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In the 1960s, Grillo’s paintings evolved into a series of oversize canvases primarily in a luminous yellow range that to the critics evoked the power of light and sunshine. One artist called Grillo the Renoir of Abstract Expressionism, another compared him to Rubens for his sensuality. One critic brought up Turner, while another waxed eloquently about Venetian luminosity. Exhibitions of these works appeared at the Howard Wise Gallery and the Grace Borgenicht Gallery, both in New York.
In 1991, Grillo moved to Well Fleet, Massachusetts where he presently lives and maintains a studio. In a recent interview Grillo’s thoughts included the following: “Abstract painting is on a level with music. It’s a physical outburst from your whole being. It’s not the idea that is created and then you start painting. It’s always a challenge to shape something from nothing, to do the impossible.” As told to Jamieson Grillo, August, 2001.