John Grillo is known as one of the greatest Abstract Expressionist painters to have emerged on the postwar artistic stage. In "Art in the San Francisco Bay Area" Thomas Albright pronounced John Grillo 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". He went on to play a seminal role in the post war Bay Area Abstract Expressionist movement that would revolutionize and forever change American Art. In 1948, Grillo left San Francisco for New York City, where he enrolled in Hans Hofmann's school of painting. Hofmann and Grillo were kindred spirits, sharing a mutual respect for one another's work that was similar in color and expression. Hofmann even owned a number of Grillo's works in his personal collection.
Upon Grillo's returned to the East Coast, he was welcomed into the fold of New York's avant-garde. Sam Hunter, reviewing his solo exhibition of San Francisco work at the Artist's Gallery for The New York Times in 1948, singled Grillo out as a leading figure, writing: "His painting acknowledges no allegiance to tradition, exists in a moment of intensity of explosive abstraction." The same year Grillo arrived in New York he had his first one-man show at the Artist's Gallery. He was also selected for the signal show, "15 Unknowns" at the Kootz Gallery in 1950. He worked for over six decades as a painter, sculptor, printmaker, and art instructor, and is remembered, as critic Donald Kuspit notes, as "the leading master of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists."
Untitled #69, with its insistence on primary color and basic form, works as a lyrical study in gesture, which was the essential foundation of John Grillo's early work. Dated to 1947, this work was executed during Grillo's residency at the California School of Fine Arts. Having disembarked from his WWII Naval Service in San Francisco in 1945, Grillo spent the following two years studying under mentors including Man Ray, Clyfford Still, Marcel Duchamp, Richard Diebenkorn, and Ad Reinhardt. He had first begun work on a series of unorthodox, automatist abstractions during his stationing in Okinawa; in 1947, he worked alongside Mark Rothko, whose influence on Grillo's philosophies regarding color and contrast would allow for the evolution of his gestural abstractions into dimensional, charged compositions. It was around this time that Grillo painted Untitled #69. A series of geometric elements interspersed with striking, expressive gestures, the work conjures a sense of spontaneous rhythm. A lover of music, Grillo encapsulates within this work a sense of syncopated and orchestratic movement. As the artist notes:
"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."
—John Grillo, 2001
Private Collection, Taos, NM