The son of a painter and sculptor, John Grillo’s artistic aptitude developed at an early age. In an interview with Dorothy Seckler, he recounted one of his most vivid childhood memories: “I opened a closet and I felt some little things in the closet and I stared to squeeze them and they happened to be tubes of paint. And I got them on my hands and face and… I went to school that way.” (1) From this humble (and messy) beginning, Grillo continued to practice art as a young man, eventually attending several formal art academies.
Like so many other young American men his age, Grillo enlisted in the Navy in the early 1940s, and in the late stages of World War II was shipped out to Okinawa, Japan. Deeply scarred by the war, Grillo admits that this time in his life had a profound affect on his later work. Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, he studied for a brief time in San Francisco upon his return to the United States. However, Grillo soon moved his family from their West Coast home to a new life in New York City. While in New York, he began studying art with the most influential instructor of the period, Hans Hofmann. Under Hofmann’s tutelage and with fellow students such as Jim Dine and Larry Rivers, Grillo practiced Hofmann’s unique concepts of perspective. Rooted in the notion of a push and pull of positive and negative space, Hofmann taught his students to create a balance between opposing forces in their abstract work. In the fall of 1955, Grillo was among one of the youngest artists to be chosen for the Walker Art Center’s exhibition, Vanguard 1955: A Painter’s
Selection of New American Paintings, also included in this exhibition were noted artists Richard Diebenkorn, Helen Frankenthaler, Michael Goldberg, and Joan Mitchell.
Dissatisfied with the atmosphere in New York, Grillo soon returned to San Francisco to continue his career. Inspired by Hofmann, he decided to develop his own talent through teaching and became an art instructor. The life of artist/academic suited him, and teaching positions occupied him for the majority of his remaining career. Like his father before him, Grillo experimented in both painting and sculpture, entranced by one or the other medium at different junctures and for different reasons as he developed and molded his own personal aesthetic.
Grillo’s work is included in many museum collections, including the Allentown Art Museum; Butler Institute of American Art; Georgia Museum of Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Smith College Museum of Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; The Brooklyn Museum of Art; The Newark Museum; the Wadsworth Athenaeum; and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
1. Grillo, John. “Interview with John Grillo: Conducted by Dorothy Seckler In New York; November 18 and December 29, 1964.” Smithsonian Archives of American Art. p. 10.
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