In his 1963 monograph on Conrad Marca-Relli, H.H. Arnason describes the moment in the artist's career when, in the early 1950s, Marca-Relli abandoned his de Chirco influenced cityscapes, full of dust, melancholy, and noonday ghosts, for his signature paint-and-canvas collages. These works, for which the artist is justly celebrated, rank among the finest achievements of the New York School. Instead of repainting de Chirico's neo-classicism, Marca-Relli became a classical artist. His works from the period are grand in the structure and syntax we associate with the term: evenly filled with incident, but with individual forms rigorously subordinate to the composition of the whole. Marca-Relli's magnificent and expansive St. Cyprian's Day (1957-58) is such a painting.
Arnason identifies the painting as an allusion to Shakespeare's Henry V, in particular, Henry's "Eve of St. Crispin's Day" speech before the battle of Agincourt, a prelude to what the art historian describes as a "stately dance in a tempo that slowly accelerates as their armies, with bright battle flags flying, surge forward towards each other." ( Ibid, p.11 ) There is something battle-like about St. Cyprian's Day, particularly in the passages of bright and flashing contrasts, or the slash and parry of line.
The effect is not atmospheric. Unlike some of his peers in the New York School, Marca-Relli's mode of painting and collage was not necessarily expressive. His surfaces are built by fragment and increment, such that it's easy to compare Marca-Relli's palate of brown and pepper-gray to that of Cubism. Comparing St. Cyprian's Day with another of Marca-Relli's greatest paintings, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's The Battle (1956), one sees just how ravishing the colors actually are: ochre, pink, and pepper-grays flourish to flashes of azure, gold, and roman red.
The effect of color is heightened by the painting's enormous, engulfing size as in the works of Pollock or Gorky. Up close, the surface of St. Cyprian's Day is full of nuance: blotted, pasted, and slathered striation. Farther away, each is 'locked' into the structure of the picture plane: classical fullness, not expressionist incident. In Marca-Relli's hands, collage is a kind of chance-taking: a building up of surface that skirts the inchoate but-at the last minute-pulls away to the work's powerful under-girding. Ultimately, the power of a St. Cyprian's Day arises from the tension between figure and ground. Like de Kooning, whose mid-century masterpieces Attic and Excavation are obvious predecessors, one is always glimpsing the body, only to see it disappear: an elbow, a back, and a leg, lost in the crowd.