Profile: Earle Montrose Pilgrim (1923-1976)

Earle Montrose Pilgrim was an American artist whose work is within the stylistic milieu of Abstract Expressionism and Figurative Expressionism. Working in the early 1950s until the mid 1970s, Pilgrim’s style is characterized by figuration informed by abstraction. The artist fluctuated between epic, large-scale compositions and intimate canvases and worked with a variety of media from painting to experimental film. Pilgrim’s oeuvre reflects the artist’s various interests from avant-garde portraiture to the notion of the occult, which were all figured through a Modernist interest in coloration, abstraction, and expression.

Early life

Pilgrim was educated in the public system until the end of his second year of high school, where he was thrown out for wearing a top hat and coat at a school dance, instead of the required uniform, this event brought his father, Leon, to enroll Earle in an apprenticeship with a printmaker. On March 27, 1943, Pilgrim enlisted in the United States Army, where he played drums for the band and wrote for Yank, the Army Weekly, for the duration of the war until he was court-martialed for refusing to defer to a white officer.

Art career

When Pilgrim returned from the Army, he went to Greenwich Village and learned jewelry making by working with jeweler Sam Kramer. He studied at the Art Students League and at one point worked at Sotheby’s.

He met Lily Touma at the San Remo Cafe during this time and they eventually married.

In 1951, the Pilgrims went to Provincetown, Massachusetts. In the art colony, the Pilgrims took 393 Commercial Street as their gallery and lived in the back. Earle, studying under Henry Hensche, would paint and make jewelry, while Lily would craft dolls and hooked rugs and write for “The Advocate,” an early Provincetown newspaper. Additionally, Earle taught jewelry in the Cape Cod public school system.

At his gallery, Earle showed many artists who subsequently became famous, including Allan Kaprow and Lester Johnson. Johnson, specifically, held a deep admiration for Pilgrim, saying that, “Earle Pilgrim was one the first people who liked my work.”

During these years Pilgrim also built up a presence in Boston, at 80 West Cedar Street in Beacon Hill and in 1954 the Pilgrim’s moved to the city full-time.

It was in Boston that Pilgrim began to occupy loft spaces in which he would live and continue to sell “Jewelry Originals, Paintings, Curiosa”. These spaces were visited by an assortment of counterculture figures during the day, including Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, and Ram Dass.

Pilgrim’s body of work includes jewelry, printmaking, painting, collage, metal sculpture, and avant-garde filmmaking. It was in Boston that he began to experiment in film. It was also in Boston that his behavior became aberrant, with one significant event marker: a spontaneous and frantic bus trip taken from Boston to California with no advance warning.

During Earle Pilgrim’s final years he lived in a loft with his wife Lily at 275 Church Street in New York City, above La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. These important American artists eventually transformed the Pilgrim’s loft into Dream House a minimalist sound and light installation that has been continuous for over twenty years.

Pilgrim would spend the rest of his life in and out of institutions, approximately 14–16 years, which included a VA hospital, a state mental institution near Boston, Bellevue, St. Vincent’s, and Beekman.

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