John O’Reilly started making collages out of necessity. He was living with his partner, sculptor James Tellin, in a noisy, small apartment in Worcester, more than 60 years ago. They had settled there after their car broke down in the city on their way somewhere else.
He was an artist. There was no room for a studio. He laid paper on the floor and started cutting pictures out of his books and pasting them together.
The practice unveiled something in him. Collage — or photo montage, as O’Reilly called it, suggesting his pieces unfold over time — expressed his own inner landscape with all its allusiveness, unexpected junctures, and labyrinthine spaces. In his works, passions for art, music, and literature tangle with childhood hurts, eroticism, violence, and mortality. He considered them self-portraits.
O’Reilly died on May 20 at 91. He was, in Jungian terms, an introvert, deeply fulfilled by his internal world, and he had a quiet career until 1995. He had retired from the art therapy post at Worcester State Hospital that he shared with Tellin, his lifelong partner. His collages had a small, art-world following. Then curator Klaus Kertess included him in the Whitney Biennial, and O’Reilly exploded on the national scene. He was 65.
It was a time of overwrought national handwringing about photo-based art. Photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Sally Mann had been pilloried for nudity in their work. O’Reilly wasn’t a photographer, but he used photographic imagery, including nude self-portraits and snippets of gay porn collaged seamlessly with fragments of glistening limbs from Renaissance paintings and pictures of classical Greek torsos.
In his “War Series,” which addressed battlefields, sex, and religion, he contended with his anxiety as a boy whose father fought in World War II, and he explored the sacrifice and carnality of war and of love. He titled them with anonymous information about Worcester’s war dead.
“They were combustible. He said he sees war as humanity’s greatest obscenity,” said Howard Yezerski, the Boston art dealer who has represented O’Reilly since 1984 and exhibited works from “The War Series” in the 1990s. “They were unbelievably sacrilegious. We had a sign on the door, warning people.”
A different body of work with some similar themes, “Series of Benjamin Britten,” was shown at the Whitney.
O’Reilly was championed as a gay artist, and he frequently used images of work by other gay artists in his collages. Growing up in a closeted world, he perhaps learned early a tactic of allusion and put it to use making art about the deep recesses of what can’t be said directly. But sexuality is just part of the larger whole. Indeed, it’s a challenge to pin any one theme down.
Nancy Kathryn Burns and Lauren Szumita co-curated the 2017 exhibition “John O’Reilly: A Studio Odyssey,” at the Worcester Art Museum. O’Reilly and Tellin didn’t have a computer, so the curators regularly visited the couple’s house as they prepared the show, poring over O’Reilly’s collages and chatting over chicken salad sandwiches and tea.
When he told Burns he saw his work as a mythic language, she suddenly saw his oeuvre in a clear light.
“Think about the English language. There are not a lot of words that express two simultaneous emotions. Bittersweet is one. Or in German, schadenfreude,” Burns said. “I said, ‘John, oh, so your artworks are all those collisions taking place at once.’ We have these internal, seemingly conflicting coexisting emotions or psychic states, and he is manifesting them.”
Collages are surreal, like nets catching dreams and shadows, because they are already made of figments — someone’s picture of something, made somewhere else. O’Reilly never drew anything himself. That would be too direct. Instead, he made pastiches of figments of culture — highbrow, lowbrow, and in between. Wielding a practiced X-Acto knife, a complex sense of space, and an eye for odd junctures, he created breathless, invigorating collages.
He and Tellin, together since studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, were regulars at the Brimfield Fair, keeping an eye out for ephemera. A few years back, they found a cache of old coloring books, half-scribbled over, and O’Reilly started using those in his art. Burns unearthed some of her own childhood coloring in her basement, and O’Reilly made a collage with it.
If any printed matter was material, art history reproductions were a near constant. Over the decades, they have included snippets of landscapes, royal portraits, genre scenes, and self-portraits of other artists, such as Chardin and Rembrandt. In “Talking with Whitman,” O’Reilly inserted himself nude into conversation with the grizzled old bard.
“He had a vigorous relationship with artists of the past,” said Burns. “He never liked the word ‘influence.’ He used the word ‘merging.’”
“Merging” defines O’Reilly’s art. He merged pain with desire, creation with destruction, high art with porn. All that cutting and pasting made intoxicatingly lush yet intangible worlds. He was an introvert, but his collages merged his private reveries with his public life. He invited viewers inside so we all might dream together.