Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1917, as the eldest of three sons to Sicilian immigrants, John Grillo is known as one of the most aggressive West Coast artists to pursue Abstract Expressionism. He painted in gouache, watercolor, poster-based water, and oil paints, and was a sculptor, printmaker and art educator. He studied at the Hartford Art School, 1935-1938; California School of Fine Arts, 1945-1947; and the Hans Hoffman Schools of Fine Arts in New York and Provincetown, 1948. During World War II, Grillo enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Okinawa where he painted scenes of life in the service, some of which were included in a post- war exhibition entitled Soldier Art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
Grillo arrived in San Francisco at the war's end and, although there for only two years, the city by the bay played a seminal role in the Abstract Expressionism movement that would revolutionize American art. In the 1960s, Grillo's paintings evolved into oversize canvases in luminous yellows that evoked the power of light and sunshine. He became an artist in residence at the University of California, Berkeley and received a Ford Foundation Grant to produce lithographs at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles. Eventually returning to New York, Grillo began working in three dimensions and produced fired clay and wax pieces cast in bronze, one of which is in the Guggenheim Museum's permanent collection.
After joining the faculty at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1967, Grillo spent the next decade continuing to paint geometric and large-scale constructivist pieces. He also produced a series of voluptuous drawings, prints and paintings of female nudes. Having traveled to South America in the early 1980s, the Tango and the mythology of the Colombian Indians became themes of several paintings and charcoal drawings. Before retiring in 1991, Grillo produced a large mural representing historical agrarian and academic elements of Amherst and depicting native poet Emily Dickinson. The mural is installed in the Jones Public Library, Amherst, Massachusetts.