Nobody believes in the simple narrative arc of Modern Art anymore; Nevertheless, Painting in Italy from the 1910s to the 1950s: futurism, abstraction, concrete art at Sperone Westwater is an instructive insight into the fullness and complexity underlying avant-garde miniature histories.
Of the three styles cited in the title of the exhibition, Italian abstraction from the interwar period is the least known. Painters such as Mario Radice, Mauro Reggiani and Atanasio Soldati were entirely new to me, and although not particularly revolutionary, their work included a colorful and idiosyncratic response to Synthetic Cubism at a time when many Italian artists, seeking to curry favor with Mussolini’s imperialist fantasies, took a right turn towards neoclassicism in all its sentimentality and pomp.
As Maria Antonella Pelizzari writes in the lavishly illustrated 388-page catalog of the exhibition, “Mussolini, unlike Hitler, never decreed an official state art, nor ever singled out a ‘degenerate art’, even when race laws were brutally introduced in 1938.” This could be one of the reasons why, for the most part, the work in this exhibition seems so eerily serene in the face of seismic political events.
One of the artists included in the exhibition, Corrado Cagli, who was Jewish, fled first to France and then to the United States, where he enlisted in the army and eventually participated in the invasion of Normandy and the liberation of Buchenwald. Another, Alberto Magnelli, who had decamped to Paris before the outbreak of war, was forced to flee to southeastern France to protect his Jewish wife. Many others, however, remained in their home countries and continued to produce art.
The most recognizable names among the thirty or so artists in the exhibition are the futurist Giacomo Balla; the shot Lucio Fontana; and Ettore Sottsass, who is best known as an architect and designer. Balla can often be too literal in his portrayal of movement (as in his 1912 “Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash”, where the dog’s paws scurry and the restless tale are rendered as sped up blurs), but his works here are almost entirely abstract and refreshingly restrained.
These include the interlocking circles of his watercolor studies “Iridescent Interpenetration” (1912-13) and an austere drawing in black ink on cardboard for a light show he staged in 1917 for accompany a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s orchestral work from 1908, Fireworks. (The 2014 exhibition, Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, featured an immersive reconstruction of Balla’s colorful light signals for Stravinsky’s score.) There are also seven striking works from the years coinciding with World War I, which were done in mixed media on postcards and envelopes. , some inscribed with patriotic exhortations.
Fontana, across the time frame of the exhibition, is represented by two works, both of which lie outside of his signature surface incisions. One, in black aniline on paper laid down on canvas, bears the same title he gave to his lacerated works – “Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concept)” (1959) – but here his material intervention takes the form of V-shaped perforations and slashes going all over the place, a much rougher approach than his sleeker, mostly vertical scalpel slices, a few years later.
“Concetto Spaziale (Spatial concept)” is one of the most recent works in the exhibition, and it is by far the most formally radical, although there are two 1937 pieces by Sante Monachesi in punched, perforated and hammered, both titled “Alluminio a luce mobile (Light mobile aluminum)”, which seem to prefigure Fontana’s physical manipulation of the surface material.
Fontana’s other piece, “Studio by spatial decoration (Study for Spatial Decoration)” from 1952, is classically painted in watercolor and gouache on a sheet of letter-sized paper. It features three black, vertical rectangles each containing an array of bone-white swirls and squiggles reminiscent of the surreal works of Pablo Picasso from the 1920s.
Picasso, of course, dominated the Western art world throughout the decades covered by the exhibition. He knew Alberto Magnelli and frequented the studio of Enrico Prampolini, whose paintings are also related to his surrealist period. But while the influence of Cubism, as suggested above, is found throughout the exhibition, the Italian version has incorporated a distinctive utopianism that feels very different from the formal concerns brought to the style by Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris and others. .
It is an impulse embodied in the life and work of Carla Badiali, the only woman in the exhibition, whose geometric abstractions engage in a rationalist perspective inspired by the bold designs of futurist architect Antonio Sant’Elia. . During the war she became a partisan fighter, nearly losing her life, but her engagement with geometric art remained. As Pelizzari writes in the catalog:
A few years after the war, Badiali returned to her studio, proving a permanent attraction to the art she had practiced in the mid-1930s, under the influence of rationalist groups in Como and Milan. These new canvases, as well as new collages, show no trace of his existential wounds.
There are two works by Badiali in the exhibition, and although both were made before the post-war period cited by Pelizzari, it is interesting to note that the older of the two, an oil on board titled “Studio by Composizione n. 12 (Study for Composition No. 12)” (1935), with its tilting central oval and collapsed planes, is much more unstable than the later work, an oil on board begun in 1937 and completed in 1942.
Simply called “Composition (Composition)” – a title shared by adjacently hung geometric abstractions from the mid-1930s by Reggiani and Soldati – the painting is a boldly colored series of interlocking squares and rectangles; there is not a single diagonal present except for a bisector of an orange and blue square in the lower right corner.The pronounced use of black, which acts as a band that starts at the top edge, moves down the right side and ends as a border surrounding the orange/blue square, may be a sign of pervasive terror, but it does not unbalance the picture Apollonian relationships of green, yellow, white, blue, orange, ocher and brown.
It is crucial to understand that these individuals were, in one way or another, deeply affected by the war, and their personal stories testify to this. Several of them (Badiali, Nigro, Soldati, Garau, Bordoni, Veronesi, Turcato) had chosen a militant position, fighting as partisans during the Resistance. Others had been forced into exile (this is the case of Cagli as well as Lionello Venturi, the art historian who had refused to take the fascist oath in 1931). The majority had remained in Italy during the fascist years believing […] that a new modern world was conceivable through this regime. By the end of the war, most of them were deeply disillusioned and expressed the need for a clean slate, a radical regeneration of those languages developed and consumed throughout the 1930s and during the war. These tongues had reached their conclusion.
The concept that filled this void was concrete art, a form of abstraction – as developed by Soldati, Bruno Munari, Gianni Monnet and the painter and critic Gillo Dorfles, who together formed the Movimento Arte Concreta (MAC) in 1948 – which declared independence hints at the outside world and was composed entirely of “pure forms”.
Although this work has not taken the extreme materialistic turn adopted by American Minimalism a decade later, its flat, graphic geometry seems qualitatively different from previous works in the exhibition. It is a conceptual shift that is particularly visible in Munari’s two paintings from 1951, both titled “Positive negative (Positive Negative).’ As the title suggests, it is difficult to distinguish the figure from the ground, and the stripped color – blue, black and white in one and blue, black, orange, yellow and white in the other – is electrifying in its simplicity.
If we look at minimalism, we see a collection of rugged individual approaches, from Frank Stella’s black stripes to Richard Serra’s steel plates to Donald Judd’s plywood boxes. The spirit of the MAC was also splintered, but typical of a country which, despite its unification in the mid-nineteenth century, never fully outgrew its social, cultural and psychological temperament as a collection of city-states, the differences were as much about regional factions as they were about singular personalities.
Painter Albino Galvano, as Pelizzari recounts, explained the difference between the original Milan-based MAC and his own Turin splinter group by distinguishing the former’s “technical identity with a ‘spiritual art’ that recovered Kandinsky and Kupka”, as opposed to his attraction “for the material texture of the American painters Jackson Pollock and Mark Tobey”.
Galvano’s large oil on canvas, “Otherwise (Yes and No)” (1952), with its overwhelming red field populated by overlapping white, black and gray rectangles, is densely tactile, exhibiting an insistent materiality at odds with the open space surrounding the neatly delineated geometric forms. It’s a statement that’s as resolutely purist as it is grounded in the earth – a duality that can be applied to much of the show’s work.
Abstraction for many of these painters was not far removed from everyday life – industrial design, typography and architecture – which aligned them in their aesthetics and utopianism to their Bauhaus counterparts. But the tension between the ideal and the everyday also ties their work to the 700-year-old humanist tradition of Italian painting, in which the spiritual, in the form of geometric abstraction, pervades the muddy details of everyday life and transforms the into a redemption signpost.
Painting in Italy from the 1910s to the 1950s: futurism, abstraction, concrete art continues at Sperone Westwater (257 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 23.