Well-regarded in his native Italy and across Europe, Fausto Melotti (1901-1986) is hardly a household name in the U.S., a situation that Hauser & Wirth is attempting to correct with a wide-ranging display of the artist’s sculpture, painting, and drawing across three floors of its Upper East Side townhouse gallery.
It makes sense to see Melotti’s work in such a human-scaled space. The tallest of the works is just over nine feet, but it is also the sparest, composed of one stainless steel rod balanced on another.
The sculpture, simply titled “Scultura C (Infinito)” (“Sculpture C [Infinite],” 1969), embodies the contradictions of Melotti’s art: it simultaneously steps forward and pulls back, effects a grand gesture while making a virtue of reticence.
There are numerous points of beguilement throughout the show, beginning in the very first room off the street, which is filled with the artist’s abstract work of the 1930s. Trained as an “electrotechnical engineer,” according to the degree he received from the University of Milan in 1924, before he began his studies in sculpture, Melotti seems to be testing the limits of his materials’ tensile strength.
There is one piece, an attenuated rectangle 77 1/2 inches tall in nickel-plated iron, adorned with thin, twisted rods evoking a musical staff, which appears capable of holding its own in an earthquake. The other, far more fragile works are done in poured plaster. There’s one mounted on the wall — a stunning geometric bas-relief (“Scultura n. 24,” 1935 ) featuring two identical vertical struts crisscrossed by horizontal bars — shapes that resemble utility poles or cell towers rising against the white, square surface. Although the forms are the same, the one on the left is embossed and the one on the right is incised. Attached to the shape on the right are three iron rods that curve and loop and straighten as they travel from the top edge down to the bottom.
The repeated shape is a startlingly simple, even simplistic, idea. But the iron rods, in an intervention that defies logic, complicate the impression conveyed by the sculpture. Why should such starkly beautiful symmetry be imbalanced by what could be viewed as an arbitrary filigree? And why does it work so effectively?
Part of the reason could be Melotti’s deep immersion in music. During the press preview, the artist’s daughter, Marta Melotti, told me that the first thing her father did when he walked into his studio was to turn on the radio and listen to classical music before he began his day’s work.
The combination of the plaster motifs and the iron rods is suffused with an inexplicable rightness — a sense-making conjured through an intuitive leap and a spirit of play. I couldn’t help but think of Bach’s practice of creating counterpoint by turning a melody upside-down or running it backwards (the artist later expressed his love for Bach in a sculptural series from the late 1960s/early ‘70s called Contrappunto); the disarming purity of the conjoined, heterogeneous elements offers an analogous subliminal kick.
The other two sculptures in the room are both freestanding and made entirely out of poured plaster. “Scultura n. 11” from 1934 is the most technically audacious piece in the show. Two horizontal bars of unequal size terminate at one end in exaggerated spirals, recalling the runners of an old-fashioned sleigh. These are attached on the opposite ends to two narrow, vertical supports; the spirals extend so far in the other direction that they seem on the verge of snapping off, but they’ve stayed put for more than eighty years.
The other plaster sculpture, “Scultura n. 12” (1934 ) consists of a curved vertical plane with buttresses on either side. Walk around the piece and it changes from a Richard Serra-esque torque to a thin white sliver that courts near-invisibility. This work maintains a kinship with the Surrealist sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, such as “Gazing Head” (1928-29) in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which were being made at roughly the same time.
Though based in Milan, Melotti was quite aware of the developments in Paris, but his form of abstraction did not venture into the psychological / philosophical wastelands that Giacometti made his own. Instead, Melotti’s work was more in line with the Italian movement called Concrete Art, which was based on purity of form and autonomy from the outside world. (Lucio Fontana, another resolute abstractionist, was Melotti’s contemporary and lifelong friend.)
The artist’s devotion to Apollonian abstraction changed with the onset of World War II, which he lived through, remaining in Milan except for a stay in Rome between the years 1941 and 1943. When he returned to Milan he discovered that his studio had been bombed by the Allies. As the show’s curator, Douglas Fogle, writes in the exhibition catalogue, “for Melotti, working through the pain and trauma of these events could only happen with a necessary return to the human figure.”
This decision led to a flowering of material experiments and swift stylistic changes, with the addition of ceramics, wire mesh, painted fabric, glass, and even strips of audio cassette tape to his established repertoire of plaster and metal. Many of the works he made after breaking from his previous practice are bold, seemingly impulsive combinations of painting, drawing and sculpture.
Music continued to be a well of inspiration. The piece on display from the above-mentioned Contrappunto series is “Contrappunto XIII” (1978 ), an amalgam of brass triangles, rectangles, and stems curling into the same spiral we saw in “Scultura n. 11,” which can be taken as a symbol for infinity. (And which also appears on the horizontal steel rod at the top of “Scultura C (Infinito),” the first work cited in this review.)
There is also an infectious, eight-part brass tabletop sculpture, “Tema e variazioni I” (“Theme and Variations I,” 1968 ), consisting of rods, chain links, rectangles, circles, and spheres. As befitting the abstraction of music, “Contrappunto XIII” and “Tema e variazioni I” are conceptually closest to the work of the 1930s, which makes them markedly differently from the figures and environments everywhere else in the exhibition.
Of these, the “teatrini,” or “little theaters” are the best known: compartmentalized relief sculptures, usually in plaster or painted terracotta, in which various objects, both handcrafted and found, are placed like keepsakes in cubbyholes, such as the disembodied pair of hands lying on a clump of red clay in “Le mani” (“The Hands,” 1949) or the tiny brass bells and scrap of mesh in “Primavera” (“Spring,” 1974).
It’s interesting to note that while Melotti, as Fogle writes, made “a necessary return to the human figure” after the war, it is present in his work mostly by implication. Other than a set of figurines made between 1945 and 1947, including a gaggle of red clay horned devils and the stately “I Sette Savi” (“The Seven Sages,” 1960) — plaster figures reminiscent of Giorgio de Chricio’s metaphysical mannequins arranged in an inwardly-facing oval — the human body is fragmented, sketched in, hinted at. There is certainly no embrace of the sculptured figure that we see in contemporaries such as Marino Marini and Giacomo Manzù.
In this regard we might infer a parallel to the gamesmanship and whimsy of Melotti’s close friend, the writer Italo Calvino, who was twenty-two years younger but predeceased the artist by nine months. The characters in Calvino’s stories are more cyphers and symbols than fleshed-out, emotional, experiential beings, and Melotti’s generalized impressions can be viewed in the same light. (The Italian editions of Calvino’s books frequently used Melotti’s artwork on their covers.)
The lack of definition in Melotti’s figures presages the blunt, Expressionist-laden imagery of such Transavanguardia artists as Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi, an observation underscoring the rupture with Italy’s classical past that Melotti’s practice represents — even as it returns to the primitivismo of trecento painting — while the work of Marini and Manzù comes off more as the continuance (or, more accurately, the end) of the line.
However you approach Melotti’s work, with its mix-up of media and broad embrace of architecture and set design, it isn’t hard to recognize the richness of the road not taken by mainstream postwar American art, when formalists like Michael Fried were hunting down “theatricality” — the most grievous sin against the autonomy of the art object — even in the work of certain Minimalists. Some of Melotti’s imagery (like the storybook depictions of the sun and moon) may feel overly-fanciful for contemporary taste, but the artist’s commitment to follow every last vapor trail of inspiration no doubt opened doors of perception that academicism and theory would just as soon shut.
Fausto Melotti continues at Hauser & Wirth (32 East 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 18.