A tie is adjusted, a shirt is buttoned, a belt is buckled, and a shoelace is tied. The opening credits of The Big Chill, Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 film of a group of thirty-something friends reckoning with mortality, introduce the main characters in the midst of various daily situations, which are startlingly interrupted with these close-up details of a man being dressed. It soon becomes clear we are witnessing a tightly cropped series of shots depicting undertakers clothing a corpse.
My first encounter with the painter Domenico Gnoli’s enlarged close-ups of quotidian details occurred just a few years after seeing The Big Chill. The images were only reproductions in a catalogue, but were quite striking. Often a whole painting would be devoted to the minimalist abstract realism of the knot of a necktie, or a belted waist, dividing shirt from pants. The intense, eerie stillness of Gnoli’s images — already made poignant by knowing he died at 36 of cancer, shortly after his works were first shown in New York’s Sidney Janis Gallery in 1969 — are, for me, inextricably associated with the experience of that Big Chill opening sequence.
Gnoli only made around 40 paintings in his tragically aborted career, and only in recent years has there been the opportunity to see his work in New York. At Luxembourg & Dayan we can now view 11, taking advantage of the gallery’s intimate vertical architecture for maximum impact. One painting is hung on every dark gray wall, with at most three in each of the small rooms of the gallery’s three stories. The relatively large scale of the paintings (mostly four to five feet high), combined with their extremely close points of view, create a portentous, clinical intimacy.
Gnoli’s close-ups, limited to an earthy palette of ochres, siennas, umbers, grays, and blacks, abstract the imagery into simple, colored shapes. His use of sand creates an even, but fuzzy surface, giving the images a slight buzz. The sandy surface also gives the paintings the impression of the hardness of a mural, painted on the side of a building, and one work, “Brick Wall” (1968), actually was painted to appear as what the title suggests. Gnoli was linked with Pop, and like Jasper Johns with his flag paintings, seemed to enjoy subverting modernist metaphors by substituting the actual representations for their abstractions.
Undoubtedly in every art school class these days there’s a student painting close-up views of objects. (Gnoli certainly pointed the way for some renowned contemporary artists, like Catherine Murphy.) But despite the deceptive obviousness of its premise, Gnoli’s work continues to intrigue because the paintings are so full of contradictions. He managed to achieve his eerie intensity through subtle complexity with minimal means. While there is always a central object, the image itself is never truly symmetrical. First, the symmetry in almost all the paintings is broken with shadows produced by an unseen lateral light source (one of the many examples of absence in his work). He also almost always employs some kind of irregular patterning. Looking at the patterns on the seat in “Chair” (1969), the tablecloth under the shirt in “Chemise Sur la Table n.3” (1967), and the not-quite-identical pillows in “Sofa” (1968), you will notice that forms are not congruently repeated, though it feels that they are. This subtle, unexpected irregularity is one of the secrets to why these paintings always feel subliminally and disturbingly disjunctive: quiet, yet with an undercurrent of animation; ploddingly realistic yet full of imaginative invention.
Sometimes, as in “Scarpa di Fronte” (1967), where the subject is a woman’s left shoe, unworn articles of clothing imply missing humans. And even when there is a human, as in “Capigliatura maschile” (1966), which depicts a male head from the weird, wormy eyebrows up to his precisely combed coif, the exacting perfection of the paint application implies a plastic artificiality and coldness that feels mortuarial or at least mannequin-like. Which brings us back to the momento mori nature of this work. The fashion Gnoli depicts does not seem from the ’60s. There is a whiff, not of nostalgia, which implies a yearning for a happier past, but the sad memory of a style already vanished, before the paintings were made, like the vision of a grandparent’s home. Loss and absence haunt this work.
When an artist dies young they often seem to leave behind a body of work that feels so complete and consistent. There are no ups and downs of a career to qualify the power of the works. Would Gnoli have done endless variations on this shtick until he beat it into the ground? Would he have had the inventiveness to continue to enliven it? Or would he perhaps have come up with an entirely different kind of image, one that would brilliantly relate to what he had already accomplished?
Domenico Gnoli: Detail of a Detail continues at Luxembourg & Dayan (64 East 77th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through July 14.