Sometimes the quietest and most unassuming exhibitions turn out to be the most fascinating, if not the strangest.
Tucked away on the third floor of Sperone Westwater’s Bowery building, there’s a show titled Post-War Italian Art: Accardi, Dorazio, Fontana, Schifano. That’s it. No jazzy tagline like “Treasures of Proto-Arte Povera” or “Secrets of Euro-Neo-Pop.” Just Post-War Italian Art: Accardi, Dorazio, Fontana, Schifano.
There isn’t even a press release accompanying the listing on the gallery’s website, which is just as well. It’s a plainspoken exhibition whose strengths are apparent only after a period of unhurried observation, however outmoded that may sound.
Of the four artists in the show, the only one who has had any significant play in the U.S. is of course Lucio Fontana (1899–1968), who went through the final stages of canonization last summer as the subject of a full-on Gagosian extravaganza (Lucio Fontana: Ambienti Spaziali, May 3–June 30, 2012).
Fontana is represented in the Sperone show by only one work, though it is an extremely good one — “Concetto spaziale” (1960), an oil painting with a pattern of holes, rather than the artist’s trademark slashes, punctuating the canvas support.
The effect is far less gimmicky than a late Fontana can often seem to be, perhaps due to its black-on-black format. The surface is coated with thick swatches of black, enamel-like paint so that the equally dark holes are not apparent as punctures at first glance, lending the canvas’s physical condition a haunting ambiguity.
The painting can be seen as a spatial concept, as the title (which Fontana used for numerous pieces) implies, but the pitch-black punctures in the pitch-black surface can also be read metaphorically, perhaps as stars burning black against a stygian sky.
Another artist who deals with the art object — how it is made and perceived — is Carla Accardi, who was born in Sicily in 1924 and now lives in Rome. She has several works here, one more radical than the next.
There is a small, patterned green-on-red abstraction in casein on canvas near the gallery entrance called, appropriately, “Verderosso n. 6” (“Green-red no. 6,” 1964). It’s an intriguing painting, but it doesn’t prepare you for “Bianco oro” (“White Gold”), which she made in 1966, hanging on the other side of the room.
The first thing you notice about “Bianco oro” are the cursive strokes of gold-colored varnish rippling outward from the center of the painting; the second thing you notice is that the brushstrokes are casting shadows on the white canvas, which is wrapped in transparent plastic — a material called sicofoil — upon which Accardi has applied the varnish.
Compellingly, what should by all rights be dismissed as cheap effect instead comes off as weirdly, poetically beautiful. The hovering gold brushstrokes, which grace the plastic with a minimalist purity, assert the painting’s thing-ness while their shadows dissolve our sense of it as a solid object. Yes, it’s a trick, but resistance to its artless radiance is futile.
By the following year the canvas support is gone. In “Segni Verdi” (1967), which can translate as “Green Signs,” “Green Signals,” “Green Symbols” or simply “Green Marks,” the painting’s stretcher bars are visible between the strokes of green varnish, which are brushed on in a diagonal, wavelike pattern.
The result isn’t quite as engaging as “Bianco oro,” perhaps because it is more literal in its approach to unmasking the art object, but its audacious simplicity can be enjoyed as a lyrical answer to Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines, which approach a similarly self-conscious aesthetic with kitchen-sink aggressiveness.
An innovative use of plastic can also be found in “Propaganda” (1965) by Mario Schifano (1934–1998), which bears the influence of both American Pop (the Coca-Cola logo) and Cubism (the hand-lettered title of the painting, “Propaganda,” in the upper left, as well as the Jean Arp-style biomorphic shapes overlapping the soda brand’s logo in a jumbled parade across the picture plane).
These forms, outlined in graphite, are partially covered by a diagonally-oriented sheet of orange Plexiglas, which itself sports a black triangle and a narrow, rectangular strip of red plastic, also at an angle. The heat generated by the Plexiglas’s 1960s colors against the cool Classicism of the graphite lines (not to mention the self-referential tracing of the plastic’s contours onto the canvas) is intoxicating.
The contemporary quality of “Propaganda” is such that a work done the previous year (“Ai pittori di insegne,” 1964) using similar elements (lettering and the Coca-Cola logo) but relying on enamel paint for its color, while enjoyable in its own right, feels much more derivative of its American precedents.
There is, however, another Schifano, a geometric abstraction (“La stanza dei Disegni,” 1962) made out of nothing but enamel and charcoal on paper, and it’s one of the most mesmerizing works in the show. Confronting us with vertical rectangles in white, black and red above squares of untouched brown paper, the painting bears down on us with the force of its opacity, a reminder of the blunt power that well-chosen, highly restricted elements can wield.
A smaller painting beside it, “Senza Titolo” (“Untitled,” 1962) by Piero Dorazio (1927-2005), is just as pared-down, but it is as nebulous as the Schifano is concrete. Vertical lines in light earth green, followed by intersections in orange and yellow, combine to create a diagonal grid that appears to shimmer off the surface. The lines of the grid are exacting but hand drawn, which endows them with a fallible, wobbly humanness. The painting’s disarming imperfection is exactly what leads you to the heart of its dazzling transcendence.
The works in this show have in common an enduring simplicity of means, a Classicism pliant enough to encompass minimalist analytics, anti-art stratagems and the headiness of Pop. The work of an artist like Accardi seems to embody all three, in objects that are beautiful and oddball, facile and endearing. They make a virtue of transition and uncertainty, as if their materials were all that they had to believe in. Perhaps that’s why they seem so clearheaded and familiar despite their alien skin.
Post-War Italian Art: Accardi, Dorazio, Fontana, Schifano continues at Sperone Westwater (257 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 4.