COLD SPRING, New York — In 2020, when I learned that the Italian artist Mario Schifano (1934–1998) had collaborated with the poet Frank O’Hara (1926–1966), I ordered a copy of Words & Drawings from Archivio Mario Schifano, which documented the collaborative work. Little did I know that I would be able to see all of the work in the exhibition Facing America: Mario Schifano 1960–65, at the Center for Italian Modern Art (January 14–November 13, 2021), curated by Francesco Guzzetti.

I was reminded of Words & Drawings when I saw Mario Schifano: The Rise of the ’60s in the newly opened Robert Olnick Pavilion of the Magazzino Italian Art museum and research center, curated by Alberto Salvadori. Comprised of nearly 80 works dated between 1960 and the ’70s, the exhibition is the fullest view to date of this decade in Schifano’s career. It likely will be a long time before we get such a sweeping survey of his work of this period again. 

In addition to the collaboration with O’Hara, the earlier exhibition included a dozen paintings, alongside works by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jim Dine — artists Schifano met and whose work he was in dialogue with while living in New York from December 1963 to July 1964, when the United States was reeling from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War and activist movements were ramping up. Both exhibitions make clear that Schifano was interested in American culture long before he sailed to the US.

Mario Schifano, “The music of Ornette” (1960), enamel on paper mounted on canvas, 70 7/8 x 63 inches; Olnick Spanu Collection, New York (photo Dario Lasagni, courtesy Magazzino Italian Art, Cold Spring, NY)

The earliest work in the current exhibition is a gray monochromatic enamel on paper, titled “The music of Ornette” (1960). The title is a reference to jazz musician Ornette Coleman, who rejected the idea that improvisation had to be based on set harmonic patterns, becoming one of the founders of free jazz. When Schifano made this painting, Coleman was still a controversial figure for his style of continuous improvisation. Seen as a precursor to his work from the 1960s, the monochrome painting suggests that Schifano took cues from Coleman’s commitment to improvising without anchoring it in a harmonic pattern. Schifano was a restless artist who made both abstract and figurative paintings, and incorporated graphic signs. He moved nimbly among different modes and never settled into a style, which sets him apart from many of his contemporaries, in both Europe and the US. 

Schifano also worked in different mediums, including enamel, gouache, pencil, pastel, wax crayons, collage, and photographs, frequently combining them in a single work. He often painted in enamel on paper mounted on canvas. By doing so, he divorced his work from the high art tradition of oil on canvas that originated in the Italian Renaissance.

While Pop art, notably the work of Andy Warhol, celebrated inexpensive consumer products, such as Coca Cola and Campbell’s soup, Schifano was critical of American capitalism, particularly as it spread throughout Europe after World War II. In 1962, when Warhol made his first painting of empty green glass Coca Cola bottles, Schifano painted “Particolare di Propaganda” (Detail of Propaganda), featuring part of the logo. The piece indicates that the brand has become so ubiquitous that we don’t need to see the entire bottle to know what it is. By labeling it propaganda, Schifano equates American consumerism with indoctrination. 

Mario Schifano, “En plein air” (1964), mixed media on cardboard, 28 7/8 x 22 7/8 inches; Olnick Spanu Collection, New York (image courtesy Magazzino Italian Art, Cold Spring, NY)

In his painting “En Plein Air after New York” (1964), Schifano explores a motif based on an Italian advertisement for German Volkswagens. The original ad pictured an Italian family enjoying a drive through the countryside in the German car’s Italian model. Schifano renders the Italian version of the Volkswagen as an empty shape set against a backdrop of bare and uprooted trees, alluding to the ad’s hollowness. 

While it was wonderful to see all these works, and get a fuller sense of Schifano’s different paths during the ’60s, one work was truly unexpected. The mixed media on cardboard “En Plein Air” (1964), related to “En Plein Air after New York,” is inscribed with O’Hara’s unmistakable handwriting. I was further convinced when I read the text: “I love Federico Fellini more than grass.” Only O’Hara could have written that insouciant line. Similar in size to the works on paper in Words & Drawings, I initially wondered if it was part of the collaboration, but after learning that it was made on cardboard, I began to suspect that it wasn’t. Where does this work fit into Schifano’s oeuvre? Shouldn’t O’Hara’s contribution to it be acknowledged? 

Considering this raised more questions: When Schifano was in New York, he took many photographs and made short films — did he continue to do this after he returned to Italy? The real pleasure of seeing Mario Schifano: The Rise of the ’60s was that it left me both satiated and thirsting for more. 

Mario Schifano, “Grande oggetto paesaggio” (1965), acrylic and enamel on three united canvas, 78 3/4 x 118 1/8 inches; Private Collection (image courtesy Magazzino Italian Art, Cold Spring, NY)
Mario Schifano, “Segnale giallo” (1961), enamel on paper mounted on canvas, 31 1/2 x 39 3/8 inches; Olnick Spanu Collection, New York (photo Marco Anelli / Tommaso Sacconi, courtesy Magazzino Italian Art, Cold Spring, NY)

Mario Schifano: The Rise of the ’60s continues at Magazzino Italian Art (2700 Route 9, Cold Spring, New York) through January 8. The exhibition was organized by Magazzino Italian Art in collaboration with the Archivio Mario Schifano and curated by Alberto Salvadori.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...

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