Critics’ Picks

View of “Laboratorio Schifano,” 2011.

View of “Laboratorio Schifano,” 2011.

Rome

Mario Schifano

MACRO - Museo D'Arte Contemporanea Roma
Via Nizza, 138
October 26, 2010–June 12, 2011

“The work,” Walter Benjamin once said, “is the death mask of its conception.” Pinned between large walls of transparent glass, which are installed in a staggered, labyrinth-like hall, this exhibition of Mario Schifano’s working sketches, notes, Polaroids, and ephemera from the 1980s and ’90s grants the conceptive process of his late work continuous breathing room, even as it wedges it between airtight panes. In forging a homegrown strain of Italian Pop in the ’60s, Schifano drew on the work of Johns and Rauschenberg and the language of advertising in equal measure. His most notable paintings include discreet signs or lines of cropped text. The manic order of this show’s field of images attests to the shift in Schifano’s work in the ’80s, when he began turning almost exclusively to photography and media imagery.

Photographs of television screens with soccer matches and porn ads; a view of Rome’s Palazzo degli Esposizioni with a large television painted on its steps; a Polaroid of Warhol on the news. A screenshot of the words La Vocazione Multimediale (Multimedia Vocation) plays self-consciously on this larger field of pictures. This is not to say that this field unfurls arbitrarily. In fact, clusters of interrelated imagery and iconography congeal and disperse. Schifano clearly lingered over many of the photographs, distilling ideas from them (and often retouching them with paint) or else abandoning them in favor of a new set of concerns.

As one of the first artists to develop some of his painted imagery on the computer, Schifano did not shy from technological changes, but rather incorporated them as the evolving vehicle of his work. Toward the end of his life he streamed over the Internet a live feed from his studio. The maze of images here thus fittingly concludes with an eight-minute video of footage from the artist’s studio. We hear his disembodied voice spar with critic Achille Bonito Oliva on the phone; we hear him tease about “television as a form of terrorism.” But his glib quip appears at odds with his evident amusement. This art-world Truman Show takes Schifano’s “multimedia vocation” to a higher mathematics of mediation: At one point we hear him shouting, “There’s a documentary about me on TV!”