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PRINT May 2006

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Mimmo Rotella

MIMMO ROTELLA’S artistic legacy was perhaps defined by a fateful meeting in 1958, when the curator Pierre Restany visited the artist’s studio in Rome and found him making works using a décollage technique astonishingly similar to that being employed on the other side of the Alps by Frenchmen Raymond Hains, François Dufrêne, and Jacques de la Villeglé—affichistes whom Restany had just the previous year dubbed Nouveau Réalistes in the movement’s first group exhibition. Since 1953, Rotella had been making pieces from layered posters he had furtively torn from walls during nighttime strolls through his city, gluing the promotional materials to canvas and then tearing them again to create meticulously composed abstract compositions. Though these were exhibited as early as 1955, after meeting Restany, the artist would affiliate himself with the Nouveau Réalistes and participate in their joint exhibitions, becoming the only Italian in their midst. Still, after Rotella’s death in January at age eighty-seven, one hopes that posterity will take a broader view of his oeuvre, which, in addition to décollage, included performance, assemblage, and work in a variety of modes entirely the artist’s own. Deploying a number of innovative techniques throughout his life, he created a rich body of art underpinned by a “mental radar,” as he called it, remarkably attuned to the way urban visual culture registered the shifting tectonics of postwar modernity.

Rotella was born into a working-class Calabrian family in 1918, but before long his persona would over- shadow those humble beginnings: Accounts of his life as an aspiring painter in the late ’40s, after he served in World War II, often describe him as living la dolce vita. Indeed, the headiness of Rome in those years (and its emergence as an international media capital) may in part explain Rotella’s eventual move away from a purely formal approach in his décollage and his decision to dedicate himself instead to an exploration of film iconography that culminated in his lacerated movie posters of the late ’50s and early ’60s. These works crystallize a profoundly ambivalent impulse, at once popular, in the most literal sense, and aggressively anti-social. To approach the image of a sex symbol, to rip and tear it, to nullify or deface the figure—whether of Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, or, indeed, any now-forgotten Cinecittà starlet—would seem even now the gesture of a vandal (and a vaguely sadomasochistic one at that). But it was celebrity culture’s double specters of desire and death, or rage, that Rotella—like many Pop artists who later arrived on the scene—detected with his radar and made manifest in his art. And it is this popular accent that primarily distinguishes Rotella’s work from that of Hains, Dufrêne, and Villeglé. For the Italian artist, décollage was not so much a conceptual gambit as a gesture derived from the everyman’s experience.

Another distinctive aspect of his practice, however, may be discerned in its origins. During the ’40s Rotella was making modish abstractions that, as he would later concede, were not particularly distinguished. But he was also composing and performing poetry during this period, cobbling disjointed phrases and snatches of onomatopoeic sounds into free-form verses that evoke both nursery rhymes and the variegated din of Roman life. (Some of these pieces were recorded for the US Library of Congress in 1952, when Rotella was a Fulbright Scholar and artist-in-residence at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.) He coined the neologism epistaltici to describe these works, which recall Futurist writings and Dadaist automatism while prefiguring Concrete poetry and stand as arguably the most eccentric facet of the artist’s career. “Viaggiando da Tokyo a Kyoto. Tokio / kyoto / totokyo / titokyo / tikyo / totok / totok / totik / totoc / totoc / mushi / mushi/ tit / tit / titic / totoc / hay / hay / hay,” reads one typical excerpt. In a real sense, Rotella’s manipulations of media materials are transpositions of such treatments of language into visual terms.

Over the years, he pushed the implications of his technique in a variety of ways. In the ’60s and ’70s, he produced what he termed “Mec art”—pictures made by projecting found images on to canvases treated with photosensitive emulsion—as well as “artypos,” which were rephotographed collages of printers’ proofs. In the ’80s he turned to making monochromes by covering found advertisements with sheets of paper, and he produced sovrapitture (overpainting), posters with drawings loosely scrawled across their surfaces that evoked the graffiti art being made in the States. But later in his life, Rotella in a sense came full circle, bringing décollage techniques to the ever-slicker and more ubiquitous imagery of contemporary advertisements. However disparate, all of these works were linked by the fact that they were demotic in terms of both iconography and process.

With age, Rotella made fewer nighttime excursions, but he remained in some sense the vandal, roaming the dark streets and stealing up to the city walls. One might say that, more than a Nouveau Réaliste, he was a Neorealist, his work resonating with the great Italian films that took the lives of the working class as their subjects and whose advertisements Rotella both admired and defaced—even going so far as to exhibit his hodgepodge assemblages of billboards along the Tiber, close to the bridge from which Pasolini’s low-life Accattone characters once jumped.

Marco Meneguzzo is an independent curator and teaches at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.