New York

Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, and Francesco Clemente

Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery

This is the question to ask of the work of the Italians recently imported to Manhattan, beginning with the Francesco Clemente and Sandro Chia shows at Sperone Westwater Fischer last spring, continuing with “The Italian Wave” at Holly Solomon’s last summer, and crescendoing in the MIMMO PALADINO show at Marian Goodman plus the triple-threat exhibition of the “Three C’s” (ENZO CUCCHI, SANDRO CHIA and FRANCESCO CLEMENTE) at Sperone Westwater Fischer in October. Grumblings from various artists and interested parties had it that this October’s new Italian movement—as Arlo Guthrie said in Alice’s Restaurant, “One’s a protest, two’s company, three’s a crowd and four’s a movement”—was a pallid attempt by the Italians to jump on the American New Image bandwagon. Other nervous reactions suggested the reverse, that American New Imagism was only getting attention because it looked like Italian and German new figurative art; that it was rising in popularity because Europeans were buying it. These reactions speak of the general paranoia, nationalism and envy bloating the art world, but don’t say much about the significance of the work.

What is the significance of New Imagism, imported and domestic? The restoration of the figure to mainstream art. As is generally bruited, the return of the figure is a reaction to Minimalism’s hegemony. But it can also be argued that all paintings are abstract paintings, whether they have figures or not; that all paintings have content, be they representational or nonobjective. Certainly there must be another raison d’être of New Imagism.

The more I see, the more the impulse behind New Imagism looks precisely the opposite of the notion of a homogenized International Style. The more you look at the paintings, the more you’ll require increased knowledge of each artist’s personal iconology. If I can make an inductive leap from the Hudson to the Tiber, my hunch is that in Italy, as in the States, what looks like an International Style is just a constellation of intensely individual, regional styles. The only thing that links these artists is that they happen to deal with figuration. But each deals with it in a very different manner (just as the practitioners of the International Style of architecture happened to be dealing with the rectilinear silhouette of the skyscraper; a Le Corbusier is not a Mies). Make no mistake: New Imagism is not the Esperanto of contemporary art. It’s polyglot.

Looking at the Italians individually, so far the strongest seem to me to be Paladino and Clemente (this is probably because I’ve seen more of their work than the others). But what’s clear about all four is that they have no truck with the trademark image; they’re very protean, or, to be blunt, chameleon, in their collective approach. Paladino’s show featured a number of diptychs and triptychs, most with painterly plaster-cast protrusions. I’ve never before seen Paladinos that looked like this. Have paintbrush, will travel seems to be the motto of this paladin.

The angriest painting in the show, a yellow and black triptych with plaster relief, looks like the evolution of a cornucopia into a skull. Harvest and barrenness. A dunce-cap-like cone grows out of the central panel while a skull, in relief, looks like a fungus on the lower portion of the left panel. The painting looks like some peristalsis of lemons and India ink, the wild rhythms of the brushwork belching the reliefs into real space. For Paladino, the ground is the canvas. The figures (cones, skulls, protozoan formations) occupy virtual space, a way of dealing with the problem that Paladino shares with none of his countrymen. Imagine Richard Serra primary shapes on Ellsworth Kelly primary colors (mucked up a bit to look more earnest) and you’ve got a Paladino.

Not so Francesco Clemente. There is a dialectic in his work between old and new (I’ll talk more about Clemente and less about the other two C’s, Chia and Cucchi, because I’ve seen less of their work), but the old is art history and the new is his Roman holiday with art history. The three C’s look to me like Renaissance conceptualists: they all can draw but prefer to draw diagrams implying they’re too lazy to draw. The specter of process and concept looms large over their work; many of their paintings have the effect of modern Italian design undertaking the renovation of Renaissance art; respectful and disrespectful at the same time. In an interview with Kay Larson, Chia described his work as “The Last Baroque”—or—“Late Late Mannerism.” Both descriptions are as good as any.

But sometimes I think Clemente’s frescoes (some shown here last year) are closer to Late Byzantine than Late Mannerism. Flattened spaces. Allegorical content. Like Clemente’s recurring icon, the leopard, which might be a reference to di Lampedusa’s Il gattopardo, the saga of an aristocratic family in Italy before and after the unification.

At other moments, such as in the October show, Clemente’s work has that raffish conceptual quirk of designation without completion. Two frescoes leaned on the gallery wall but were not hung. Arrows in the pictures pointed out which end was up, presumably, but these “directions” (or intentional misdirections) were not followed. Two languages were being spoken here: semiology and iconology (favored art jargon of post-modernism and the Renaissance, respectively) and it was hard to read both at the same time. In fact, you could only read one at the exclusion of the other.

This is the strength of the Italians, I think, that they’d rather be additive than reductive, rather have two things going on than nothing at all. This work can be faulted for its disjunctiveness; some might call it schizophrenia.

Carrie Rickey