Ugo Mulas

Rotonda Di Via Besana

With this retrospective, the city of Milan paid homage to its greatest photographer, Ugo Mulas. Mulas was born in 1928 and died in 1973. Even during his student years at the academy, he was in touch with the art world, and it was in the work of painters and sculptors that he sought an answer to the question he always posed: how to define the work of the photographer. This exhibition, organized by Germano Celant, covered all his activity, from 1953 until the year of his death, and gave a chronological view that documented all the “themes” he addressed.

Mulas was above all a great portraitist, but the personality he portrays, the artist or literary figure or actor, is never seen in his or her singular exceptionality, but rather as a subject tied to a community that is defined and recognizable in a distinctive manner. It is this collective that the photographer indicates, and this is why most of his works were conceived as sequences, indeed as thematic cycles. Thus Piero Manzoni is not celebrated as the sly spirit of Italian art of the ’50s, but as the habitué of the “Giamaica” bar, the famous hangout for Milanese artists of the time, a setting to which Mulas dedicated a series of unforgettable images. The single photograph is never seen isolated from the whole of which it is a part, for Mulas had no intention of pursuing and capturing exceptional moments.

On the contrary, Mulas sought to individuate a reality, the one that he felt to be most accurate, and then to let the camera register it, limiting his subjective intervention to that of a pure technician. His famous shots of the Venice Biennale, which he covered from 1954 to 1972, decipher this chosen reality: Alberto Giacometti carrying his sculptures, Max Ernst on a vaporetto, Gino Severini greeting his friends in a bar, workmen installing the American pavilion—what is portrayed is always placed as a fragment and a particular aspect of a collective whole. After the 1964 Biennale and Pop art’s explosive debut in Europe, Mulas went to New York, specifically to meet American painters. These images make sense only if seen in the sequence in which they were conceived. Mulas succeeded in conveying the ambience and the style of a work: Larry Poons’ concentration, Barnett Newman’s detachment, Frank Stella’s methodicalness, John Chamberlain’s disorder, Robert Rauschenberg’s vitalist gestures, Andy Warhol’s group activity, Roy Lichtenstein’s retrieval of comic strips. The sequence allows the reconstitution of an event, such as Spring Training, 1964, the dance performance by Rauschenberg, Trisha Brown, and Steve Paxton, being rehearsed in the artist’s studio.

Mulas did more than simply photograph the events and protagonists of “his” reality. During the last years of his life he questioned photography, substituting its technical means for reality and for experience, according to an ideological system. This suspicion led to Mulas’ “Verifiche” (Verifications, 1971–72), his final thematic cycle, which was installed at the center of the space, like a fulcrum around which all the other works revolved. The “Verifiche” bring Mulas close to the process of conceptual art; indeed, they are metalinguistic reflections on the expressive specificities of photography, on the material processes that define it, and on their ideological implications. Through a series of experiments, Mulas verifies the ambiguity of the concept of “reality” as conveyed by photography and the process of loss of authority that the subject experiences before the camera. As in many works of art from the early ’70s, the analysis converges on the authentication of an absence, on a blurred self-portrait, which is, in fact, the final image that Mulas left of himself.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from the Italian by Marguertte Shore.