Mimmo Rotella

Arco d’Alibert

This show might have been aptly titled “Rotella before Rotella.” Realized between 1954 and 1962, the works exhibited here represent the formative period in the career of an artist who, though he adopted Paris as his home, was Italian by birth. The Rotellas presented here are the ones that precede those celebrated icons that permitted layer upon layer of Hollywood idols, industrial trademarks, and advertising images into the precincts of high art. Before he developed the work that catapulted him to prominence in the ’60s, even before he had recognized the relevance of the urban sign and the iconography of consumerism, Rotella was profoundly nurtured by another line of research, by another culture. In fact, these works demonstrate just how much he drew from the lesson of art informel, from Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet, and from Alberto Burri. Here, anonymous colored paper is lacerated and ripped, subjected to a desperate existential temper that is quelled only at the level of compositional play, where the distant memory of visual order and formal balance is revived.

In those early years, before his work appropriated figurative imagery, Rotella experimented tirelessly with colors and forms. Though he employed the poster as a basic grammatical element even then, he used it mostly as a background: gluing things on top, concealing the image, treating it as a pure material fragment evoking the pigment of a plaster wall. In pieces such as Untitled (Macchie [Stains]), 1955, the burlap support contributes to the beauty of the work. In others, color seems the primary concern; this is the case in all of the small-scale works. His use of the figure also emerges during this period as a spontaneous and natural development, though somewhat timidly at the beginning as evidenced in Classico e moderno (Classical and modern, 1962), where a female face in Elizabethan costume appears amid faded hues.

The rest of Rotella’s career is history—the “Marilyn,” and the “Circus” series—but he never forgot the lesson of art informel. Gesture and materials remained decisive elements throughout his investigations. Unlike Andy Warhol’s aspirations to mechanical neutrality, Rotella’s poetics remained existential and deeply European even as he partook of an international spirit.

Alessandra Mammi

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.

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