New York

Fernando Melani

Salvatore Ala

Italian artist Fernando Melani was somewhat of a Modernist anachronism. In 1945, at the age of 38, he embarked on an ambitious program to link abstract art with experimental physics. He pursued the project until his death in 1985, and his efforts yielded thousands of artworks and a substantial body of theoretical writing.

Melani carried out his “research” in his house in Pistoia, converting his living quarters into an artistic laboratory, eliminating all typical domestic props, and taking his meals at a local restaurant. Melani’s output was prodigious and, over the course of forty years, the accumulation of successfully realized “experiences” (as he called the works), also meant to engage the viewer’s sense unfinished pieces, and dead ends covered the tables, bookcases, walls, and floors of his house. Monochrome canvases strung on clotheslines, which the artist humorously dubbed Bucato (Laundry), crisscrossed the diminutive spaces.

In seeking to make tangible the new theories of particle physics in artistic form, Melani believed that he was restoring art’s raison d’etre—in his view sadly misplaced in modern times. Curiously, he maintained an archaic faith in art’s avant-garde status (and, as some of his writings indicate, he ascribed to it a certain social mission reminiscent of the program of his beloved Piet Mondrian). While cognizant of international trends in recent art (the work is full of allusions to Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Marcel Broodthaers, and others), Melani seems to have maintained a distance from various artistic circles by remaining isolated in his provincial fortress.

Melani’s unique esthetic theory derived from his notion of “resonances,” or rapid exchanges of energy occurring among and across substances. Melani studied the properties of materials ranging from brightly colored tempera paint to wire to various synthetic plastics in a quasi-scientific manner, attributing to them his own idiosyncratic sense of their respective capacities for stimulating interaction. Some materials are identified as merely “inert”; his Opera Omnia consists of paint-sample-like combinations of various substances treated to elicit their innate qualities. Works such as the wall of rectangular monochrome canvases entitled Progetto di Lettura Globale (Project for a global reading, 1976), are of resonances.

Melani’s experiments often produced works of austere yet striking beauty, be it in the deft twirling of a single strand of wire or in patchworks of soldered metal scraps. Cubo Grande F. M. 1558 (II) (Big cube F. M. 1558 [II], 1959), is a surprisingly delicate mobile made of rectangles of sheet metal dangling from a wire frame. At times, however, “scientific” research triumphed over esthetics in Melani’s work; many of his pieces, ranging from crudely executed tempera-on-wood compositions to bas-reliefs made of synthetic substances painted shrill shades of green or orange, are boring or downright ugly. The vast majority of the works are abstract, and most bear numerical titles. One of the most delightful series, however, consists of mythological scenes such as Il ratto di Proserpina F. M. 4172 (The rape of Persephone F. M. 4172, 1978), convincingly rendered by two colliding bicycle frames.

Melani was something of a local persona, donning workman’s overalls (a nod to his participation in the Communist Party) and presenting himself á la Joseph Beuys as a writer, a thinker, a proselytizer, and also as an artist. And it is clear that, at whatever detriment to his international career, Melani functioned best as a solitary figure in a remote locale. He guarded his privacy, never married, and avoided other social obligations. Melani doubtless reasoned that he would need every bit of his strength to carry out his esthetic agenda, which was nothing less than to save art both from and for the modern world.

Lois E. Nesbitt