New York


Phyllis Kind Gallery

Following on the heels of a major 1992 retrospective held in Verona, Italy, this was Carlo Zinelli’s first solo show in the U.S. since 1968. Presenting 27 exquisite gouaches on paper, this show introduced the full range of Carlo’s oeuvre to an American audience. Championed by Jean Dubuffet as an artiste brut, Carlo (1916–74), an Italian schizophrenic who was institutionalized for over twenty years, has been inducted into the European canon of “Outsider” art. Yet, within that context, attention to the full range of his work has been relatively limited.

Carlo’s work confounds two major stereotypes of “schizophrenic” art: first, the notion that the schizophrenic image-maker is compelled to obsessively fill in every space in the composition; second, that there can be no significant stylistic progression in the work over time. Only in the first of the four periods of his career (these have only recently been identified by scholars) can the rather clichéd notion of horror vacui be said to govern his image-making. What is more, the one painting featured here from this initial period (1957–60) was marked by a measured, sophisticated play between negative and positive space that far exceeds the parameters of such a reductive explanation. The artist’s largely figural mode, populated by silhouetted human and animal figures, evolved into a second phase (ca.1961–64) marked both by a precocious foray into color experimentation and by ordering figures into clusters of four—which has, for better or worse, become his trademark. This phase of Carlo’s work was represented here by stunning pieces, including a haunting group of four, black, attenuated figures from 1961, and several painterly compositions in which abstract bands of pure color replace the figure altogether.

In 1965, Carlo began to use text as both a formal and an expressive device. Introduced tentatively at first, scripted letters and words came to virtually dominate his compositions after 1965, sometimes ordered in his signature groups of four, but more often set into an elaborate, unfettered mode of poetic play. In works from this period, letters, word fragments, and sometimes whole words are repeated to add a visual dimension to the poetry, activating the space surrounding painted figures and objects. The result is a proliferation of wildly fluctuating fields that suggests both excitement and turmoil.

The final, and perhaps most intriguing, phase of Carlo’s work unfolded in the early ’70s, during the last years of the artist’s life. Replete with ominous religious symbols such as crosses, church spirals, vestments, and burial scenes, these later paintings, executed with small, delicately rhythmic brushstrokes, have a hauntingly spiritual quality that suggests a mature artist in the process of coming to terms with his mortality.

Carlo’s paintings belie the notion that art made by schizophrenics may only he viewed as a symptom of illness. This show helped to strengthen a position that is gradually gaining currency among scholars: that although mental illness may partially determine the nature of an artist’s work, neither the talent nor the creative impulse of an artist such as Carlo can be attributed to illness alone. This show established Carlo as an artist whose work adds depth and texture to the history of Modern art.

Jenifer P. Borum