Mario Nigro

Galleria Cardi

Mario Nigro (1917–1992) is an anomaly in Italian art. Isolated from the time he began working (around 1950) until the late ’80s, he was rediscovered just when his type of abstraction seemed absolutely out of fashion—then later hailed as a master by a new crop of artists, who painted differently than he did (if they painted at all). How does this sort of transference occur? How, exactly, do young artists empathize with work so far removed in time and style?

Nigro’s painting comes out of classic geometric abstraction, out of the optimistic, international climate (in the period after World War II) which nurtured the belief that one could “measure” a work’s aesthetic achievement and make emotion universal through the study of visual perception. Nigro proceeded alone, even when his path proved to be utopian; such consistency and obstinacy surely contributed to his scant success (which came late and is now posthumous), but don’t explain it entirely. Perhaps an answer lies in these three exhibitions devoted to the artist’s final years. In Nigro’s large, late canvases, the gesture of painting becomes simple, almost childlike. Indeed, if Nigro’s early work represented space through intersecting planes, his later work might be seen as an investigation of painting itself. His meditations on the medium, coolly put to canvas with a few diagonal strokes, recurred over many, many years. Toward the close of his life, a sort of romantic abandon—perhaps arising from the sense that he was near the end—led Nigro to obsessively repeat the simple gesture of brush on canvas, mingling the few colors he used, or, in the final pieces, to mark the canvases with elementary grids similar to the geometrical doodles one might make, idly, during a long phone conversation. This was no more a renunciation of painting than de Kooning’s late works. Nigro simply felt that the purest outcome of painting, the bare gesture, was the only one necessary.

Yet the attention he began to receive on a national level ten years ago (attention which has not waned) is due neither to his consistency nor to the depth of his analysis; it is due, rather, to his work’s proud ingenuousness—the result of an investigation pursued throughout his life as a painter. Young artists took his work as evidence that it is unnecessary to discover such ingenuousness; they believed it was sufficient merely to possess it initially, and desirable to avoid the seduction of “craft.”

It is obvious that their perspective was, and remains, naive, for one can renounce the seductions of painting and art only after one has given them their due. Behind the youthful aspiration to spontaneity found in so many young artists today, there lurks Nigro’s true, epochal, end-of-the-millennium desire to start again from zero—to begin making art with the simplest gesture.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.