Emilio Vedova

Since the end of World War II, Emilio Vedova (who was twenty-six in 1945) has gained recognition, both at home and abroad, as one of the most original and provocative Italian artists. By going beyond realism and figuration and embracing modernist abstraction, he helped free Italian art from the aesthetic burdens of Fascism. In 1964, we find him in Berlin, eager to rekindle the spirit that once animated George Grosz, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, and the Dadaists. “Plurimi,” a series of works executed between 1961 and 1965, comprises large-scale multifaceted wood surfaces interposed almost as if at random: The surfaces are painted with aggressive, gestural brushwork, while the structure of each piece prevents its being taken in all at once, engendering a multiplicity of perspectives. Thus Vedova conflates painting and sculpture, architecture and theater. Instilled, perhaps, with the spirit of Dada, Vedova has continually criticized institutionalized modes of artistic expression and endeavored to materialize the “quanta” of the artist’s energy as a force no longer containable within the static dimensions of the canvas.

Among the roughly one hundred and fifty works included in this extensive survey were examples of Vedova’s early output and crucial moments in his development, although the show focused on his work from the ’80s. Vedova’s desire to create new modes of production and reception is immediately apparent in the first room, where examples of his Tondi and Dischi from different series (1985–88) have been installed on the wall, placed on the ground, and suspended in space. These circular works, covered either on one or both sides with intense layers of black and white paint (sometimes mixed with yellow or pale violet), evince gestures and pictorial possibilities rather than defined images.

Another intriguing cycle is the series “ . . . Cosiddetti Carnevali . . . ”(“ . . . So-called carnivals ... ”), 1977-91, which was exhibited here for the first time. These multilayered works, made variously of wood, canvas, paper, and steel, feature plaster masks, which, even in fragments (as they often are), evoke the human figure. The white masks, while intimately connected with the tradition of Carnival and commedia dell’arte, are distressing, enigmatic presences that ultimately conjure a tragic view of existence. That Vedova’s art is not solely about formal innovations but aims at confronting the world at large is evidenced by another work exhibited for the first time, Wer die Bücher brennt, verbrennt später die Männer—Chi brucia un libra brucia un uomo (He who burns a book burns a man), 1993. Protesting the destruction of Sarajevo’s library by Serbian shelling, this disco plurimo, made of large intersecting round panels, can be seen as a sort of circular book, whose hinged “pages” are full of paint, collaged paper, and letters. The piece attempts to combat the horror of war and ethnic hatred by creating a testament to what those negative forces have destroyed. By aligning cultural violence with war crimes, the loss of books and archives with the killing of human beings, Vedova reveals not only his political engagement but also his credo that art is an emancipatory enterprise.

In 1956, the art historian Lionello Venturi said of Vedova that he had an antidote to the dangers of success: his readiness to take risks, to question himself, and to restart his journey toward the unknown from scratch. Venturi was fascinated by the “contemporary”—he wanted to see Italian artists absorb the progressive impulses of modern art, produce works that would engage with those made across the Atlantic, and eventually have a voice within the increasingly international art world. More than forty years later, we may feel distant from the expectactions of that era, but nonetheless, Venturi’s characterization of Vedova is illuminating—and has certainly proved to be prophetic.

Gabriele Guercio