Ettore Spalletti

If the past is a burden, Italian artists bear a heavier one than most. And it’s not just all that extraordinary art—the Piero della Francescas and Fra Angelicos that seem to lurk around every corner. Anyone who’s ever walked the streets of an immemorial town or centro storico has to wonder how something new could possibly compete with the beauty of a worn old plaster wall glowing with the patina of age under the Italian sun. Perhaps the problem itself is older than we think. What else could have inspired Alberti’s mad assertion that a painting should be like a window than the wish to forget the reality of a wall? Ettore Spalletti’s solution, by contrast, is to take the wall as a model.

The eight works in this concise show, which date from 1979 to 2002, are all either gray or blue (occasionally supplemented with discreet additions of gold leaf). Spalletti sometimes uses other colors, but this selection emphasizes that, while basically monochromes, his works are not primarily about color: Even Spalletti’s blues are designed to be experienced less as specific hues than as exemplars of the luminous atmosphere within which all colors appear. The exhibition also underlines the continuity of the artist’s work, which undergoes no noticeable development. The working method, too, remains constant: On a rigid support—either rectangular, square, or a geometrical form based on classical figures such as the vase, the amphora, or (as in Colonna di colore [Column of Color], 1979) the column—he spreads a colored “impasto” (as the artist calls it) consisting of oil, gesso, and powdered pigment. Once dry it is sanded, and then the operation starts again. This building up and rubbing down of the surface is a slow, contemplative process that results in a surface of great freshness and luminosity.

As atmospheric as they are, even the flat, wall-based works proclaim their wall-like solidity, in part via the beveled edges—painted a darker gray in the triptych Stanza grigia (Gray Room), 1994, gilded in the five-paneled blue Dormiveglia (Daydream), 2001–2002—that simultaneously mark and deform the frontal rectangle, making even the sides of the work function pictorially. By becoming sculptural, the works enlarge the domain of painting. Furthermore, Stanza grigia; Muro (Wall), 2002; and Coppia legata (Couple United), 1987, project from the wall at an angle on brackets, touching the work directly only at one corner and revealing that its verso is also a painted surface. This discovery makes one wonder, as well, about the backs that remain hidden, and about the bottom and top of the column—the parts we’ll never see. Oddly, two of the projecting squares have a single white pencil, pointed at both ends, jammed in between them and the wall—a last reminder of drawing in works that otherwise seem little involved with it? Who knows?

By comparison with the American artists with whom he might seem to have the most in common—Robert Ryman or Joseph Marioni, for example—Spalletti’s use of such gestures or of a material like gold leaf can make his work seem finicky and overrefined, fancy-schmancy. But it’s really just a different kind of sensitivity, one more appropriate to its local context. Give them time and you’ll witness these works bring their context into your field of vision: Italian light on Italian walls.

Barry Schwabsky