Steven Parrino

Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain

On New Year’s morning last year, Steven Parrino, aged forty-six, died in a motorcycle accident near his Brooklyn home. A bit more than a year after his death, “Steven Parrino, Retrospective 1977–2004” opened at the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain in Geneva—the first extensive museum show of his oeuvre, originally conceived as a mid-career survey but, sadly, turned into a posthumous retrospective. Covering two floors of the museum, it featured over two hundred works, from early drawings, collages, and photographs, dating back to the beginning of his career, to paintings, sculptures, and their hybrids—including several collaborations with other artists (such as Olivier Mosset and Jutta Koether)—and film and video works. Though closely involved with the ’80s East Village music and art scene, Parrino has been celebrated more in Europe—especially in French-speaking Switzerland, where his influence on a generation of younger artists is most evident—than at home.

At a time when painting was declared dead in some circles, Parrino developed necrophiliac affection for the genre’s corpse. Walking through the exhibition one could easily get the idea that Parrino was to canvas what Pete Townshend was to guitars: Destruction was definitely a creative force in his production. Parrino worked his glossy panels—shiny black and aluminum silver were his fetish colors—with hammer and saw; he bent and broke them, and developed his “misshaped canvases,” as he called them, through contortions and defor- mations. They are winking, at times macabre, but always consequential formal continuations of the attempts, by artists from Malevich to Fontana and Stella, to break up the canvas-ground relationship—and adding Warhol’s glamour and the anarchic brutality of punk. Instead of just slicing through the canvas, like Fontana, Parrino takes a crowbar and rips it all off from the stretchers (Crowbar, 1987). A pair of mis-stretched black squares is entitled Lee Marvin/Marlon Brando, 1992, and another series of tondi combines Daniel Buren’s stripes with an aureole of Jackson Pollock’s dripping, but then maltreats the canvas as if it had been caught by a helicopter propeller and torqued off the frame (Skeletal Implosion, 2001). Likewise, 13 Shattered Panels for Joey Ramone, 2001, a room-filling installation of broken black Sheetrock panels, seems more like the aftermath of a plane crash than an homage to mono- chrome painting or even to an over-the-top punk concert. But however violent they look—and indeed many of their titles refer to B splatter movies—these works are carefully composed, and their references to art history, philosophy, and subculture are complex.

A big part of this groundbreaking survey focuses on works on paper, which reveal much about Parrino’s cross-cultural interests, from biker, punk, and no-wave fanzines and underground comics to political activism. Just as, for Parrino, the “blackness” of Stella’s “Black Paintings” and Warhol’s Disasters series refers to more than their surface color, the collage White on White, 1991, formally evokes Malevich while featuring a racist flyer for the White Aryan Resistance on a white sheet of paper. Undeniably, a pessimistic mood hovers over this exhibition, crystallizing in the apocalyptic comic book project Exit/Dark Matter (1998–1999). Parrino’s last works include the walk-in Trashed Black Box N°2, 2003, the sci-fi inspired (but unrealized) earthwork Study for a model of the Universe to be placed in the Forbidden Zone, 2003, and the experimental film NECROPOLIS (The Lucifer Crank), for Anger, 2004, made with Amy Granat and Larry 7. The show is a somber yet impressive leave-taking.

Eva Scharrer