New York

Mario Schifano

For all the experimentation—bred from crossovers with film, performance, music, dance, and new technology—that characterized the art of the 1960s, art histories chronicling that decade still too often distill its raucous energies to fit neatly into three distinct movements (Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptual art), packaging each as both self-contained and uniquely American. But such oversimplifications can’t account for the hybridized practices that flourished in the margins; illicit alliances between high art and popular culture; and the simultaneities of influence generated by a shrinking world. And they can’t even begin to accommodate Italian avant-garde maverick Mario Schifano, whose paintings constitute a missing link between Pop, arte povera, and geometric formalism, with nods to Futurism, Conceptualism, and graphic design.

With the exception of several works included in the “New Realists” exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery in 1962, Schifano’s early paintings and films have never been exhibited in the US. Among the paintings shown at Sperone Westwater were several large rust, gray, cream, and black monochromes from 1960 and 1961, rendered in household enamel on pieces of paper and mounted on single stretched canvas. They are thinly painted, appearing to have been systematically and rapidly produced. Several contain vestiges of preliminary marks including barely legible transfer smudges of newsprint, and various penciled notes. Many are configured as frames, with lines running parallel to the perimeter of the paintings. The lines enclose monochromatic space and create borders, their occasionally rounded corners also strongly suggesting television screens. Once one notices this connection, the allusion to an endless communication continuum becomes unavoidable.

The reverberations of television and other media find their way into a group of paintings from the early ’60s based on the Esso and Coca-Cola logos. One reproduces the former in black outline filled in with green on a cream field; a penciled note on the surface of the painting reads, UNA COSA CHE APPARTIGUE A TUTTI (“something used by everyone”). Fragments of what appears to be the same logo, here accompanied by the number 5, surface in two paintings with the same title, Particolare di esterno (Exterior Detail), 1962. The spirit of Jasper Johns infuses these works; Ai pittori di insegne (Dedicated to Sign Painters), 1964, a colorful painting on canvas, features a graphite sketch of a recognizable section of the Coca-Cola insignia half-submerged in a field of scattered graphic notations indicating measurement and placement.

Also on show were a selection of Schifano’s “landscape” paintings, including Pasesaggio anemico (Anemic Landscape) and Il Cielo (The Sky), both 1965. These have Plexiglas elements bolted onto them, as does Propaganda, 1965, the title of which is drawn in block letters on its surface. Part of the Coca-Cola logo, sketched in graphite, is also legible through layers of the clear orange, red, and black plastic. So, too, is a sense of delirium—some of the varied marks suggest liquid spills; some indicate process; some appear to represent improvised studio tools.

If there’s a politics that informs Schifano’s work, it’s one that advocates excess and revels in acts of consumption and creativity. This sensibility is perhaps most evident in the rambling day-in-the-life 35-mm film Umano non Umano (Human not Human), 1969, a freewheeling, open-ended reverie that documents visits with artists and poets, performances, walks in the street, and more. Schifano posits art as an unending event, fluid enough to contain the entirety of the sensory world as it existed in ’60s Italy—the fabled dolce vita.

Jan Avgikos