New York

Floriano Vecchi

Casa Italiana, Columbia University

The name Floriano Vecchi is less than familiar these days, yet he played an intriguing and significant role in the evolution of Abstract Expressionism and, even more unexpectedly, in that of Pop art as well. In 1953, Vecchi partnered with Richard Miller to found the Tiber Press, printing artwork for such figures as Helen Frankenthaler, Michael Goldberg, Alfred Leslie, and Joan Mitchell. Joined by poet Daisy Aldan, the friends went on to found Folder, a magazine produced under the careful scrutiny of Vecchi, an academically trained artist who originally came from Pianuro, near Bologna. Using hand screen processes and hand-set type, they created a memorable review. Comprised of unbound signatures and free plates, Folder contained original screenprints by Gandy Brodie, Grace Hartigan, Leslie, and Felix Pasilis, though its list of poets is perhaps more striking today, including as it did Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Merrill, and Aldan. Songs by Ned Rorem and John Latouche found a place there as well as work by such European notables as Pier Paolo Pasolini. Still, for want of a public, Folder folded in 1956 after just four issues.

Here’s the kicker: The first issue also carried poems by Leon Hecht, who, as Aldan’s student at the High School of Industrial Art (today, the High School of Art and Design), was brought into the fold as a kind of young Rimbaud. Having learned typesetting and serigraphy at Vecchi’s side (and shortly thereafter how to print on cloth from D. D. and Leslie Tillet, pioneers in the field), Hecht quit poetry and eventually founded Sun Fabrics, a company that specialized in silk-screen-printed textiles. Aldan recommended Gerard Malanga, another of her students, to work at Hecht’s print plant. In turn, Malanga became Andy Warhol’s studio assistant, providing the latter with his silk-screen know-how learned from Hecht; in so doing, Malanga formed the bridge from Vecchi to Hecht to Warhol.

Today, virtually all the principals of the Folder moment are gone, Vecchi himself having died, at the age of eighty, in 2005. The dozen paintings shown recently at the Casa Italiana, Columbia University, recall his early academic formation. They are representational works made between 1987 and 1995, either still lifes, male nude studies, or paintings on religious themes. The last are, often enough, multipanel efforts marked by a tamped-down eroticism. All the figure paintings depict the same black man, as Christ as well as the Two Thieves in Crucifixion, 1982; or, as in the Last Supper, 1980, as the Christ figure as well as the Twelve Apostles. One wonders at the obsessive presentation of the man in question; who was he and what role might he have played, if any, in the aging painter’s life beyond being a preferred model? One assumes that he was Vecchi’s last great companion.

Vecchi’s technical mastery, which dates back to the Tiber press and the Folder circle, is echoed in his paintings. The images derive, perhaps, from photographs, and the artist fascinatingly breaks down the illusion of natural forms into amoebalike bits of information, myriad interlocking shapes, and biomorphic layers. When painstakingly filled in, these curious shapes coalesce into startling representations of the subject at hand. Vecchi carefully isolates each mass—a piece of fruit, a figure, a passage of drapery—according to his taste for oddly grayed and chalky color. His painted surfaces often give the impression of a dun-colored collage of sere, crushed-velvet patches—in all, a rather Italian index as well. With the knowledge of their unexpected confluences with Abstract Expressionism and Pop art (not to say their clear stylistic association with Photorealism), Vecchi’s paintings in old age provide a poignant footnote, some thirty-plus years after the fact, to an all but forgotten moment of sky-high optimism in midcentury American culture.

Robert Pincus-Witten