New York

Mimmo Rotella

Knoedler & Company

To announce its new representation of the estate of Mimmo Rotella (1918–2006), Knoedler & Company mounted a survey focusing on the artist’s paintings of the 1950s and ’60s, a period of intense international avant-garde cross-pollination. Like many Italian painters who came of age at that time, Rotella began as a postwar abstractionist whose work was still marked by a certain late Futurist vigor. Adjuring the Neorealist strand of Italian art that also emerged following the war and inspired by his growing cognizance of contemporary American developments, Rotella sloughed off this
 dutiful mode and by the late ’50s had
 discovered the potential of the torn
 street poster as a hybrid form of painting. Along with Raymond Hains,
 Jacques Villeglé, and François Dufrêne,
 Rotella became an affichiste (though in 
Rotella’s case the less familiar term
 affichisto is also correct). The principal
 Italian member of this essentially
 French group, Rotella often tore and
 ripped accumulated layers of printed
 papers a second time after tearing them 
from the street and pasting them atop 
one another, a method that critic Pierre 
Restany called “double décollage.”
 This way of working allowed for star
tling jagged colored passages to play
 against remnants of typography and/or
 partial images of the human body or 
face. Such contrasts and discontinuities 
obviously share much with nascent Pop
art sensibilities even as they maintain a 
belief in the primacy of abstract painting. Of all the affichistes, Rotella appears to have been most drawn to maintaining as much of the undiluted commercial or political content of the original posters as the mode permits.

Since this exhibition stressed American connections—early on, in 1951, Rotella had won a Fulbright Fellowship to study at the University of Kansas City—it came as no surprise to find Pop icons such as Marilyn Monroe and John Kennedy in the décollages on view. The most striking of these is L’ultimo Kennedy (The Last Kennedy), a 1963 side-by-side portrait of John Kennedy: two grayish posters of the ill-fated president aligned laterally with quasi-rectangular paper sheets, pasted one above each head in a kind of tannish, Rothko-like configuration.

It was still Camelot. We all recall when, while en route to a meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, Kennedy stopped off in Paris and the first lady took the town by storm. To be sure, Jackie made a cameo appearance in this exhibition, as did Andy, everybody’s tutelary god; both were present in modest photo-based works printed on canvas— Andy and Jackie together again.

Despite the strong graphic character of Rotella’s décollages, the finest group of these works, dating to the late 1950s, are rather small and squarish. (Not only in their size are they reminiscent of the reliefs of proximate date by John Chamberlain, which, in this comparison, become the literalized spatial projections of such refined torn papers.) By contrast, when Rotella thinks big, such as in Pan Am, 1986—a life- size billboard advertisement in three sections spanning nearly two hundred inches, painted over in big broken strokes of blue, yellow, and brown—one sees the degree to which Rotella’s gifts were more congenial to an intimate scale. The rude swipes of color in Pan Am bespeak the later Rotella, when the posters and printed supports of his work were often coarsely drawn over in paint. Billy the Kid, 1989, in its willed awkward transparency of drawing, calls David Salle to mind.

The show’s most striking works were a group of four retro d’affiches—among them Tre Estropeado (Three Damaged), 1958–61, and Passeggiata Ripetta (Ripetta Walk), 1958—that are powdery in color, virtually Rococo, and each made up of closely graded, floretlike shapes from the verso of posters mounted onto panels. They are by far the most unexpected abstractions within a typology that, in many respects, no longer puzzles us today. Owing to the inherent coloristic instability of commercial photo-litho on paper (not to speak of the degradation caused by the poster hanger’s flour paste worked in between the layers of paper), Rotella’s work has over the past half century grown even lovelier, its now soft coloration an index of treasured memory.

Robert Pincus-Witten