New York

Domenico Gnoli, Ritratto di Luis T (Portrait of Luis T), 1967, acrylic and sand on canvas, 18 1/2 x 15".

Domenico Gnoli, Ritratto di Luis T (Portrait of Luis T), 1967, acrylic and sand on canvas, 18 1/2 x 15".

Domenico Gnoli

Domenico Gnoli, Ritratto di Luis T (Portrait of Luis T), 1967, acrylic and sand on canvas, 18 1/2 x 15".

Domenico Gnoli’s untimely death in 1970—just months after the widely anticipated show of his paintings at Sidney Janis Gallery in New York—cut short what had promised to be a prodigious career. This exhibition, a presentation of twenty-four selections from the artist’s limited, strikingly consistent corpus, marked a return, of sorts, to a city he first visited in 1956. Departing from the creeds of both abstraction (then in its twilight) and Conceptual practices (on the rise), Gnoli’s work stood out during its time as something of an anomaly and an anachronism, both on American shores as well as in his native Italy.

The painter’s subjects alternate between the inanimate and the human. For all his appeals to its various components, Gnoli was uninterested in the body except as a vehicle of formal curiosities, a support for the trappings of fabric and hair. The latter serves in several works as the very stuff of the image’s almost hypnotic curiosity. In Black Hair, Braid, and Curly Red Hair, all 1969, tightly cropped portrayals of the tops of heads are magnified, so that the individual strands of hair reach hypertrophic proportions, and the compositions verge on the abstract. Likewise, in Capigliatura (Hair), 1965, a head of hair is parted into neat, plump rolls, almost comical in their fatness. Swelling and cropping also inform Busto di Donna in Rosa (Bust of a Woman in Pink), 1966, in which diaphanous fabric barely covers a corpulent female torso.

Actual, physical likenesses find little quarter in Gnoli’s oeuvre. When faces do appear, as one does in Ritratto di Luis T (Portrait of Luis T), 1967, the visage is abbreviated: Only a forehead, brow, and downcast eyes are visible beneath immaculately parted locks. In Due Dormienti (Two Sleepers), 1966, two bodies are depicted at rest under a quilt, their anonymous outlines producing a kind of relief. The scene’s mix of intimacy and distance—the way in which it draws the viewer up close to living bodies only to render these forms less than animate—exemplifies a paradox of Gnoli’s scenes. For all the proximity of the human in these works, we learn little about the subjects’ humanity. It is, however, in the very elision of the personal that the painter’s poetry lies. In Striped Trousers, 1969, the image is cropped to reveal only the wrinkled crotch of otherwise perfectly pressed pants, their looming presence evoking the gaze of a child looking up at his father. A purse in Borsetta da Donna (Woman’s Handbag), 1969, suggests a towering structure, while Chemisette Verte (Green Shirt), 1967, underscores a different element of the images’ architecture: The sand incorporated into the work’s acrylic surface confers a very real rasp to its fabric.

Gnoli’s close-ups never settle into one trope, subject, or style. Corner, 1968, reveals the corner of a brick building, while Poltrona (Armchair), 1966, treats a chair as no less an example of unadorned architecture, almost hieratic in its ordinariness. Though the twin lapels depicted in Red Dress Collar, 1969, appear in a bounded, shallow space, Green Bed, of the same year, conjures an illusionistic expanse, the weft of a diamond-patterned quilt receding into exaggerated depth. In something of a departure from his typical subjects, Back View, 1968, depicts the recto of a stretched canvas, offering a self-conscious meditation on painting’s physical support.

Six entries from Gnoli’s “What Is a Monster?” series, 1967, rounded out this mini-retrospective. The subject of each work in tempera, acrylic, and ink replies to the series’s question, with beasts recalling Max Klinger’s chimeras or Odilon Redon’s Symbolist imagination—a lounging Snail on Sofa or an Owl in Wardrobe. The titles’ deadpan nature deftly reflects the works’ imagery; the amphibious-looking bird of What Is a Monster?: Ostrich in Car perches with aplomb on the vehicle’s backseat. These works obliquely suggest just how much Gnoli’s painting—in all of its ostensible plainness—betrays an inquisitiveness into the fantastic presence of ordinary things.

Ara H. Merjian