New York

View of “Painting in Italy 1910s–1950s: Futurism, Abstraction, Concrete Art,” 2015–16. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging.

View of “Painting in Italy 1910s–1950s: Futurism, Abstraction, Concrete Art,” 2015–16. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging.

“Painting in Italy 1910s–1950s: Futurism, Abstraction, Concrete Art”

Sperone Westwater

View of “Painting in Italy 1910s–1950s: Futurism, Abstraction, Concrete Art,” 2015–16. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging.

Most persons committed to modern art possess at least a passing acquaintance with such proper nouns as Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, F. T. Marinetti, and Carlo Carrà—and with Futurism itself, the Biggest Bang of Italian modernism. How wonderful, then, to encounter this exhibition of some 120 works by more than thirty Italian artists working between 1910 and 1950, artists whose names are virtually unknown except to specialists.

One such individual is the international art dealer Gian Enzo Sperone, whose collection comprises the heart of this exhibition, to which has been added numerous works borrowed from public and private sources. Since most of these paintings are modestly scaled, many, on a piece-by-piece examination, are perhaps less gripping than when they are viewed in concert. Exquisitely hung within the glistening confines of Sperone Westwater, the show is accompanied by a knockout catalogue by Maria Antonella Pelizzari of the City University of New York.

After taking in such a feast, I found several artists for whom I now have a more than passing appreciation: Manlio Rho, who, working in the 1930s in a mode related to Bauhaus reductivism, placed blunt colored rectangles one beside the other with an incontrovertible assertiveness; Luigi Veronesi, whose compositions of transparent planes and energetic diagonals also typify the Bauhaus paradigm (the artist as architect of ideal communities) and suggest El Lissitzky or László Moholy-Nagy miraculously transferred to Italy; Enrico Prampolini, the best known of this largely underrecognized contingent, wonderfully represented by his Apparizione biologica, 1940; or Gianni Monnet, whose Moto perpetuo, 1949, recalls Paul Klee at his most Bauhaus-like. You see the embarrassment of riches.

Certainly, some of these artists are better known than others. Some, such as Alberto Magnelli, are even thought to occupy the margin of celebrity. Prampolini, in this context, stakes a claim to genius. In 1917, he had published Noi, a proto-Dada journal that supplanted Lacerba as the review of consequence at a moment when Futurism’s militarist proclivities were being actualized by Italy’s horrific losses in its ever-simmering conflict with Austria. Prampolini’s works synthesize a fundamentalist abstraction with a strong biomorphic impulse, all executed with a light touch that marks him as a supremely refined painter.

The show’s “Concrete Art” section served as a hugely important overview of this least-known side of modern Italian art. The term is lifted directly from the French Art concrèt, a mid-century style favoring geometric abstraction. The designation is, of course, a way of insisting upon an obdurate factualism rooted in the machinist impulses of the 1920s, that of the Bauhaus particularly, while rejecting the all-but-omnipresent representational traditions of Italian painting—be it the Gothic Renaissance revivalism that was typical of Carrà of the 1920s, or, even more so, the lauded achievements (and often Fascist-sponsored painting) of the Novecentisti, the “artists of the 1900s.”

To be sure, many of the artists displayed here received important commissions from the Fascist government—particularly Giacomo Balla during the aeropittura phase of his Futurist evolution. The streamlining, aerospace metaphor underscored the sheer machinist utopianism of the Futurist mode, and also spoke to the attendant Italian acceptance of the slaughter then going on, first in Africa and, shortly thereafter, throughout Europe when Italy was an Axis power during World War II. This irony—the conjoining of utopianism to bloody murder—recalls the bellicosity of the first Futurist masters. Thus, a distant whiff of gore may still linger within this array of abstractions that at first glance seem to have been generated by the worthy desire to be rid of warmongering, the original sin embedded in F. T. Marinetti’s “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” of 1909. Among that document’s revolting precepts: “We wish to glorify war—the world’s sole hygiene—militarism, patriotism . . . the beautiful ideas which kill.”

Robert Pincus-Witten