New York

Carlo Maria Mariani, Un volo di colombi (A Flight of Doves), 2012–16, acrylic, gouache, and graphite on canvas, 73 × 95".

Carlo Maria Mariani, Un volo di colombi (A Flight of Doves), 2012–16, acrylic, gouache, and graphite on canvas, 73 × 95".

Carlo Maria Mariani

Carlo Maria Mariani, Un volo di colombi (A Flight of Doves), 2012–16, acrylic, gouache, and graphite on canvas, 73 × 95".

The 1980s were, above all, a period of sharp contradiction. The decade is especially remembered for the emergence of a doctrinaire, pro-Minimalist art criticism. But at the same instant, it also saw the resurgence of painting, particularly that of the wide-reaching genre of neo-expressionism. Much of this work entered into the fray from Europe, with Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and Georg Baselitz leading the German phalanx. The Italian contingent was headed by the “Three Cs”—Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, and Sandro Chia—accompanied by a number of compatriots, among them the recondite figure Carlo Maria Mariani. Actually, by the early 1970s Mariani had already gained wide recognition for his abstract, conceptual, and performance-art modes, but it was his work as a virtuoso draftsman and arcane iconographer that carried him to international esteem.

In Europe, Mariani’s Costellazione del Leone (Constellation of Leo), 1980, confirmed the painter’s prestige. An immense extrapolation of an eighteenth-century Parnassus by the innovative Neoclassicist Anton Raphael Mengs, Mariani’s resetting includes the portraits of the then-reigning members of the Roman art world—those of the group that Germano Celant called Arte Povera as well as the artists that Achille Bonito Oliva dubbed the Transavanguardia. These critics are present among the painters and gallerists, alongside textbook works of art (which the painter knew well since his father, a Vatican journalist, had free access to the Vatican collections, taking his son there on Sunday excursions). Mariani himself appears at the center of the composition in the guise of Goethe, the towering humanist of the European Enlightenment. The artist infused the faces of his figures with adolescent androgyny, a quality also found, for example, in many later studies of wide-eyed youths whose beribboned locks are tied askew or brows crowned in laurel—Young Werthers soon to be guillotined by the fanaticism unleashed during the French Revolution.

Referencing Constellation of Leo, Mariani’s Un volo di colombi (A Flight of Doves), 2012–16—the centerpiece of this exhibition—is an octogenarian’s summation replete with art-world portraits. (There I am in the crowd, my professorial finger pointing upward toward the Platonic empyrean in tandem with Roberta Smith, who is draped in an American flag.) Mariani depicts gallerists who have been sympathetic to his work, notably the bicontinental Gian Enzo Sperone and Francis Naumann, the latter of whom Mariani shows—in deference to the scholar/dealer’s New York Dada expertise—emerging from the door of Marcel Duchamp’s architectural intervention 11 rue Larrey, 1927, while holding Man Ray’s Pain Peint (Blue Bread), 1958. At the center of the composition is a modernist spiral staircase—the DNA helix, so to speak, of the international art world—illuminated by a starburst spinning outward from Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, 1913. Rendered in acrylic, gouache, and graphite, A Flight of Doves is a vast study for a never-to-be-executed papal fresco, a drawing-cum-painting akin to the cartoons used by Renaissance muralists. (Mariani’s esteem for Duchamp may be the key to explaining the persistent androgyny in his work: Duchamp’s famous bride and bachelor protagonists are derived from the syllables of the artist’s own first name—Mar yields Mariée [Bride], while cel gives us Célibataires [Bachelors]. Surely, it takes no grand stretch of imagination to see Mariani as imitative of Mariée.)

A Flight of Doves was accompanied by Column Without End, 2016, a curious scroll that hangs from the wall and unfurls partly on the floor. The vertical portion depicts anew the dealers; the section on the floor features a suite of self-portraits. Here, Mariani depicts himself passing though his Ages of Man: first as a soul wandering in a dark sphere awaiting birth, next as a prodigious schoolboy, after that as a creative young man, and then as an untiring painter of middle years. Lastly, Mariani portrays the skull of the dead painter—himself—from whose hollow eye sockets there emerge a handful of brushes, a tiny hint of rebirth. In all, it is a disconsolate memento mori.

Robert Pincus-Witten