Fausto Melotti, Teatrino (Little Theater), ca. 1950, glazed ceramic, painted clay, 18 1⁄8 × 11 3⁄4 × 3 1⁄2". From the series “Teatrini,” 1930–85.

Fausto Melotti, Teatrino (Little Theater), ca. 1950, glazed ceramic, painted clay, 18 1⁄8 × 11 3⁄4 × 3 1⁄2". From the series “Teatrini,” 1930–85.

Fausto Melotti

“Fausto Melotti: Theatre” traces the prolific Italian artist’s marked affinity for the stage in works ranging from pencil-and-ink drawings of Orpheus dating to the 1920s and ’30s to delicate, quasi-scenographic sculptures in brass, wood, and fabric made beginning in the ’70s through 1986, the year of his death at the age of eighty-five. Though hints of allegory and allusions to storytelling are part of the dramaturgical dimension of Melotti’s work, the show suggests that he approached theater as a material rather than a narrative form. In Da Shakespeare (After Shakespeare), 1977, for instance, a brass geometric structure supporting sinuous figures casts shadows against a draped cloth. The gentle interplay between the thin metal lines and the blue-stained textile animates the work, as if Melotti had crafted an event, rather than an object.

Melotti’s “Teatrini” (Little Theaters),1930–85, also employed a subtle material contrast between the sheen of glazed ceramic and the textured surface of painted clay and terra-cotta. A selection of seven of these open, boxlike assemblages made between 1949 and 1984—Melotti’s most explicit take on the idea of a stage, and curator Saim Demircan’s starting point for the show—brought the artist’s use of ceramics to the fore. Part of a postwar generation of Italian artists drawn to the medium’s connections to classical Etruscan and Roman culture, Melotti was unique in probing its connection to theater, which also shared these ancient origins. In Teatrino, ca. 1950, four lithe female forms pose within a shallow rectangular ceramic frame. All armless, two are horned and intertwined, like chimeras; another lies prostrate on an elevated shelf, and the fourth stands upright. Recalling fragments of ancient statues, these forms bear the cracks and compressions of crudely handled clay. In the later Incendio bianco (White Blaze), 1961, two infantile bodies melt into each other beside a crumpled white paper that emerges like a flame from a pumice stone. Though the scene might be harrowing, a nod to the ceramic-firing process recasts the work as playfully self-referential. The artist worked almost exclusively in ceramics in the fifteen years following World War II, producing a range of domestic wares and decorative objects, though the “Teatrini” were the only fired-clay works that he considered to be part of his fine-art practice. The exhibition asks what made these earthenware miniature theaters the only viable mode of artmaking for the Milan-based artist in the wake of global trauma.

The exhibition design, by London-based artist and ceramicist Aaron Angell, accentuates this material inquiry, situating the “Teatrini” in an oval alcove and elevating the seven freestanding sculptures to eye level atop large white plaster plinths embellished with a textured marking typical of medieval European stoneware. The interplay between the sculptures and this setting echoes the lyric contrasts that activate Melotti’s work, while also underscoring the materials that he found apt for this enduring motif. The close attention to presentation distinguishes the show’s concise take on his career, mirroring the artist’s own sensitivity to the subtleties of staging his theatrical visions.