Luigi Pericle, untitled, date unknown, mixed media on Masonite, 16 1⁄2 × 11 3⁄4".

Luigi Pericle, untitled, date unknown, mixed media on Masonite, 16 1⁄2 × 11 3⁄4".

Luigi Pericle

Luigi Pericle left the world behind in 1965. He was riding high on two waves: His cartoon character, Max the Marmot, had been serialized in Punch and was big in Japan, and—thanks to a well-connected admirer, a young Englishman named Martin Summers— his abstract paintings had been touring Britain’s civic galleries. But he put a stop to both careers. Just shy of fifty years old, he moved to the Swiss community of Monte Verità, renowned for decades as a home for theosophists and utopians who danced in the nude. There, he worked until his death in 2001 on paintings that only visitors saw; these remained in his house until it was sold in 2016. Recently, a selection went on view at London’s Estorick Collection in a show subtitled, aptly, “A Rediscovery.”

The exhibition was divided in two: one room before the break and one after. Call it hindsight bias, maybe, but change had been in the cards. Pericle’s paintings in the early 1960s appear choked and ruminative. The series “Creazione che penetra l’inerzia” (Creation Penetrating Inertia), ca. 1963–64, runs hefty curves into rigid lines; they looked like details from hard-edge Kandinskys, if subsumed in bluish murk. Pericle’s studies in india ink—often monochromatic, airier, and formed of repeated strikes and loops—are plainly indebted to his knowledge of Eastern calligraphy. He was hunting for a foreign logic, and he would search as far as the seams of the stars. The artist collected astrological charts, alchemical books, and esoteric texts; he became fluent in the mystic philosophies of Paracelsus and Sri Aurobindo. He owned a Reichian “orgone energy accumulator” and, just as uselessly, a Cold War bug-detecting kit. Much was made here of his interests, a hinterland where curiosity and paranoia met, and that meeting did result in some visually gripping things: A fastidious radix chart, drawn in ballpoint pen on cardboard, seemed in a welter of symbols and numbers to make the whole universe align.

On the walls of the second room hung works dating from 1966 on, and these were the most spellbinding things in the show. In Monte Verità, Pericle started to paint in mixed media on Masonite, and there’s little evidence that he ever changed his medium again. These paintings were squarely composed, showing darkness entrenched around centered blocks that resemble obscure, elemental reliefs. Their surfaces had a pitted and shadowed texture, as if they were craggy sculptural works—but closer inspection revealed the finish to be almost photographically smooth. (Mysteries abound not only about Pericle’s beliefs, but about the exact details of his technique.)

A first glance can only be partial. This painting leaned toward “totem,” that one toward “building” or “aerial plan,” but light and shade receded and flowed, and nothing seemed to exclude anything else. These works weren’t decodable symbols; they were more like willful mysteries. It made sense to later learn that Pericle loved 1970s and 1980s sci-fi films—Alien, Blade Runner, Star Wars—since his paintings conjured Nostromo’s corridors, or Deckard’s apartment walls. It wasn’t just how they were imperfectly recursive, as if they were wall panels created en masse and then fitted to someone’s indoor pipes and vents; it was also their weathered style, which lent them an aura of nostalgia expressed in a moment that’s still beyond our own. This was the mode of the future perfect, and one of its themes was eerie: The next world also will have passed. “Art,” Pericle wrote (in Italian) in a 1970s note, “is like an instrument endowed with clairvoyance,” adding that it has “il presentimento degli accadimenti futuri.” That presentimento of future events could be a “foreknowledge” or “foreboding.” With Pericle, it’s rarely clear what exactly the difference was.