Mario Schifano (1934-1998): Paintings 1960-1966
by Donald Goddard
Mario Schifano stopped going to school at the age of thirteen, worked as a day laborer and studied painting, completed his military service, then became an assistant to his father in restoration at the Etruscan Museum of Valle Giulia in Rome. In the late 1950s he gave up his job as a restorer to be an artist, a painter, which meant, for him, “abandoning the paradise of childhood and deliberately opting for woe.” At first, he poured cement onto canvas and scratched into it. Beginning in 1960, he painted enamels on rectangles of wrapping paper, sometimes pasting the rectangles on canvas. Already these latter were called “Monocromi,” in the tradition that had begun in the 1910s with Kazimir Malevich in Russia and was practiced in the 1950s and ‘60s, by Yves Klein, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Ryman, and Lucio Fontana, among others.
For Schifano, the monochromes were both end and beginning. They represent the archaeological present, the tabula rasa of what is to come. The past is in the imperfect surfaces, the scratching, outlining, and dripping, the recognition that these objects will age, just as they have aged to this point after Schifano’s death and taken on a different character than they had before, just as Etruscan objects age. The present and future are in the surfaces as well, but also in the imagery, the constant iteration and celebration of the picture, the rectangle in which everything happens and will happen. Maurizio Calvesi wrote that these paintings represented “nothing containing a project for everything,” because, I think, their obvious emptiness involved a certainty about the defined, painted space in which everything could happen, and in which everything was already beginning to happen in terms of the movement of paint, the extraordinary emulsification of the surface.
Yves Klein had a similar beginning in his monochromes, color as a singular place in which form (life) emerges, but without Schifano’s constant grappling with and recognition of the past. It is startling to encounter in Qualcos’ altro (“What Else”) of 1962, a 6 ½-by-7 ½ painting covered with a multitude of gray paint strokes through which the white paper is seen, four vertical cuts that divide the surface precisely evenly and reveal, on close inspection, the weave of the canvas, like the nut within the shell, or the articulation of muscle beneath the skin. It is the counterpoint to Fontana’s slashes in space.
Nineteen sixty-two is also the year in which recognizable images began to enter the picture from outside. Two paintings called Particolare di esterno (“Detail of exterior”?), which would seem to indicate that what is outside the picture cannot be prevented from entering the picture, each has an unnamable (for me), vaguely sexual outlined jarlike shape next the numeral 5, one image in black, one in white. Later there is an Esso sign, a car, the distinctive lettering of a Coca Cola label or advertisement. The drawing of the car seems almost to have forced its way into the horizontal rectangle with rounded corners that resembles a television screen in the lower part of the canvas.
The Coca Cola script in Ai pittore di insegne (“To the sign painters”) of 1964 is insistent, repeated in overlaid outlines, and accompanied by animated color bars close to the six primary and secondary colors plus black, gray, and white. The measurements of 100 centimeters in the upper half and 73 centimeters in the lower half seem to indicate that this is a job that needs to be completed. It is a project, something real to be done, not just a painting—something between beginning and end imposing itself on the world, structuring what and how we see. There is, in other words, a built-in ambiguity—what we see and experience is not our choice, though as it pushes against us, we push back to make of it what we want.
Landscapes are even less certain. They contain amorphous shapes of cloud, sky, earth, and sea, beyond our being, beyond our control. In Paesaggio Anemico (“Anemic landscape”) of 1964 the title is written in capital letters below the round-cornered square within which the landscape appears, as though to make sure we know what we are looking at. There is a simply billowing white cloud, a blue sky, a horizon line, and three horizontal strips of white, green, and brown. The landscape could be nothing but anemic as representative of visual reality. And yet it is somehow magnificent, or manifests magnificence. The painting mediates the expanse from there to here, from distance to presence. The white cloud drips into the blue sky and vice-versa, the blue drips into the white strip, the white into the green, green into brown, and ultimately brown into the empty canvas below. What we see spills into our own space; the landscape becomes us.
Another Paesaggio anemico, of 1965, introduces shapes of colored Plexiglas, as do many of Schifano’s works of this time—yellow for the land at the bottom, like a beach, white and dark blue for the clouds and sky above, delicately bolted to the canvas around their edges, in some places with slats stretched from one area to another. Again, the title appears in the landscape, block letters drawn in the painted part of the sky, and Schifano’s name also appears, written along the edge of a yellow slat in the white Plexi cloud, as though he were the cloud, a figure reclining in the sky like an ancient Roman god. The precision and uniform surfaces of the plastic cutouts give the piece a rational, structured quality, yet it is even more ineffable, in some ways, than the purely painted work. Layers of interposed transparency suggest even greater depths. Clarification is accompanied by further complication, so that while we are in closer contact with land, cloud, and sky as though from one eye to another, we are forced to realize that there is much more through and beyond their perfected closeness.
Umano non umano (“Human, non-Human”), a 95-minute film made by Schifano in 1968, ran continuously on a television monitor in the last room of the gallery. Though beyond the chronological scope of this show, the film is a powerful expression of the artist’s aesthetic and his attachment to the world. As in the paintings, the images move inexorably into and mill about in an already established screen, even more urgently focused there by the fact that the film is being shown on a TV monitor rather than a larger screen. There are scenes, among many others, of Jean-Luc Godard shooting a movie in Paris, the war in Vietnam, Mao Ze-dong at a state event in China, a massive labor demonstration in Rome, an artist talking about his work in his studio. The viewer (artist) potentially becomes the subject, and object, of everything going on in the world, and therefore somehow responsible to it, politically, socially, humanly. With television particularly, images crowd into our lives. “For Schifano,” as Miriam Gagnor put it in the book accompanying the show, “television was like a spoken presence within a private space.”
Toward the end of his life, in 1996, Schifano visited Rio de Janeiro for a project there. When their government proposed painting all the shacks of the favelas green to make them less visible, Schifano painted one of the shacks white so that it would be more visible.
The exhibition ran from January 11 through February 17, 2007 at Sperone Westwater
, 415 West 13th Street, New York, NY.
Writer, Donald Goddard, lives in New York City and is the author of books on Nahum Tschacbasov, fashion photography, sound art, Harry Jackson, American painting, Alan Scarritt, and wildlife conservation.