Imprinting Memory in Space: Giosetta Fioroni at the Drawing Center
Giosetta Fioroni: L’Argento
April 5 to June 2, 2013
The Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street
New York City, (212) 219-2166
A lightbulb, a heart, a bed. The first three recognizable images in the Italian artist Giosetta Fioroni’s mini retrospective at the Drawing Center exude simplicity and lightness. Rendered in silver aluminum paint and graphite pencil, her paintings on paper are like evocative cover songs in which a new personality is encoded onto a popular tune. In contrast to Jasper Johns’ bronze Light Bulb I (1958), Jim Dine’s 1960s heart paintings or Rauschenberg’s Bed (1955), Fioroni suspends her images within expansive space, creating a context for them that feels emotional and quiet. Like much of the work on view, these paintings, made in 1959-60, have a diagrammatic quality, like theater props or designs for a larger, unseen ensemble.
The Drawing Center has become the go-to venue for re-contextualizing artists within a historical continuum of Modernism and cross-media experimentation. (Remarkable exhibitions of Frederick Kiesler, Ree Morton, Dorothea Tanning, and Unica Zürn fit this bill). L’Argento is notable for being Fioroni’s first solo exhibition in the United States, which is surprising for an artist who achieved a high level of critical attention in her native country in the 1960s. Giosetta Fioroni, born in Rome in 1932 to artist parents, was the only woman member of the Piazza del Popolo group of Roman artists that included Tano Festa, Mario Schifano, and Cesare Tacchi, artists who were, in Fioroni’s words, “interested in pictorial reality after ‘Art’ Informel.” The group was also closely aligned with the eurocentric, cerebral version of abstract expressionism practiced by Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly (a close friend of Fioroni’s), who were both highly visible in Rome in the late ‘50s. The earliest work in the show, a series of untitled drawings from her Parisian Journal (1958-62), made in “a tiny room that Tristan Tzara offered me” are a storyboard of abstract thoughts. They provide a glimpse into a young artist’s private world, her preoccupations with language, automatic writing, childhood, and theater that would provide the basis for her mature body of work.
Silver, commonly associated with Andy Warhol’s factory and the silver clouds and studio décor of high Pop, is for Fioroni a craftsman’s substance, a way to imprint memory in space. Her three all-over silver canvases suggest a pile-up of celluloid. In Lagoon (1960) and The Secret in Action (1959-60), there is an opulence and variety to the marks; the stenciled word “LAGUNA,” appears underneath a graphite rectangle shape. Fioroni is effectively naming the painting within the painting, framing space for the art object in a similar manner to Jasper Johns’ Tennyson (1958). The paintings are nearly monochrome, but they read more as open-ended experiments than the contemporaneous blue paintings of Yves Klein. Here silver does not embody a jewel-like commodity (recently evidenced in Jacob Kassay’s highly prized silver-oxidized canvases), but signifies what Fioroni describes as a “non-color,” an emulsion layer that can absorb and reflect light.
Fioroni’s paintings of archetypal ‘60s models’ faces, unsmiling and vague, framed by the semi-oval of a camera lens, dominate the show. Double Liberty and Liberty (both 1965) feature an image of the Italian actress Elsa Martinelli’s blankly staring face. The two-toned reductive image has a strong graphic quality that resembles silkscreen. The multiple borders, edges, drips and scratchy note-like pencil marks around the faces are the personalized touch that stops the work from being read as either pure idolatry or cultural critique. Less overtly dated as “Pop” painting and more purely imaginative are Lone Child (1967-68) and Self-portrait at Seven (1971-72), figures of children seen from behind and gazing into space. They carry the patina of time that the decades have bestowed on them with greater assurance than contemporaneous works; the browning edges of the cream paper and canvas come across as purposeful and true, mimicking the old photographs that the paintings themselves are presumably based on.
The conceptual and visual aspect of Fioroni’s art is further reduced in the 1970 Laguna series of silver paint and pencil drawings of the villas and vistas of Venice’s Grand Canal. In one drawing the stenciled words “San Marco” at the bottom of an empty trapezoidal shape are the only indication of the famed piazza. The potential of photography to contain all information about a given place, especially a postcard-perfect location, is inverted in this work. In conversation with the critic Alberto Boatto (in conjunction with a 1990 monograph on her work) Fioroni draws a connection between her imagery of landscapes, ruins, and solitary figures and a “sweet, rural Italy that no longer exists, replaced nowadays by a telegenic one.” Mixed in with this sentiment, however, is the spectral presence of war and politics: A painting from 1969, Obedience shows a woman giving the fascist salute, and The Mountain Tomb (1971) depicts a mountain in the Alps that was the infamous site of a battle between Italian and Austrian troops in the first world war.
Fioroni’s art is that tricky to define thing: tasteful radicalism. Her 1960s paintings of “It girls” and lost children could as easily adorn the living rooms of Italian intellectuals as Morandi paintings did in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1963). I can see how her art’s meaning could expand through its proximity to the culture of a household, a city, or a country. Politely installed in the institutional cool of the freshly renovated Drawing Center it becomes a challenge to grasp the work’s full spectrum of content, the host of political and social implications that a contemporary Italian viewer would have picked up in Fioroni’s subject matter. What does come across is a devotion to theatre as the silver lining of all visual experience—from her early drawings of costumes, to the doll’s house sized sculpture, Home: Domestic Interior (1969), to the illustrated script for Countryside Spirits (early 1970s), a play loosely based on the village she lived in. Giosetta Fioroni’s work from the 1960s resonates today as an artifact of singular affection and ambivalence towards her country’s (and indeed the western world’s) new culture of spectatorship with its mediated relationship to personal and historical images.