City as Museum: Mimmo Rotella at Gladstone
Mimmo Rotella: Selected Early Works
March 4- June 17, 2017
Gladstone 64, 130 East 64th Street
Once, some years ago, on the way to my hotel in Rome, I was greatly amused to see everywhere billboard posters for the great Sergio Leoni Spaghetti Western il buono il brutto il cattivo (The good, The Bad and The Ugly, 1966, but the title sounds so much better in the original). Sometimes Rome sites what Joachim Pissarro and I call Wild Art alongside its grand baroque monuments in ways that can inspire artists. Cy Twombly, who lived and worked in Rome, made paintings combining graffiti and classical allusions. A little earlier, in the 1950s, a decade before the birth of American-style Pop Art, Mimmo Rotella’s decollages made direct use of billboard materials. Abandoning abstract painting in favor of this more immediate art form, he collaged assemblages of affiches (advertising posters), which he had ripped off walls and then reworked in the studio, letting bits of the poster show through. He also went on to make what he called retro d’affiches, sticking the posters onto his support with the back upward to reveal traces of plaster and other attached materials. Taking his cue from Duchamp, Rotella realized that the materials for his art were right there already in front of his eyes. “I wanted to say to everyone, look, you don’t realize that the city is a museum” Gladstone Gallery’s catalogue reports him as saying. A museum, we should add, of contemporary as well as old master art.
Assembled at Gladstone’s Upper East Side townhouse gallery are 18 of these pictures, dating from 1953 to 1961. All relatively small (the largest is 68 5/8 x 41 inches) they are surprisingly varied compositions. Some of them, the décollage Scotch Brand (1958-59), which contains a detail from a bottle of the Italian San Pellegrino Rabarbaro liqueur, for example, manifest their source materials directly. Others, like the retro d’affiches Senza titolo (1953) and Al reverso (1959), are abstract-looking. But in TAL (1957), as in some other works, the government tax stamp remains.
As co-author, with Darren Jones, of a recent book about art galleries, I’ve become super-sensitive to the context in which artworks are displayed. It is fascinating to see Italian street art made of absolutely banal materials in this luxurious setting. Like some of his American artist peers, Rotella wanted (and failed) to change the world. Nowadays advertising in Rome is displayed very differently, and of course the commodities on show are different, and, in the meantime, Rotella’s decollages and retro d’affiches, like Andy Warhol’s Pop Art paintings, have become pricey historical documentation, reminders of a life that now feels distant. When commonplace commodities become artists’ subjects, whether in still life paintings or in Pop Art, they are transformed—transfigured if you will. Banal things then become precious artworks. In a dramatic demonstration of the much discussed process of de-skilling, Rotella created artworks which are composed directly from advertising images. How surprising that this dramatic breakthrough was made by an Italian, perhaps in part because the bustling consumer economy was a real novelty in his country. When, in 1964, Robert Rauschenberg, another painter inspired by the street art of Rome, won the Golden Lion at Venice, Rotella was marginalized. In his long later career (he died in Milan in 2006), although he achieved serious recognition he never recaptured this early moment of inspiration.