In the 19th and early 20th centuries, American artists believed that they lived in a cultural water. They left for Europe to study painting and crane their necks to the Sistine roof. But at a certain point, the direction of travel reversed. New York became the imperial art capital, and European artists considered it imperative to come here and meet the gang. When did that moment come? Probably on December 3, 1963, when Mario ChifanoA 29-year-old Italian artist arrived in New York fascinated by novelty.
The theme of his adventures in the new world is “Facing America: Mario Chifano, 1960–65,” A fascinating excavation of an overlooked figure at the Center for Italian Modern Art on a magnificent loft in Soho. Although Shifano is little known in this country, it is celebrated in Italy as the embodiment of postmodernism. He was also an outsider. In the fake tradition of a self-proclaimed wild child, he was jailed several times on drug-related charges and died of a heart attack in Rome in 1998. At the age of 63.
The show is not a retrospective, but an upbeat look at a moment when a new intellectual rise took place in New York. Shifano was so enchanted by the saturated atmosphere that he managed to create paintings that all at once belong to the camps of minimalism and pop. By his own admission, he was obsessed with the art of Jasper Johns, Robert Roschenberg, and Jim Dine, which he knew casually, and which are represented here by intriguing, less familiar works.
From his American friends, Shifano adopted the then-radical idea that a painting is a physical object, as opposed to a window into an imaginary world. They combined an American case with a spontaneity, which can take you into consideration of Italian design and fast cars. Although he is often seen as a pioneer of Italian pop art, TV-shaped squares, stacked numbers, and advertisements inscribed in his work seem to be incidental compared to the content of his high-gloss surfaces. He made his painting by brushing home enamel paint on plain brown wrapping paper, which was then lowered onto the canvas. Cheaper paper allows the paint to sit on the surface and harden into a shell instead of sinking.
For example, “Standard” (1961), with its tall orange void, which was pressed against an all-black ground, looks as shiny and modern as a pair of new patent-leather boots. Yet this is not the work of a clean freak. The 20 or so paintings to be seen here are shielded only by the artist’s willingness to slide things, resulting in traces of stray pencils and the dribble of pigment running beneath the surface.
The exhibition also includes “words and pictures”, remnants of a 1964 alternative to the cityscape. It has a portfolio of 17 sketches that Shifano took with poet Frank O’Hara, an eclectic champion of his artist friends. Easily, O’Hara happened to take a flight under Schifano at 791 Broadway in the village, across Grace Church. He made drawings over a few days, taking jots phrases and images that may or may not be thematically related. For example, on one page, Shifano drew a sensitive, edgy rectangle washed in green, while O’Hara paid tribute to her favorite actors, such as “I’m so glad Sydney Poitier received an Academy Award!” Notice his exclamation point. The tone here is playful, and the finished portfolios live in a realm somewhere between dreamy improvisation and the casual goofiness of two friends who pass notes in the study hall.
“Words and Pictures,” which was not published in its entirety until it appeared in a book of a shorter version of that title in 2017, does not represent the best example of any artist’s work. But it is larger than its parts. It stands as a sweet revered souvenir that, as the show itself does, is reminiscent of an era when the sense of community allowed artists to believe that they were all a part in the art drama.
Facing America: Mario Chifano, 1960–65
On November 13 through the Italian Modern Art Center, 421 Broome St., 4 floors, Manhattan. 646–370–3596; Italianmodernart.org.