Mario Schifano’s Greatness

In September 2020, I received Words & Drawings by Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) and the Italian artist Mario Schifano (1934-1998) in the mail. I had ordered this book from Italy because it documented a largely forgotten collaboration, resulting in 17 poem-drawings that the two men had made while Schifano was living briefly in New York (1963-64). During this time he had a studio at 791 Broadway, which he had gotten through Elaine de Kooning. O’Hara had moved into the building earlier, in 1963.

As the work was in a private collection in Italy, I figured my only chance to get a sense of the collaboration was to obtain this book. I did not realize that Words & Drawings contained far more — it is 368 pages long, and includes texts by Anita Pallenberg, Raphael Rubinstein, Furio Colombo, Paolo Buggiani, and Achille Bonito Oliva, as well as a poem by Gerard Malanga and many photographs that Schifano took while he was in New York, along with reproductions of the entire collaboration. 

The reminiscences by Pallenberg, Colombo, and Buggiani add substantially to the reader’s understanding of who Schifano met, what he did, and what he made while he was in New York from December 1963 to July 1964.

Mario Schifano, “N. 3” (1960), enamel on paper on canvas, 23 5/8 x 27 1/2 inches, Private Collection (© Archivio Mario Schifano © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome)

The one problem with the book is Rubinstein’s essay. For each of the collaborations, he writes a descriptive analysis. In the portfolio’s sixth work, including the title page, he goes off the rails. This is Rubinstein’s statement:

Another strategy for obscuring writing is employed in the mirrored word just above the smudged “Homage to Jasper Johns”: “Liar.” Who, we ask, is the liar? Could it be Johns himself? It is impossible not to notice the word “liar” has been made with stenciled letters, a technique that Johns was closely identified with at the time.

Later, Rubinstein tells us:

In a recent communication to me, O’Hara’s close friend Bill Berkson wrote: “It’s unlikely that Frank would think ‘liar’ in regard to Johns.” I agree.

Rubinstein doesn’t notice that the mirrored word “Liar” appears above what O’Hara has written, like a title. A ruled line is drawn vertically between the words, as well as horizontally beneath them. The reversed “Liar” on the left is fainter than the correctly facing letters on the right.

The inclusion and placement of the stenciled words suggests that Schifano made them first, that this was the starting point for the collaboration, something Rubinstein either does not recognize or deliberately ignores. This is the only work in the portfolio with a formal title, which Rubinstein also apparently fails to realize. 

Mario Schifano, New York, 1963 (© Archivio Mario Schifano)

More importantly and tellingly, Rubinstein does not notice that Schifano’s choice of the word was inspired by Johns’s “Liar” (1961), which was included in a 10-year survey at the Jewish Museum (February – April 1964), curated by Alan Solomon. I cannot help but feel that Rubinstein’s analysis was motivated by his dislike of Johns’s work, with which he doesn’t seem remotely familiar.

Along with Words & Drawings, the exhibition Facing America: Mario Schifano 1960–65 at the Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA) includes more than two dozen works by Schifano, and a handful of works by Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jim Dine — whom Schifano met while he was in New York. To say the exhibition was an eye opener hardly does it justice. 

Schifano’s monochrome paintings are done in enamel on paper affixed to canvas. In these paintings (dated 1960–62), it is clear that, unlike his countryman Piero Manzoni, born one year earlier, or Yves Klein, whose work he might have seen in Milan, where it was first exhibited in 1960, Schifano was not interested in rejecting the past, being ironic, or searching for transcendence. Rather, he was interested in connecting art to everyday life. 

In “N. 3” (1960), Schifano coats sheets of paper in a glossy yellow enamel, which he collages to a three-dimensional stretcher, whose four corners extend beyond the painting’s perimeter, evoking a stiff pillow. The title is stenciled twice in black in the middle of the yellow field, with the left one correctly aligned and the right one upside down and backwards. This means the painting can be turned around, that it has no proper top or bottom.

Mario Schifano, “A de Chirico” (1962), enamel on paper on canvas, 66 7/8 x 59 inches, the Sonnabend Collection and Antonio Homem (© Archivio Mario Schifano © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome)

By collaging painted sheets of paper to the canvas’s surface, Schifano’s paintings share something with Mimmo Rotella’s décollage or torn-poster paintings. As “N. 3” and “Koka Kola” (1962) make evident, Schifano was interested in signage, graphics, and consumer products. He shares this with Rauschenberg and Johns, and anticipates it in the work of Andy Warhol.  

His gray-blue monochromatic homage “A de Chirico” (1962), as well as “Grande particolare di propaganda” (“Great Propaganda Detail,” 1962), “Leonardo (1963), and “En plein air” (1963), provide a concentrated glimpse of Schifano’s considerable achievement, before the age of 30, as a monochromatic painter and as an artist attuned to pop culture. 

By painting an abstract homage to Giorgio de Chirico and a linear portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, Schifano announced that he did not align himself with the Futurists, the first 20th-century avant-garde movement in Italy, which rejected the past in favor of speeding cars and warfare, or those who aligned themselves with that strain of thinking. By working abstractly, figuratively, and with graphic signs, all at the same time, he was creating art in a very different vein. 

In “Grande particolare di propaganda,” Schifano isolates a portion of the “a” and “c” of Coca Cola’s white letters on a red ground, which is very different than Warhol’s silkscreened appropriation in “Green Coca Cola Bottles” (1962). 

Mario Schifano, “Grande particolare di propaganda” (1962), enamel on paper on canvas, 74 3/8 x 59 inches, Private Collection (© Archivio Mario Schifano © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome)

Warhol seems to be celebrating capitalism’s concealment of class division when, in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again (1975), he wrote: “You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too.” By rendering part of the Coca Cola logo and calling it “great propaganda,” Schifano is proposing the opposite, that it is another part of a publicity machine spreading falsities. 

By conveying his view that Coca Cola is a small part of a larger indoctrination of Italians into the American belief system, Schifano expresses his misgivings about the Americanization taking place in postwar Italy. This must have been further complicated by Italy’s loss in World War II, as an Axis power, along with Germany.

In Words & Drawings, Schifano and O’Hara reference the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as well as the legacy of Harry S. Truman and the atom bomb, so I don’t think my suggestion of a politically and socially critical component to the paintings is far-fetched. It is also in their collaboration that both men refer to Futurism, which was linked with fascism and regarded by many art historians as a tainted movement. 

Installation view of works on cardboard by Robert Rauschenberg (photo by Dario Lasagni, © 2021 Dario Lasagni)

Schifano’s love of movies and movement  — which seems to have intensified during his time in New York — may have also sparked his interest in the Italian futurist Giacomo Balla, who was drawn to the whimsical rather than war and violence.  

The image in “En plein air” is derived from an Italian advertisement for the German-made Volkswagen, which had been adapted for families. The green image occupies the upper two thirds of the rectangle, with the title, “En plein air” stenciled just beneath it, on the left side. Schifano most likely used a slide projector to transcribe the image onto the sheets of paper. The car and family have been removed and replaced by a geometric shape that vaguely resembles a car.

Schifano’s painting can be seen as a reflection on the kind of mediated experience of nature you can have if you own a car. At the same time, I wonder if his choice of a Volkswagen might be a commentary on the bond between Germany and Italy during World War II. He was the citizen of a defeated nation. In this regard, I think Schifano is closer to a later generation of German artists, including Sigmar Polke and Gerhardt Richter, than to Americans, such as Warhol and Larry Rivers.

This exhibition is full of works that make me hungry to see more. 

A vitrine of seven untitled works done in gouache, ink, and paper collage on cardboard (all c. 1952) by Robert Rauschenberg sent my mind spinning. 

Mario Schifano, “En plein air” (1963), enamel on paper on canvas, 63 x 63 inches, Private Collection, Monaco (© Archivio Mario Schifano © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome)

Were these done while Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly were in Africa? Are they an abstract compliment to the North African collages and “scatole personali” that Rauschnberg made in 1952, which I have written about? Were they done after he visited Alberto Burri’s studio in Rome? Or are they part of the “black paintings” that he made using newspaper collage in 1951–53? Did any changes in his thinking take place while he was making these works?

The paintings that Schifano produced in the years covered by this exhibition, plus one done in cement from 1959, reveal an adventurous, restless, confident, open, tough-minded artist working with figuration, signs, and abstraction. He was inspired, rather than influenced, by his encounters with other art. His use of different materials, including the unlikely combination of enamel and paper, makes him a unique postwar Italian artist who should be far better known than he is, certainly in America. He is a major figure just beginning to get his due. 

Facing America: Mario Schifano 1960–65 continues at the Center for Italian Modern Art (421 Broome Street, 4th floor, Manhattan) through June 5.

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