For Schifano, the 1960s was a decade of artistic experimentation as he carved out his indelible style. He went on to include American logos in his compositions of 1962 and 63, such as those of Esso and Coca Cola. He also created anaemic landscape paintings for the Venice Biennale in 1964, using plexiglass on his canvases. By focusing on the beginning of this journey, the five paintings on view in ‘Monochromes’ will reveal how this all stemmed from an artist grappling and critiquing his peers.
Schifano’s ‘Monochromes’ were made using enamel on canvas-backed paper on frames that are often not perfectly straight. These works are characterised by a uniform application of one or more colour. However, these are not strictly monochromes but are works in which the painted backgrounds are reduced to a minimum and are simply placed side by side, with no intention of creating any effect of depth.
A highlight of the exhibition is 7 Agosto 61 , a large-scale canvas created using a grid system that each houses a thick, expressive experiment in paint and its aesthetic qualities. Deep greens are juxtaposed against cream that at times reveals the surface below and betrays the hand that applied it. Cartello (1961) appears at first to be an experiment in pure pigment yet closer examination reveals the marks of the brush and the gestural drips and splatters of the enamel as it was applied. The sketch Monocromo demonstrates the process by which Schifano arrived at paintings such as 7 Agosto 61 , laying bare his quest for a new artistic language.
Unlike Piero Manzoni, who sought to create a rigorous monochromatic scheme, the spontaneous flow of colour in Schifano’s works is sometimes interrupted by numbers and letters. These apparently lack specific meaning, and seem to emerge from the surface like casual signs. The artist’s departure from Enrico Castellani’s purism was his focus on the sensuality and beauty of colour, embracing the freedom provided by the drips and splashes of gestural painting, an intuitive process which also moved him away from Manzoni’s conceptual research.
In 1961, Schifano presented his first solo exhibition at La Tartaruga, Rome, established in 1954 by Plinio de Martiis, which had become a seminal meeting point for artists, critics and writers alike. Later that same year he was included in a group show titled ‘New Realists’ by Sidney Janis Gallery in New York where he was exhibited alongside Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselman and Roy Lichtenstein. The gallerist Ileana Sonnabend was struck by the originality of Schifano’s ‘Monochromes’ and began exhibiting his works in her gallery in Paris. Critics repeatedly stressed how his paintings represented a polemical response to the widespread diffusion of informal language, a common concern for many Italian artists during the same period. Mario Shifano was a key member of the Roman group ‘Piazza del Popolo’, which also included Angeli, Festa, Uncini and Lo Savio.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with an extended text by the academic Laura Cherubini.
Mario Schifano was born in Homs, Libya, in 1934. Following the end of the Second World War, he moved with his family to Rome, where the young Schifano, showing little inclination to study, began collaborating with his father, an archaeologist and restorer at the Museo Etrusco. Whilst restoring ceramics with his father, Schifano began to paint in an Art Informel style, using thick impasto in his compositions. In 1964 Schifano was invited to exhibit at the Biennale in Venice. From this period are his Anemic landscape works, which incorporated transparent and chequered sheets of Perspex and Plexiglas bolted onto the canvas, presenting mechanical landscapes whose dynamic lines referred to works by Picabia and Brancusi.
By the end of 1964, Schifano’s artistic investigation with materials resulted in numerous and diverse influences, highlighting his interest towards the re-visitation of the history of art: from the inclusion of contemporary culture that linked him with American post-war artists like Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Jim Dine, to an Italian legacy that drew from Renaissance and Futurism. In 1965 Schifano began directing 16mm films in the improvisational vein of Jean-Luc Goddard. He would remain outside the field of artistic practice until the late 1970s when he returned to painting.
Mario Schifano died in Rome on 26 January 1998, leaving behind an eclectic and compelling body of work, which has been a constant source of inspiration to contemporary artists and theorists alike.