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by Ilka Scobie
"Mario Schifano 1964-1970: From Landscapes to T.V.," Feb. 23-Mar. 30, 2006, at the Fondazione Marconi, Milan

Visitors to Milan would be well advised to hasten to the Fondazione Marconi to see the Mario Schifano exhibition there, a rare opportunity to take in a broad range of paintings by an Italian Pop Art master, who is too little recognized in the U.S. as the revolutionary genius that he was. The current show, reverentially organized by the artist’s first dealer, Giorgio Marconi, focuses on early work from 1964-70.

Born in Libya in 1934, Schifano moved to Rome as a young child and lived there until his death in 1998. Artist, provocateur, filmmaker and rock musician, Schifano epitomized "la dolce vita." Early in his career he worked as a restorer, which led to his making his own paintings, which he began exhibiting in 1959; by 1961 he had signed a contract with Ileana Sonnabend and had shown collectively with Twombly and Rauschenberg. As part of the historic 1962 "The New Realists" show at New York’s Sidney Janis Gallery, Schifano exhibited with fellow Romans Tano Festa and Mimmo Rotella, along with Warhol, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Dine and Segal. In 1964, his work was presented at the Venice Biennale.

This artistic exchange between both sides of the Atlantic fomented what is now known as the "Scuola Romana," which has been shown by critics and artists alike to have been a prescient movement of its own, independent from American art. Rome’s eclectic energy and august antiquity were the perfect background for this creative revolution. A vital presence in the Roman art scene, Schifano’s longtime drug habit brought police persecution and numerous arrests, a circumstance that led the artist to refer to his career as "maldoto," or cursed.

Schifano often worked in series, and his "Camminare" series, executed during 1964-65, marry the kinetic energy of classic Italian Futurism with the restrained pictorialism of early ‘60s avant-garde painting. Images of multiple limbs give the illusion of movement, with the jazzed up intensity of early Edweard Muybridge stop-action photos. Schifano’s black-and-white zebra stripes are a motif that suggest both Frank Stella’s earlier black paintings and later crosshatchings by Jasper Johns. A work like A La Balla pays specific homage to the Roman Futurist Giacomo Balla (1871-1958), who portrayed movement the same way. Looking at the past, Schifano continuously modified historical images, rendering them with fresh innovative energy.

Like other Pop artists, Schifano took a free hand with both photo sources and non-art materials. His enamel paintings of the ‘60s were often covered with textured perspex (plastic), refracting image upon distorted image. Io Sono Infantile (1965) divides the canvas field into six vertical sections behind equal-sized gray, red, orange and black plastic sheets, through which are visible a line drawing of Christopher Robin dragging Winnie the Pooh down the stairs. Free lines and spray-painted sections convey the exuberance of childhood, as does the painting’s title and the artist’s signature, which are worked into the composition via stencils.  

Schifano made common use of stencil and spray paint, which adds a jolt of street credibility. He used stencils to make another one of his famous series, based on the iconic 1912 photograph of Italian futurists in Paris. Futurismo Rivisito (1966) presents five (or seven) figures posing in period costumes -- fedoras, ties and long overcoats -- and could be straight off the walls of the current "Downtown Show" at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery. Subsequent works in the series include a rendering in hallucinatory turquoise and black and Rivisto a Colori (Seen Again in Color), which incorporates undulating text in the image.

"Compagni, Compagni" offers another recurring Schifano theme -- an image from the late ‘60s of three Vietnamese men, one with a hammer and another with a sickle. Variations range from azure versions with a constellation of stenciled stars (from Tutte Stelle, an emblematic Schifano image of a palm tree and stars), to free and linear drawings on expressionist backgrounds. Executed at the height of the Vietnam War, "Compagni" is political art at its most eloquent. "Sulla giusta soluzione delle contraddizioni in seno ala societa" ("Only and about the just solution of contradictions in the womb of society") is frequently emblazoned on these images.

Schifano began his "Passeaggio TV Series" in 1970. Inspired by the technological chaos of the mass media image stream, Schifano filled his Trastevere studio with many television sets and photographed night traffic outside his window. War planes, soldiers, car crashes and politicians were all shot in Polariod and transformed into luridly colored frozen images. Schfiano’s recreations of an image of an image of an image (much like Gertrude Stein’s literary experiments) were taken a step further, to psychedelic abstractions floating on obsidian screens. Even the lush abstractions imply figuration.

Schifano and his contemporaries, Franco Angeli and Tano Festa, are still little known to American audiences, though that is beginning to change. Sperone Westwater Gallery in Chelsea has plans for a forthcoming Schifano exhibition, for instance. Andrea Franchetti, art collector, Tuscan winemaker and close friend of the artist, remembers, "Schifano was a very prolific and exuberant artist who did a lot for everyone. At the time the work was made, it was a consolation and a stimulus to see." This is still true. 

ILKA SCOBIE is a poet.