by Phong Bui
City to Town
KNOEDLER | MAY 5 – JULY 29, 2011
When de Chirico declared in 1919 that “symbols of superior reality are to be seen in geometric forms,” it was meant to repudiate the formal restrictions that were set to accommodate innovative trajectories of the Cubist, Futurist, and Constructivist artists. De Chirico also had in mind the weight of cultural memory and nostalgia as his required conditions, which we usually associate with his use of perspective and the old familiar palette that deploys traditional techniques to achieve such vision.
When Conrad Marca-Relli painted his “Adobe House (Desolate Street)” in 1942, included in the exhibit at Knoedler, one recognizes the definite affinity he had with the metaphysical works of de Chirico, in both the subject matter (the city or town) and the exaggerated use of perspective. Also, his admiration of Morandi’s still life paintings is revealed by the compositions (eloquently explicated by Carter Ratcliff in the catalogue essay) and the subtle orchestration of tonalities—the way the colors are closely applied in their hues and values. De Chirico first had to reconfigure his own mode of “All roads lead to Rome,” so to speak, especially with his “Gladiatori” paintings, made between 1926 and 1929. Then, gradually moving towards his death in 1978, Greek mythology increasingly became the staple of his personal re-visitation of his Greek heritage. As for Marca-Relli, while struggling to be part of the Abstract Expressionist milieu, his Italian background (he was born in Boston in 1913 to Italian parents and grew up bilingual) seemed to surface periodically throughout his career as an artist. This can be said similarly of his mutual attraction to both figurative and abstract exploration, examples of which one sees every now and then: the former in his “Sleeping Figure” (1953 – 54) at MoMA, and the latter, “The Battle” (1956), at the Metropolitan Museum, though both rarely displayed.
However, in this specific and focused exhibit, one has a chance to discover that in the midst of Marca-Relli’s intense search for synthesis between the figurative and abstract polarities, there exists a relentless migration from city and townscape to still life, and vice versa, with complete disregard for chronology. And it is here that one is finally reminded of how the painter discovered the use of repetition. In one sense, his paintings recall Morandi’s still lifes, with bottles on raised tabletops, mostly set on eye-level, creating a sense of monumentality of the image as a whole. In another sense, his natural ability to negotiate negative and positive spaces that lie between and within form is his pictorial strength.
Looking at “Cityscape” (1953), one detects how the unified mass of the building, a mosaic of doors and windows, is reduced to a less prominent horizontal strip, which in turn gives space to the disparity of the heavy black of the austere, yet enigmatic, silhouetted patches of earth against the hard pavement of the piazza. The manner is evocative of Albert Pinkham Ryder and Marsden Hartley’s abstract conceptions of natural forms, which they both perceived of as pure forms, especially in Ryder’s clouds from his landmark “Moonlight Marine” paintings. In “Untitled (Cityscape),” also painted in ’53, one feels that the wrestling between the two masses of the building above and the ground below is mediated by the mere edge that separates them. In so many ways this exemplifies the synthesis of his cubist rectilinear structure and surrealist biomorphism in a single painting, marking the explosive mature works that would follow from the mid-1950s onward.
What is compelling about this selection of works is that it bears a profound sense of intimacy the painter had with the architecture in Italy as a metaphor for what he was exposed to in the works he had seen during his many trips to that country. Among the painters of the metaphysical school and the Scuola Romana, de Chirico, Morandi, Sironi, and Burri are the few he identified with the most and whose works offered him the combined pictorial language that he was gradually able to make his own. One suspects that Marca-Relli’s decision to return to Rome and Mexico and his dissatisfaction with abstraction—in spite of the overwhelming force of the Abstract Expressionist wave during the early 1950s—proves that the painter trusted these two locales’ architecture to be the space where he found the impasse he wished to overcome.
Again, similar to Mondrian’s flowers in relation to his geometric abstraction, Marca-Relli’s architecture as a perpetual subject has sustained his consistent attentiveness. If one looks at the early cityscapes, painted from 1952 to ’53, and again from late 1978 to 1997 (he died in 2000), variations on the theme became significantly amplified in their subtle permutations. From the perspective of formal construction—such as how high or low the horizon is placed in relation to the two divided spaces of the buildings and the street below, or how the still life and its tabletop is composed on and off the grid—one is reminded of Marca-Relli’s awareness of the medium of collage. For example, in the three works “Puerto” S-P-11-78, “San Miguel” S-P-13-78, and “Ville Neuve” S-P-17-78, the drawn stripes seem to playfully correspond to the printed ones. However, in some cases, the stripes are drawn thicker or thinner, depending on how they visually harmonize with the rest of the planar surfaces within the picture. In the late works, the painterly impulse is more indicative through the treatments of the reduced palette, mostly burnt umber and burnt sienna applied to both the front and back surfaces, creating a most-seductive patina. In “Cityscape” A-M-10-96, white paint is applied over a burnt umber ground from the bottom half of the painting, giving a glow of dimmed light to the entire picture. Perhaps this is what Marca-Relli had always desired, in addition to his large, ambitious abstract collage paintings that brought him a place in the New York School pantheon—a modest inner place where he could contemplate serenity and beauty timelessly.
On view concurrently is Conrad Marca-Relli: The Spring Years, 1953 – 1956 (May 5 – July 30, 2011) at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, East Hampton, www.pkhouse.org.