Domenico Gnoli, particular perfectionist | Apollo Review
The wristwatch in Domenico Gnoli’s 1969 painting of the same name barely registers – a simple crescent moon-shaped ribbon, in the lower left corner. Covering the watch face and dominating the artwork is the sleeve of a gray herringbone suit jacket; it rests against the front panel of the garment, creating two planes of delicate zigzags, one horizontal and the other slightly inclined.
At first, the close-up, tightly cropped painting of the forearm of a man in a suit seems straightforward. But the more you look, the more the enlarged details – the three sleeve buttons, the thin pocket opening, the grainy texture created by the mixture of acrylic and sand, and the endless zigzags with their slight imperfections – acquire an aura hypnotic. The magnetism of the fragment amplifies the lost whole, forcing the viewer to confront the lack of context and perhaps even reconstruct it, much like an archaeologist unearthing a shard of pottery.
Gnoli (1933-1970) is best known for these paintings, in which he explores a new reality by isolating details from daily life. They are the centerpiece of the Fondazione Prada’s “Domenico Gnoli” retrospective. And with good reason: begun in 1964, six years before the artist’s untimely death, this line of work represents a departure from the narrative illustrations and set designs that had been his bread and butter. As Italian archaeologist and art historian Salvatore Settis puts it in his essay in a book accompanying the exhibition, Gnoli has developed “an idiom of painting all its own.”
Spread over two levels, the exhibition opens with more than 70 Gnoli paintings on the first floor, grouped by subject. There’s an entire wall of shoes, for example, and another with torsos and outlines of bodies in bed, hidden under patterned blankets. Almost all of them are large scale, with sharp focus and photographic framing. Even those that offer a broader perspective – The elevator (1967) shows an empty elevator in the fading light, and Model (1967) features a cream, wood paneled slice of wall against which stand a group of people, heads and legs out of frame, and another seated group with only their slicked back hair showing – tends to depict a suspended reality, often characterized by absence. There is always something out of frame that the viewer can only guess at.
The effect of this assemblage of Gnoli paintings is not a little melancholy, partly because of the inherent absence of these works but more so because the immense talent on display makes one wonder what he could have accomplished if his flourishing career had not been interrupted. short. (Another absence is also worth noting: curator and art critic Germano Celant, who was the driving force behind the exhibition, died in April 2020 from coronavirus.)
Taken in isolation, such a comprehensive collection of the artist’s paintings is in itself remarkable. Yet in true retrospective form, the second half of the show complements Gnoli’s artistic endeavors, showcasing his accomplishments as a set designer and illustrator. Child of a ceramist and art historian, Gnoli very early embraced drawing and painting. He caused a sensation for the first time in 1955, when, at the age of 22, he designed the sets and costumes for William Shakespeare. As you like it at the Old Vic in London. From 1959 he lived between Paris, London, Rome and New York, where he worked as an illustrator for magazines and other publications. An abundance of archival material, including drawings, sketches, books, exhibition catalogs and murals, traces his unique trajectory.
After the eerily quiet detail on the first floor, it’s invigorating to see so much action, both depicted and implied – what Gnoli called the “decoration”. In many of his imaginative designs, people are crammed into every nook and cranny. In one of his illustrations for Richard Austin Smith’s article “Cape Canaveral, Industry’s Trial by Fire” (Fortune, June 6, 1962), reporters and cameramen are crammed into a field in anticipation of a rocket launch. In a design for Waverley Root’s The cuisine of Italy (New York, 1968), it depicts a bustling market in ancient Rome.
People are also at the forefront in the theatrical designs of Gnoli. As he constructs an inspired world for the actors on stage, he is also concerned with the viewer – off-stage humanity, much like off-stage humanity in his paintings – as evidenced by his drawings of onlookers. ‘Apollo Theater (1962) and in his set design model for The Lily of Toledo Ballet (vs. 1957-1958), an arena where the audience is more captivating than the venue. As the artist wrote in a letter to Ted Riley, “an audience may not be necessary for the introspective mystic, but it is vital for the magician, the wonder-maker.”
With his stage designs and illustrations as a starting point, the road to his final destination – if Gnoli paintings can be called that – becomes clear. While the subject of the fresco The tavern (1963) is similar to his narrative illustrations, it has the grain, achieved by mixing paint (oil, tempera, acrylic) with glue and sand, which became a defining element of his pictorial practice. Additionally, the artist’s “bestiary” illustrations draw on some of the objects he has painted, embellishing them with fantastical beasts: a whining rhino napping in an elevator, for example, and a snail lounging on a sofa.
Returning to the first part of the show – which is the only way out – brings a new appreciation for the blend of distance and intimacy, the interplay between fantasy and reality, that embodies Gnoli’s work. At its core, his art draws the viewer’s attention to the sensuality and carnal theater of everyday life. And in this way, it does not perfectly match a particular style. While his paintings can be understood in relation to Pop art, he only crossed paths with the movement rather than seeking a home in it. Likewise with the other labels often applied to his work, from minimalism to hyperrealism, from abstraction to surrealism – he learned but never fully assimilated these artistic languages.
As Gnoli himself explained in an interview with JeanLuc Daval for The Journal of Geneva, “My themes come from the world around me, from familiar situations, from everyday life; because I never actively intervene against the object, I experience the magic of its presence. Unlike Pop’s celebration of consumer culture, his paintings illuminate the objects in question. And though they can border on abstraction – it’s easy to become so engrossed in a dot, a pattern or even a color that you almost forget what you’re looking at – his paintings revere the mundane, which is charged with a force vital just out of sight.
‘Domenico Gnoli’ is at the Fondazione Prada, Milan, until February 27, 2022.