Fausto Melotti, La luna nello stagno (The Moon in the Pond), 1981, plaster, paper, and mixed mediums, 19⅝ by 27½ by 2 inches; at Hauser & Wirth.

This museum-quality overview of works by Italian artist Fausto Melotti (1901–1986) contained thirty-eight major sculptures, installations, and drawings, representing most phases of the artist’s long career. Organized by former Hammer Museum chief curator Douglas Fogle, the exhibition conveyed the extraordinary diversity of Melotti’s output, as he alternated between abstraction and figuration, and experimented with a broad array of techniques and materials in works that are often regarded as presaging the Arte Povera movement of the 1960s. 

Born and raised in Rovereto, in northern Italy, Melotti studied in Milan, earning a degree in electrotechnical engineering in 1924. He soon switched his focus to art, and enrolled in Milan’s prestigious Brera Academy, where his classmate Lucio Fontana became a lifelong friend. On view near the gallery entrance were several of Melotti’s large-scale, elegant abstract sculptures in bronze and nickel-plated iron, representative of his mid-1930s output. Melotti referred to these airy, architectonic constructions, which have an almost Art Deco feel, as “ephemerals,” or line drawings in space. Scultura n. 17 (Sculpture No. 17, 1935), approximately 6½ feet tall, features a rectangular frame of thin metal rods, supported by an I-shaped metal base, rather like a clothes rack. Attached to either side of the frame near the top are delicate arrangements of thin wires. On one side, three long wire strands stretch to the base, resembling the strings of a musical instrument. Music was a constant inspiration for Melotti, especially works by Bach, whose rhythmic aural geometry he sought to transpose into sculptural form. 

After an extended visit to Rome in the early years of World War II, Melotti returned to Milan in 1943 to find that his studio had been bombed and destroyed. Convinced that figurative works would best communicate his emotional state and visceral response to the war, he embarked on a series of ceramic “Diavoli” (Devils) in 1945. In the show, several small horned figures in terra-cotta presented an acerbic view of humanity. 

Such figurative works evolved into the more playful series “Teatrini” (Small Theaters)—small, boxlike constructions in painted clay and painted plaster, several examples of which were on view. One of them, Le Mani (The Hands, 1949)—featuring a small pair of sculpted hands resting on a pillow in a shallow rectangle just over a foot high—has an especially Surrealist tone. 

Melotti often made quasi-narrative tableaux. A late example, La luna nello stagno (The Moon in the Pond, 1981), was one of the highlights of the exhibition. This painted-plaster wall relief shows three figures, with white, featureless heads, wearing long robes. Beneath a midnight blue sky, they stand by a pond, whose aquamarine surface is delicately etched with the shape of a crescent moon bearing a rudimentary face.   

Melotti’s reputation grew in his later years, which brought him numerous honors and the confidence to produce some of his most powerful pieces. He had a close friendship in the 1960s and ’70s with writer Italo Calvino. In the exhibition catalogue, Fogle notes that the two shared an interest in “advocating the power of lightness in countering the heaviness of the world at large.” 

Sculptures like Giugno (June, 1974), reflect Melotti’s preoccupation with what Fogle calls the “airy shelters of daydreams and fables.” At approximately four feet high, Giugno is a construction of metal rods supporting a benchlike expanse of perforated metal strewn with painted fabric “leaves.” Casually draped over the top of the metal rods is a cloth canopy brushed with narrow, wispy stripes of yellow and red. The work, which demonstrates the range and force of Melotti’s endeavor, provided an affective final note to the exhibition.