Giorgio Morandi: Roses, 1917, oil on canvas, 22⅞ by 19⅝ inches; at the Center for Italian Modern Art. © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome.

Like the softly repeated murmur of a prayer, there’s something both comforting and conservative in Giorgio Morandi’s career-long affinity for painting small still lifes of bottles, vases and other objects arranged in his studio. The Italian modernist has long been considered an “artist’s artist,” and his unassuming canvases have developed something of a cult following. 

 The muted grays and browns of these modestly scaled works can attract attentive viewers with the focused brilliance of a diamond—small, simple and pure. The paintings teach a straightforward but profound lesson: as in Roman cuisine, where the simplicity of means is a way to highlight the extraordinary quality of well-sourced ingredients, Morandi’s poetic minimalism shows that the act of looking at even quotidian objects and spaces can be an extraordinarily generous experience. 

Morandi’s approach was repetitive, but each of his still lifes is remarkable in its particulars. Yet the paintings recently shown at Zwirner, made mostly in the 1940s and ’50s (Morandi died in 1964), seemed almost too assured in their humble stature. The silvery gray and pale yellow objects stand in stagelike settings, proud and trembling like Watteau’s actors. Morandi had already found his style during the two decades of his career and all the great qualities are simply there: the quivering negative space between the bottles; the just-so brushwork, loose without being arrogant; and the gently heartbreaking disproportion of background to objects, the space a bit too vast, making us empathize with the small, huddled groups. 

Despite the myth of Morandi as a hermit, he was both well traveled and well connected in Italy. His formidable reputation as a modernist helped establish him as a leading representative of Italian painting during the Fascist era, and he seems to have played along with the nationalistic spin some gave to his work. If his brief 1941 incarceration for anti-Fascist ties has burnished his political reputation in retrospect, it’s worth remembering that the artist’s earthy, domestically tuned paintings chimed with the aesthetic line pushed by the Fascists. After all, Giuseppe Bottai, an early Fascist minister and later Mussolini’s Minister of Education, appointed Morandi professor of etching at the University of Bologna in 1930 and provided him with some political protection through the war.

In the last 15 years of his life, Morandi averaged just under a painting a week. But there were times when his average was less than one a month in his early career, the period focused on in a show at the Center for Italian Modern Art (on view through June 25, 2016). This was partly due to the extraordinary etchings he was making at the University of Bologna, some of which were included in each exhibition. Morandi’s shifts in style over the 1920s and ’30s gives the CIMA presentation a drama that was altogether lacking at Zwirner. A few very early works on view at CIMA set the stage. Flowers (1917) and Cactus (1918) show Morandi modeling each curved plane separately, resulting in a faux-naïf style that must have had a great influence on the young Lucian Freud.

 A quartet of still lifes in a hallway, made between 1923 and 1929, manifest a stolid, academic style, jarring in its musty 19th-century propriety. The paint is laid on with an eye to Chardin. Edges are consistent and the relatively crisp objects seem more like possessions than things in themselves. The last two of the group, painted one year apart, depict the same set of objects. In the later work, the paint is smoother, the brushwork is less fussy and the contrast in the background is lower even as the objects in the foreground are lighter. 

Meanwhile, all is thick browns and grays in two works hung above a fireplace, from 1929 and 1931. Objects merge into each other and into the shadows. Table edges jog up from one side to the other and disappear. In another 1931 still life, the table heaves. Two seashells become blobs, one light gray, the other ocher. The paint is thick as icing here, smothering any shadows that might appear.

In other paintings from the 1930s, Morandi’s aptitude for experimentation within the confines of his genre is on full display. The reddish-orange objects in a pair of paintings from 1938 seem positively blaring, while in another piece, from 1941, we look up at three objects whose scale makes them seem heroic, in a way all too uncomfortably resonant with the ideals of that moment.