What a pleasure it has been in the last few years to see some serious attention given in New York to a generation of European painters who emerged in the 1960s but whose work was long overshadowed by American Pop art. I am thinking of solo gallery shows of Konrad Klapheck (Zwirner & Wirth), Domenico Gnoli (Luxembourg & Dayan) and Daan van Golden (Greene Naftali). The Drawing Center’s recent “Giosetta Fioroni: l’Argento” is a welcome addition to this list. An Italian artist born in 1932 and still working, Fioroni was the only woman in the so-called Scuola di Piazza del Popolo, a group of Pop-oriented artists of the 1960s named for the Roman piazza where their hangouts and galleries were clustered.
The subtitle of the show, “l’Argento,” or silver, refers to the material that dominates Fioroni’s paintings and drawings of the 1960s and early ’70s: aluminum enamel paint. Focused mainly on the early period of Fioroni’s work, this exhibition demonstrated how she kept finding new things to do with the silvery medium. In three allover abstractions from 1960-61, it is mixed with oil paint to create reflective painterly surfaces that suggest antique mirrors. Inspired, according to the show’s curator, Claire Gilman, by Yves Klein’s monochromes (Fioroni lived in Paris for several years in the late 1950s), these excursions into abstraction are a hiatus in an oeuvre that has otherwise been consistently focused on imagery from the visible world. They also have intriguing resonances with more recent silvery abstractions by Christopher Wool and Jacqueline Humphries.
Like many other artists of her generation, Fioroni found the legacy of Abstract Expressionism and Informel painting to be unsuited to the new social realities of the 1960s. Her paintings of the decade are populated with figures, usually children or stylish young women, who are rendered schematically with pencil lines and aluminum enamel paint. These images, which are based on photographs, eliminate all non-essential details so that everything other than hair, eyes, nostrils and mouths is simply flat paint. It’s an effect popular in Mod-era graphic design, and also reminiscent of Warhol, but Fioroni complicates the mode with subtle framing devices, large empty areas and countless tiny traces of her hand. The sense of imperfection and elusiveness that pervades her work sets it apart from most American Pop, as does her fidelity to a single color.
Still more austere is a set of large drawings from 1970-71. Based on direct observation rather than on photographs, these works offer views of Italian cities and landscapes, but pared down to a few thin pencil lines and some small accumulations of enamel paint. Alternating ruled and freehand lines, Fioroni pushes these drawings to the edge of recognition; often it is only after reading the titles (inscribed near the bottom of each big vertical sheet of paper) that you can identify the subjects. Exquisitely executed, intelligently conceived and not without a sly humor, these drawings, like the show as a whole, were a revelation for viewers new to Fioroni’s work. The addition of several vitrines of artist’s books (many created in collaboration with important postwar Italian writers), documents of some theatrical installation work and several short films further enriched this long overdue New York debut of a fantastic artist.