Transparency: Salvatore Emblema
The Italian Cultural Institute, Los Angeles
March 28 -- May 31, 2013
Transparency, a captivating retrospective of the work of Salvatore Emblema, is a window into this artist’s innovative approach and singular artistic vision. Dating from the mid-1950s to 2005, the 21 artworks presented in this survey still seem refreshingly new -- their timelessness part of the indelible legacy of an artist who played a meaningful role in the post-war Italian avant-garde. Among Emblema’s most profound influences was the environment of Terzigno, a town near Naples, in the Campania region of Italy, where he was born in 1929, and lived most of his life. Perched on the slope of volatile Mt. Vesuvius overlooking Pompeii, the dramatic landscape, volcanic rock, rich soil -- and surrounding ruins and frescoes - had a combined impact on the artist’s sensibilities.
An evident purist, Emblema showed a reverence for nature, texture, shadow, and above all, light. These values are featured prominently in his art, which has the appearance of having been derived -- or perhaps having evolved -- from nature. He did not use conventional paint, but created his own somewhat subdued palette from organic raw matter, including volcanic earth and leaves. As Peter Frank, curator of the exhibition, remarked in an interview at the opening, “The colors weren’t out of the tube, they were right out of the ground. All his materials were natural pigments -- compounds he made.”
In the earliest work represented here, Emblema used intact organic materials, not even made into pigments. Untitled (Portrait) 1956, (60 X 50 cm.), the only figurative piece featured in the retrospective, is a striking and sensitive portrait of Emblema’s wife Raffaela, rendered in dried leaves. In this collage, the artist achieved the line and subtle shading to articulate the features and contours of his wife’s face in fine detail. Emblema also eschewed canvas, choosing to paint on stretched sackcloth, a practice he began as a young art student, in an effort to save money. Over time, he realized the natural straw color and coarse open weave of this fabric suited his aesthetic, lending a characteristic rawness to his work while allowing light to penetrate between the fibers.
Later in his career, Emblema manipulated the jute, removing some of the threads and inviting light to enter in a deliberate pattern. In a somehow counterintuitive approach, he seemed to be taking away a layer, rather than adding one, but the net effect was that the element of light could play a defining role in the painting. In Untitled (1973, 130 X 140 cm.) Emblema removed threads in two horizontal bands across the picture plane, and one diagonal band, so that light -- literal negative space - becomes a component of the composition. Stemming from this process, art historian Guilio Carlo Argan, Emblema’s contemporary and critical champion, described the artist’s work using the term, Transparency.
Taking the practice a step further, Emblema added strands of jute to some of his paintings, as in, Untitled (2004, colored earth and jute filaments on dethreaded jute, 100 X 80 cm.) Here, he attached jute fibers to the surface of the painting, adding a layer of texture. The shape of the mounted threads, superimposed on top of the stretched fabric ground, softly echoes through the loose weave onto the wall behind. The shadows cast on the wall become the new background, in effect, adding a third dimension, depth. In Untitled, (Triptych, 1970, colored earth, charcoal and de-threaded jute, 200 X 450 cm. 3 panels) the wood of the stretcher is visible through the rough, partly sheer open weave of the jute material. Like an armature – a skeleton of the painting’s structure - the vertical and diagonal lines of the stretcher interplay with the outlines of the frame and the dashes of pigment on the surface.
In the mid-1950s, Emblema received a Rockefeller grant and spent a year in New York. While there, he became friends with American painter Mark Rothko -- who was a pivotal influence on his work. Emblema’s compositions of rectangular shapes with soft diffused edges, the attention he pays to the borders - the outer limits of the plane -- are reminiscent of Rothko. With the jute background, and Emblema’s characteristic subtlety, the connection is more of a hint, a suggestion, a subtle sense of Rothko unplugged. The suggestion is more pronounced in pieces like, Untitled (1976, 200 X 150 cm.), a painting with interrelated rectangular shapes in red tones. Still, the work is distinctly that of Emblema, whose spare, pure style exudes an air of simplicity and understatement.
If chiaroscuro is the use of subtle gradations of light and shade to create depth and drama in painting, it could be said that Salvatore Emblema revisited this concept in the abstract. Dropping the oscuro, Emblema focused his attention on the chiaro to the extreme, inviting ambient light to enter his paintings without artifice. He sought to strip away from the conventional plane, making the flat surface almost transparent. As such, Emblema added literal shadow on the wall, paradoxically creating depth and dimension with refreshing ingenuity. Emblema was passionate about the qualities of color, light and substance, and focused on their properties throughout his career. His work intersected movements, like Arte Povera, process art and Minimalism, but he worked mostly in isolation, irrespective of what was going on elsewhere. He died in 2006.
According to Frank, Emblema was quite well known in Italy -- southern Italy in particular -- and northern European countries such as Switzerland and Holland. “Toward the end of his life he exhibited in Latin American countries such as Brazil and Mexico. He'd never lacked for some prominence right from the beginning (mid-1950s), when the Vatican acquired one of his leaf-collage pieces. But, especially after the 1960s, he got caught in the crossfire between various artist, and political, groups and was shunned by various colleagues (Dorazio, Accardi) at least in part for his alliance with a breakaway group from the predominant Communist party. Emblema was himself not particularly political, and shrugged off the shrugging-off. He went back to his native town of Terzigno and worked happily there the rest of his life.” Frank said.
In Emblema’s work, Frank recognized a significant contribution to the Italian avant-garde, describing the artist as the missing link between Fontana and Burri, and arte povera. “His emphasis on materiality and light comes straight out of those artists of great sensuality and opticality from the 1950s and points to the almost Zen investigation of abjectness and dematerialization at the heart of arte povera's sensibility. Emblema was too involved in painting to be, or be like, Arte Povera, but he relied much less than did Burri or Fontana on gesture, especially on the destructive-creative gesturality their work displays... Influenced as he was by Rothko, Emblema was one of Italy's few non-geometric, quasi-conceptual minimalists-reductivists,” Frank said.
In preparation for this retrospective, Frank traveled to Italy to ensure all the pertinent periods in the artist’s development were represented. Organized by Museo Emblema as part of 2013 year of Italian culture in the U.S., the exhibit is absorbing – a catalyst for further investigation into Emblema’s life and work. It is heartening that MOCA has recently acquired two paintings from this retrospective.
The first solo exhibition of Salvatore Emblema in LA has special significance as a sort of homecoming for an artist who lived and worked in the U.S. during his career, and was profoundly influenced by American painting. Whatever his influences, they were all filtered through Emblema’s own exacting personal point of view. Throughout his lifetime, he demonstrated a consistency in his approach, an underlying continuity of purpose, a commitment to the use of natural media, and the innovative infusion of light.