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Brilliance, bottle by bottle

ART

Giorgio Morandi made his mark with subdued and repetitive still lifes. Four artists explain his influence.

November 09, 2008|Leah Ollman | Ollman is a freelance writer.

NEW YORK — Giorgio Morandi is a quiet giant in the world of art history. A painter and printmaker, he spent his entire life (1890-1964) in and around his native Bologna, Italy, traveling abroad only twice, briefly. After completing his studies at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Bologna, Morandi was drafted into the military in 1915 but became seriously ill and was dismissed as unfit for service. He returned to the family home he shared with his mother and three sisters, working there and in the surrounding countryside for the next 50 years.

He taught etching at the Bologna Academy for more than 25 years, but mostly he kept to his studio, making image after image of bottles, vases, pitchers and tin boxes arranged on a stark table against a blank wall. The objects huddle together, edge to edge, in tenderly choreographed studies of tone, balance, boundaries, presence and absence. Morandi composed his modestly scaled paintings in a palette of muted hues: putty, fog, dried clay, faded brick, sand, slate and dust, with the occasional brighter note of yellow, green, blue or red. His etched line is strong and luminous.

Casual viewers might dismiss the narrow scope and subdued quality of Morandi's work as tedious, but a broad, fervent following has embraced those limits as virtues. The repetition offers insight into process and serves as a vehicle for a meditative, introspective practice. Morandi's images are intimate and deeply felt; they carry a disarming philosophical heft.

Artists across media have been influenced by Morandi's insistent interiority, his infusion of ordinary objects with a sense of poetry, his gentle touch and unswerving attention to spatial and tonal relationships, his way of dematerializing material objects. He is often quoted for stating, toward the end of his life, "There is nothing more surreal, nothing more abstract than reality."

Morandi's work has been exhibited internationally since the 1920s and earned multiple prizes at the Venice Biennale and the Sao Paulo Biennial during his lifetime. The first comprehensive survey of his paintings, prints and watercolors to appear in the U.S. opened recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (through Dec. 14).

On the occasion of the show (which makes its only other stop in Bologna next year), we talked to four artists who count Morandi as a model and inspiration.

Robert Irwin

Irwin was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist painter when he joined L.A.'s groundbreaking Ferus Gallery in the late 1950s. Before long, his turbulent brush strokes gave way to minimal, monochromatic lines and plexiglass discs that appeared to dissolve into the supporting wall. Around 1970, Irwin gave up his studio and has since been an itinerant "respondent," creating installations using light, color and translucent scrim in response to the conditions of particular sites. From the early days of his career, Irwin, 80, was captivated by the way Morandi de-emphasized subject matter, shifting attention to form and the act of seeing. He spoke by telephone from his home in San Diego.

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"We put on a Morandi show at Ferus. We were trying to explain to some people what a so-called abstract painting was about, and what Abstract Expressionism was all about. The best example in the world was Giorgio Morandi. Morandi, in my opinion, was the only genuine European Abstract Expressionist.

"When you look at the work, you think he's painting bottles, little still-life paintings, but they weren't. Morandi came in the back door. It was almost a Zen activity. He painted the same bottles over and over and over, so it wasn't really about bottles anymore. If he was a still-life painter, he wouldn't have painted the same bottles over and over.

"They're about painting -- the figure-ground relationship, structure and organization. Morandi's were paintings in the purest sense of the word. They were like a mantra, repeated over and over until it was divorced from words and became pure sounds."

Vija Celmins

"We all wanted to be De Kooning or Pollock or Rothko," Celmins recalls of her student days in the late '50s and early '60s. Visiting New York at the time from her native Latvia, she came across a Morandi show and was taken aback by the strength of the painter's intimately scaled enterprise. As a result of the encounter, Celmins gave up "the grand gesture" and shifted her approach from big and expressive to small and introspective, from action to stillness. Her drawings, paintings and prints are based on close observation and repeated themes of the sea and sky. She spoke by telephone from her studio in New York.

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