January 10, 2014
Rediscovering Salvatore Emblema

January 10, 2014
Hrag Vartanian

The story of artist Salvatore Emblema (1929–2006) says a great deal about the American century and how it inspired and dominated the narrative of art history. A show devoted to Emblema closes this weekend at BOSI Contemporary on the Lower East Side, but seeing it may only answer some of your questions about this Italian artist, who cultivated a dreamy enigma in his work through color, light, and, most importantly, transparency, the title of the exhibition.

During a recent panel discussion on the life and work of Emblema, curator Amnon Barzel explained that transparency has a special meaning for an Italian artist, particularly one from the region of Naples, like Emblema. “The word ‘transparency’ has a political connotation because Italy is not transparent,” Bazel said. “You see through the canvas, you see the landscape … not as an illusionary one but a real one.”

The majority of the works in Transparency glow with a mysterious visual haloing effect that is amplified by the contrast of the bright colors with the rough porous burlap. The Kabbalah’s concept of reduction, which was important for American artists like Barnett Newman, was also integral to Emblema’s work. The Italian met many of the big names of mid-century American art during a two-year sojourn in the States from 1956 to 1958. He visited Mark Rothko’s studio (accompanied by David Rockefeller) and realized he shared affinities with the American artist’s work. You can see those similarities writ large in this show, where brushy shapes are stacked and forms float near the edges of many of the paintings. Works like “Untitled” (1978) are obvious nods to Rothko’s organization of space and the otherwordliness of his colors, but Emblema has pared things down — often manipulating the jute threads of his surfaces — until they seem on the verge of fading away.

Rothko once asked Emblema why he came to the United States, when Italy was flooded with great art. Like many of his compatriots, Emblema came to the US “looking for confirmation of his work,” another panel participant, curator Renato Miracco, said.

If the influence of New York is obvious in Emblema, the Italian imprint may be a little more subtle. Lucio Fontana, who is best known for his slashed and cut canvases of the 1950s and ’60s, certainly had an impact. As Miracco reminded the audience at the panel, “Fontana didn’t want to destroy the canvas but look behind the canvas.”

That desire to peer into something comes across at BOSI. Emblema used burlap starting in the 1950s, when he traveled to Rome and found a bakery that gave him their old sacks, and the burlap surfaces lend the work an earthy quality that dovetailed with the interests of Italian art movement Arte Povera and its elevation of common materials into art. Many of these works resist the trends of each decade, and over the course of half a century his art seems intently focused on the notions of transparency and ambient color; judging by this show only his colored metal grid sculptures of the 1970s diverge from that tendency.

When he returned to Italy, Emblema realized his art was possible as he got the “confirmation” he was looking for. That may seem like a peculiar thing to think, but in an era with no art fairs and limited galleries, and in a country with no real contemporary art museum, he must’ve felt like contemporary art was a world away.

Emblema worked in insolation for most of his career, though notably he visited New York again in the mid-1960s, and that certainly impacted his work, since he was far away from the curators, critics, gallerists, and others who could’ve guided his career. Another panelist, Veronique Chagnon-Burke, academic director of Christie’s Education, said it plainly, “[the] art world is a network of dependency,” and Emblema was mostly outside that web of connections.

During the last three years of his life, Emblema sold his work on television through a creative, if unusual, home-shopping system called “Telemarket.” Started by Giorgio Corbelli in 1982, the channel sold art of all kinds for decades (it only went offline earlier this month), and it helped Emblema sell as many as four or five paintings a day to an audience that wouldn’t necessarily step into a gallery. Telemarketing helped the artist concentrate on his work, particularly when he was without gallery representation, and it gave him the chance to connect with simple people who could buy his art. But it may have put off older collectors who didn’t like the “come one, come all” approach — the similarities with efforts to sell art online in the last decade seem apparent.

Yet there remains an enigma in Emblema’s work that I haven’t quite cracked. Paintings like “Untitled” (1965) haven’t settled in my mind. There is a disconnect between the white and yellow frame and the scratched pink field in the center, both of which vie for your attention, while the materials list (ash, carbon, and tinted soil) is perplexing. These works aspire to be more than mere paintings, and he appears to want us to look beyond them, but to what exactly?

“Could Transparence be a new word for painting? I think so,” Emblema said in a statement about his work. “And if it is true, then we should work hard, because one day we will conceive painting without body, made up only of lights and emotions. Without any canvases supporting them, without any lies justifying their existence.”

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