Italy gave the world the Slow Food movement, and the Center for Italian Modern Art in SoHo dishes up its analogue in visual art. Since its founding in 2013 the center has been mounting one-artist exhibitions which last from October to June. It is open on Fridays and Saturdays, with reservations required, for guided tours that commence with a Lavazza espresso. By comparison, the typical gallery-hop is akin to chowing on drive-thru. (For this week, the final week of its Giorgio Morandi exhibition, CIMA has expanded its hours to include Wednesday and Thursday.)
Morandi's slow art demands a slow viewing. His assiduous, career-long series of still lifes is the archetypical example of meditative looking, of inspection as introspection. His artistic ancestry in Cézanne, and further to Chardin, has been observed many times. What has not been noted, to my knowledge, is that it ends there. Prior to Chardin the act of deep looking was tied up with the technical problem of recording details. Still lifes in the manner of Pieter Claesz hardly lack attentiveness, but it took another hundred years for a Chardin to come along and demonstrate that details were not the soul of the project. After him, only a relative handful of painters dedicated themselves to the combined problem of observational depth and visual economy. Capturing these details demands a monkish temperament, at least regarding artistic matters. Manet painted magnificent still lifes, but in the process he looks like he's pirouetting. By comparison, Cézanne, and still more so Morandi, seem to be sanding a plank.
This rarity of temperament is part of the Morandi aura. Anyone with an air of magic about them attracts debunkers, and there has been a vogue of sorts in contemporary art history to link Morandi's work to Italian fascists, who held him up as a paragon of nativism. Such was the misfortune of his being one of the finest painters in Italy at a time when it was being run by porcine brutes. (I like to think that Italians' true feelings about fascism were revealed when a crowd in Milan pelted Mussolini's machine-gunned corpse with vegetables. And then shot it again.) On the contrary, the catalogue for the CIMA show emphasizes the championing of Morandi by Roberto Longhi and Cesare Brandi, who advocated puro-visibilista, a formal approach pointedly divorced from politics that they based on the intuition-driven aesthetics and liberal mien of Benedetto Croce.
That said, Morandi had to find his way to his Visibilism. CIMA emphasizes his work from the 1930s, which is the early side of the mature paintings. They supplement them with a few pieces from the late Teens, when he was still dealing with the influence of Pittura Metafisica. This Italian branch office of Surrealism may have inspired de Chirico to his best work, but Morandi had too much feeling for the materiality of paint to suffer its constraints. The Cactus from 1919 is labored and stiff, and painted on the back of a newly rediscovered self-portrait from 1917 that makes the cactus look animated.
By the Thirties he figured out that his strengths lie in the landscape and still life. Painting the figure, as made clear by a mushy self-portrait from 1930, inflicted agony on him. A still life from a year later shows him emptying the forms he depicts of everything but the essential minimum of modeling, and doing so with command. This turned out to be a rich enough problem to occupy him fruitfully for the next thirty-three years.
With parameters this narrow, small decisions result in monumental consequences. CIMA's concentration on the Thirties reveals a youngish Morandi struggling to learn how to trust gray. Ochre and umber came to him naturally. He used them everywhere in the Twenties and early Thirties, giving Still Life (1931) a feeling of encasement in amber. His work in landscapes in the mid-Thirties obliged him to deal with the color blue in a manner amenable to his sensibilities, which he translated into the evocative grays in Landscape (n.d., 1935–36). This in turn fed back into his still lifes, and by the Fifties and Sixties—represented at CIMA with a sampling of works apart from the main gallery—his light had turned to silver. He could turn smears of oils, hues of eggshell and taupe with minuscule variations, into sublimity itself.
There are surprises along the way, such as a duo of still lifes from 1938 in which he employs an uncharacteristic vermilion. For Morandi aficionados this will come as a delightful shock. CIMA's canny presentation demonstrates that he was a complex artist, no less so, and perhaps more, for his simple subjects.