“Enrico Baj” at Luxembourg & Dayan is a hoot and an eye-opener. Surveying about 16 years of works in several modes, the exhibition reintroduces the Italian artist Enrico Baj (1924-2003) to New York after an absence of three or four decades. This townhouse gallery is overflowing with his works, which confirms quite emphatically that there is more to postwar Italian art than the relatively pure abstraction of artists like Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni and Alberto Burri.
In the late 1950s, Mr. Baj’s paintings were not dissimilar to works by those figures: pale, nearly abstract mountainscapes whose eccentrically rough surfaces included grass and sticks. In 1958, Mr. Baj painted a mountain on a piece of pink-and-gold brocade. The next year he added to this combination a cute bird-dinosaur, its toothy mouth agape. This appealing monster is made of a dark-brown pulpy material (insulation) collaged to the brocade.
From here Mr. Baj connected the dots among Dada, Surrealism, Expressionism, folk art and art movements to come. Mostly he improvised inventively on collage, fashioning comically well-dressed ladies and high-testosterone Army generals from all manner of found materials and objects, including war medals, on his brocade backgrounds. (He makes exceptionally varied use of upholstery and uniform trim throughout.) He grew his pulpy monster into leering fools, which he applied to existing paintings. (The Cobra artist Asger Jorn also used existing paintings in the 1950s.) Some of these paintings were from thrift stores, but the curvaceous nudes that are in the majority here were commissioned by Mr. Baj from commercial artists. The final series of works depicts bourgeois wardrobes, cabinets and dressers made of glowing wood veneers and pieces of old furniture, also on brocade. The mood of absurdity in all of these seems appropriate to the postwar period, with its ruins, trash and outmoded materials and its disgraced militarism.
Mr. Baj used heavy upholstery fabric in his large and exuberant 1971 sendup of Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,”a double-mirror image that greets us like a large, overly friendly puppy at the beginning of the exhibition. At the bottom edge, a grinning red monster waves us closer.