From the Eyes of a Grown-Up Child

Ken Johnson, The New York Times, May 17, 2012

Luxembourg & Dayan, an Upper East Side purveyor of high-end secondary-market art, occupies a 12 1⁄2-foot-wide, five-story town house squeezed between much larger buildings on East 77th Street. Built in 1875 and with a new facade added in 1925, it is one of those architectural curiosities around the city that prompt visions of enchantment within.


To enter, you descend a few steps from the sidewalk to the front door, which is under a little peaked roof. Ring the bell and you will be admitted to an interior of snowy white walls occupied by a four-floor exhibition that more than delivers on the promise of the eccentric exterior. “Domenico Gnoli: Paintings 1964-1969” presents a selection of canvases up to six feet wide or tall bearing mysterious, larger-than-life images of human torsos in old-fashioned garb, fragments of clothing studied at close range, furniture, the corner of a brick wall and a monumental handbag.


Gnoli is regularly referred to as a cult figure. Born in Rome in 1933, he was a precocious beginner. His father was an art historian, his mother an artist. He apprenticed to an engraver at 16 and was exhibiting his work with that of well-known artists by 18. But for a few days at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, he had no institutional training. Still, by his early 20s he was designing sets for the Old Vic, among other London theaters. In the mid-’50s he moved to New York and began making illustrations for Sports Illustrated, Fortune and other magazines. In 1963 he married the sculptor Yannick Vu, and they lived on Majorca and in Rome. In 1969 he had an acclaimed exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery, and the next year he died of cancer, at age 36.


The paintings Gnoli made during his last half-decade have routinely been associated with Magritte- style Surrealism. And they have been related to Pop Art because the simplified realism borders on the cartoonish and is devoted to material goods. But those connections are misleading. Gnoli’s paintings do not involve irrational juxtapositions of crazily different objects and sizes, and though there is humor of an oddly solemn sort in them, they do not parody styles of contemporary advertising or product design.


Looking at them is more like seeing the world of home and family through the eyes of a child. “Striped Trousers” (1969) depicts a man from above the waist to midthigh in sharply creased and pleated pants of brown fabric with white pinstripes. It could be a 3-year-old’s view of his father, the colossus who wears the pants in the family and issues commands and judgments from on high. In “Busto di Donna in Rosa” (1966) a zaftig female torso tightly stuffed into a contour-hugging, greenish gray, floral-patterned dress fills the canvas rectangle almost to overflowing. A maternal counterpart to “Striped Trousers,” it calls to mind one of the earliest known sculptures, the extravagantly full-figured Venus of Willendorf of 24,000 to 22,000 B.C. Meet the Great Mother, the exhibition’s overseeing archetype.


Gnoli painted these and other images on sandy textured grounds, which, along with the deftly rendered fabric patterns and details like buttons and stitching, draw you in for close examination. This makes the images seem even larger. You may recall, perhaps subconsciously, the physical, perceptually dwarfing closeness to parental bodies and the textures that enveloped them that you experienced as a child.


Some paintings are of beds, where things happen between your parents that you are better off not knowing too much about. Viewed from the foot, “White Bed” (1968) has a white spread covering a double bed and a pair of pillows. Its soft, gently rolling topography of bulges and folds is inviting. You might feel an urge to collapse into it, as if it were another incarnation of maternity. 


A number of canvases picture human heads of hair, some male, others female. Those of mens’ neatly groomed heads combed into parallel lines viewed from above resemble old-time barbershop signs. Like the painting of the pink-striped shirt’s button-down collar, they embody a kind of masculine rectitude that was going out of style in the ’60s.


By contrast, in three of the paintings, female heads are seen from behind, their hair arrangements less contained and more erotic. Long cascading curls of a red-haired woman, a brunette’s thick braid, and a wide flow of ebony tresses are given a nearly sculptural palpability. A hair fetishist would be thrilled.


The gallery’s fourth floor shows a series of drawings from earlier in the 1960s: bizarre and funny grisaille images, in ink and other materials, of fantastic creatures like a giant unicorn snail and a goggle-eyed chimera hiding among clothes in a closet. Here the child’s imagination is let out to play without restraint, while the grown-ups downstairs go about their puzzling and tantalizing doings.