Painting in the contact zone: American artists in postwar Rome

American artists chose Rome over Paris in the immediate postwar years

By Peter Benson Miller
After world war two, Rome lured several American artists whose work became more abstract as they assimilated into the city’s creative community. Piero Dorazio, the internationally-minded Italian artist, recalled that “Americans were no longer going to Paris – that had been in the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1950s, Rome was full of artists.” 

The image of Rome as a “second Paris” and an important catalyst for a postwar avant-garde was broadcast in 1952 by an article in Life, “Americans in Italy,” which declared that “artists from all over the US have swarmed the hillsides and made Rome the rival of Paris as art headquarters.” The city provoked unexpected innovative pictorial approaches: “Though inspired by the same historic scenes, which their predecessors recorded with realistic vigor, the artists of today have presented, in highly personal abstract styles, a poetic new view of ancient Italy.” 

To be sure, Rome is rarely perceived as a catalyst in the same period that New York generated Jackson Pollock’s breakthrough all-over drip paintings. Nonetheless, the international mix of artists and partisan politics in Rome combined to mark the careers of several American artists.
The Roman art world was enmeshed in a web of political allegiances, which Life caricatured in an earlier article published in 1949. After years of Fascism, which isolated the city from the rest of world, Italian artists, often banding together in associations, such as Il Fronte Nuovo delle Arti, attempted to renew the avant-garde and establish productive links with artistic movements elsewhere. Their efforts faltered in 1948, when Palmiro Togliatti, head of the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI), denounced an exhibition of abstract paintings in Bologna as “monstrous things.” This broadside created major faults in the Italian art world, essentially forbidding Communist artists from painting in an abstract idiom.

Philip Guston spent a year at the American Academy in Rome in 1948-49.  In an annual report, academy director Laurance Roberts noted that “in painting [Guston] produced little, but on his return to America he was able to sort out and translate onto canvas his experiences and impressions.” Roberts intimates that Guston’s subsequent output resulted from his experience in Europe, more than it did from his attentiveness to developments in New York. 

This period was one of transition for Guston; a photograph of the artist in his studio at the academy pictures him standing in front of a painting that might be the unfinished Tormentors, a painting that he revised repeatedly as he pared down his figurative language. 
Conrad Marca-Relli, Moonlight, c. 1947, oil and collage on canvas. 
The Italian-American artist Conrad Marca-Relli also saw his work shift from figurative to abstract after he opted for Rome over Paris in 1947. He noticed an “odd thing was happening. I found it impossible to continue painting the streets and piazzas I was doing while in New York. I was in Rome for about a year. My work had changed, it was much more abstract.” 
Art historian Adrian Duran cautions against reducing “postwar Italian painting into a Manichean battle between the two stylistic categories of realism and abstraction.” Despite Togliatti’s strictures, Italian artists navigated between the two modes, which remained fluid, and attempted to reconcile them. Duran proposes a model of “simultaneity and oscillation, rather than singularity or binarist mutual exclusivity.” Pietro Consagra, for example, a sculptor and a militant for the PCI, attempted to remain true to the ideals of the party while continuing to pursue his exploration of abstract forms. According to his friend Ugo Pirro, Consagra believed that “a revolutionary party should promote a revolutionary art.”

These ideological tensions permeated even the relative calm of the American Academy in Rome where Guston was not alone in experimenting with abstraction. Italian-American artist and former G.I. Salvatore Scarpitta worked in a studio for three years after the war. Accused of “getting a little too involved in Italian internal politics,” he was asked to vacate his studio at the Academy. He was guilty only of trying to solidify his standing with left-leaning friends, who were suspicious of him simply because of his American passport. 
Philip Guston in his studio, American Academy in Rome, 1948.  Photograph by Herman Cherry.
Salvatore Meo, too, found himself pigeonholed for being American. Art critic Cesare Vivaldi remembered an occasion in which the Italian painter Giulio Turcato, having mistaken Meo for a reactionary American, harassed him with sarcastic and polemical barbs. 
While these artists pursued abstraction on shaky ground, within a matrix of conflicting loyalties, Scarpitta, despite his difficulties, remembers a porous, fluid atmosphere of exchange. “The American Academy was a survival space. On the outside, or shall we say on the inside, was Italy, humanity, politics, the competition, let's say competition; and that's where I began with the abstract movement in Italy. The Communist Party didn't like our attitude toward art, but accepted us because we had a certain crescendo, a certain popularity. We also made friends among leaders of the Communist Party who were not that sectarian about their approach to art.”
Dorazio was part of a group of younger Italian artists who banded together as Forma 1, publishing a manifesto in 1947 declaring that they were “formalists and Marxists convinced that the terms Marxism and formalism are not irreconcilable.” They proposed to mediate between abstraction and realism. 
Guston, who met Dorazio in 1948, was no stranger to art in the service of leftist social and political agendas. His enthusiasm for the Mexican muralists was tied up in the activities of the Los Angeles branch of the John Reed Club, a Marxist study group, which encouraged artists to abandon the idea that art can exist for art’s sake. The fragmentary motifs in Tormentors – echoes of shoe soles, two by fours, the hoods worn by the Ku Klux Klan – hark back to earlier figurative paintings depicting social and political injustice. In the year before he came to Rome, Guston painted Porch II, in which he broke down figures and compressed pictorial space to convey the horror of the Nazi death camps. In Rome, Guston continued this process of dismantling, stripping away the form and piling on paint, obscuring or erasing shapes with gestural brushstrokes. 
The cultural historian Mary Louise Pratt offers a useful framework to explain the complexity of American experience in Rome after the war. She has coined the term “contact zones” to describe “social spaces where cultures meet, inform each other in uneven ways, and where they clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power.” A “contact zone” allows for interaction, so that cultural boundaries can be broken and transgressed. We might consider postwar Rome a “contact zone” in which, despite mutual admiration, Americans and Italians faced off and exchanged ideas in a relationship shaped by postwar reconstruction and the Cold War. The move to abstraction betrays signs of “transculturation,” one of the strategies identified by Pratt in the “contact zone.” First defined by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz in 1947, transculturation describes the process whereby members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant metropolitan culture. 
Inured to the artistic hegemony of New York, we usually assume that the transmission of abstraction must have flowed only in one direction across the Atlantic. Yet, despite its newfound superpower status after the war and the growing authority of its modern art, the United States remained a cultural upstart with respect to the august traditions of old Europe. Guston, an admirer of Piero della Francesca and Giorgio de Chirico, arrived in Rome in awe of Italy’s cultural preeminence. Impressed by the way in which Dorazio and others reconciled their commitment to Marxism with their ongoing exploration of abstraction, Guston may have recognised there a way to create a similar balance in his own work.
Nicholas Carone, Untitled, 1948, oil on canvas. Courtesy Christian Carone.
Nicholas Carone lived in Rome from 1947 to 1951 thanks to a deferred Rome Prize and a Fulbright scholarship, and set up a studio on Via Margutta, where his closest neighbour was Italian sculptor Pericle Fazzini. There, Carone attempted to assimilate in abstract paintings the techniques and processes of the artists he befriended in Rome: 
“Well, I lived not as an American; I lived with the Italians. I wasn't just a tourist. I set up a studio and lived there. I associated with most of the Italian artists. I knew them all: Afro [Basaldella] and Mirko [Basaldella] and [Renato] Guttuso.” 
He had his first show in Rome sponsored by these Italian artists. Guttuso wrote the preface for the accompanying catalogue. Carone later underlined the benefits of that “aesthetic climate, working with the Italian painters,” and his attentiveness to their fluid, non-doctrinaire strategies. In championing Carone’s abstract work, Guttuso, the most prominent artist to remain faithful to the party line, broke ranks with PCI diktats. In his text, Guttuso insisted that all the paintings in the exhibition were “profoundly Italian in character.”
In restoring Rome to its rightful place as an artistic centre after the war, we can begin to unpack a more complete picture of the productive exchanges between American and Italian artists and their enduring impact on abstraction in both countries.
Published in the November 2017 edition of Wanted in Rome magazine. This is a shortened version of a recent talk at the American Academy in Rome by Peter Benson Miller, the Andrew Heiskell Arts Director at the American Academy in Rome,

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Painting in the contact zone: American artists in postwar Rome

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