The Italian painter Domenico Gnoli died at age 36 in 1970, just a few months after closing an exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery in New York. Janis was one of the leading venues for blue-chip Pop artists, who (it is worth remembering) were first called “New Realists” in a landmark exhibition at the gallery in 1962. Like American Pop artists, Gnoli took as his subject matter mundane objects, rendering them with exactitude. Beyond that, however, he swerved; neither slick nor commercial, his paintings owe a debt to Surrealism and Metaphysical painting. Luxembourg & Dayan treated visitors to a rare, in-depth look at Gnoli’s exceedingly scarce oeuvre—just a few dozen canvases exist altogether—including in the show 18 paintings and a small group of drawings all made between 1964 and ’69.
The paintings are large—some over 6 feet on their longest side—and present blown-up details of furniture, hair, clothing, a brick wall. Thrust into dreamlike proximity to each item, we are nonetheless never unclear as to what it is. Gnoli lovingly conveys the skill of hand inherent in the objects he depicts—a finely finished pointed lapel or scalloped collar, a meticulously fashioned braid, a well-made bed—often being worn or used. Still, the wholes of which these snippets are part are incredibly enigmatic. Those responsible for wearing or using them are never visible, only hinted at: in swelling breasts and belly (Woman’s Torso in Pink); blanketed silhouettes (Two Sleepers); a midriff bulge (Striped Trousers). In Armchair, a shadow cast by the seat on its own upholstery conveys both a sense of ghostly habitation and empty self-referentiality.
Gnoli is said to have admired the Quattrocento. He shows that affinity through the airless, perfect realm in which he seems to seal his objects, and in gritty, frescolike surfaces, the result of mixing sand and acrylic. But these works could only have followed Magritte and de Chirico. We experience a hypnotic immersion in the fetishistically coiled locks of Curly Red Hair (1969), the odd swellings in a looming leather pocketbook (Woman’s Purse, which reminds me of roughly contemporaneous images by the German artist Konrad Klapheck, minus the creepy sheen), or the intricacies of floral damask (Green Blouse). Gnoli also modernistically flattened his images. Capigliatura (Hairdo) zooms in on a woman’s parted coif; just visible at the bottom of the canvas is a small stretch of forehead. The more you look, the more abstract and even cartoonish this head becomes, as that pale bit of forehead brings the eye forward just at the point it should be retreating into the shadow of a curve. (Did Guston know Gnoli’s work? Does Catherine Murphy?)
Gnoli had retreated to Majorca at the time he was making these paintings, so perhaps it is pointless to speculate about the increasing commercialization of his native Italy, the sense many had of the lapsing of an artisanal world still present in many small details of daily life. These are not, however, paintings of a nostalgic bent. Simultaneously estranging and exalting bourgeois life, Gnoli fashions a view that is at once tender and equivocal.
Photo: Domenico Gnoli: Two Sleepers, 1966, acrylic and sand on canvas, 391⁄4 by 503⁄4 inches; at Luxembourg & Dayan.