Italian artist Enrico Baj (pronounced buy) made his New York debut in 1960, when Marcel Duchamp and André Breton included his work in “Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanter’s Domain,” a group exhibition at D’Arcy Galleries. Baj’s richly textured assemblage paintings, often featuring found textiles, appropriated imagery and acerbic social commentary, quickly found an enthusiastic audience. During the ’80s and ’90s, Baj’s star faded, and his work rarely appeared in the U.S. However, since his death in 2003, at age 78, his work has been undergoing serious reassessment.
This impressive exhibition of 50 paintings constituted the first Baj survey in the U.S. since 1971. Mostly culled from the artist’s estate, with many works on view for the first time, the exhibition was organized in collaboration with Roberta Cerini Baj, the artist’s widow, and his longtime dealer, Giorgio Marconi. Looking at Baj’s work today, it appears strikingly of-the-moment, as his jarring imagery and some of his techniques correspond to those of younger generations of artists. He often worked in series, and the exhibition brought together examples from a good number of them to clearly and concisely lay out his production from the late 1950s through the early 1970s.
In the abstracted landscapes comprising the series “Mountains” (1957-60), Baj used patterned pieces of cloth to depict the sky. While these works recall Dubuffet’s “Hautes Pâtes” series of thick impastos from the 1940s, they also anticipate the stylistic approaches of contemporary artists like Isa Genzken, who frequently incorporates patterned fabric and foregrounds texture.
For the “Modifications” (1959-69), which resulted from Baj’s conversations with Cobra artist Asger Jorn, Baj embellished thrift-store paintings. In several of the sometimes-comical works here, he added cartoonish figures—which he referred to as “Ultra Bodies”—to kitschy nudes and landscapes. In Teodomiro and Ayesha, Daughter of Abubeker (1964), four blobby figures in green, purple and blue—space creatures, perhaps, with an uncanny resemblance to certain Muppets—surround an anonymously painted, voluptuous, reclining woman.
Baj’s best-known series is “The Generals,” which he began in 1960 and periodically returned to throughout his career. These works upend the tradition of portraiture by depicting military men as flattened, amorphous characters. Although the deliberately grotesque paintings, which are formally akin to some Art Brut works yet subtly convey a fierce antiwar sentiment, may look like the products of an outsider artist, Baj could hardly have been more of an insider. Born into a wealthy Milanese family, he studied art at a premier school, while simultaneously earning a law degree.
Several of the “Generals” were hung in one room against plush, velvety gold wallpaper, which was meant to resemble the walls of Baj’s family villa in Vergiate, Italy, and added to the paintings’ overall outlandishness. In light of the violent conflicts around the world today, these menacing personages adorned with real war metals and other military regalia, which Baj picked up in flea markets, continue to be relevant.
By contrast, the “Ladies” (also begun in 1960) seem relatively tame and sweet, although no less bizarre than the “Generals.” Like a folk-art maestro, Baj articulates the facial features and clothing of the three-quarter-length figures with buttons and bits of rope. The savvy humor and material inventiveness here look ahead to the whimsical work of Canadian-born, Los Angeles-based Jon Pylypchuk.
Baj pokes fun at the leisure class in one of the latest pieces on view, the mural-size Double Grande Jatte (1971), a spoof on Seurat’s masterpiece. In Baj’s tapestrylike assemblage, Seurat’s figures are replaced by the Italian artist’s caricatures. Around 20 feet wide and nearly seven feet high, it was created specifically for his 1971 survey, which was in Chicago, where the Seurat resides. Intended to provoke viewers, it underscores the subtle insider ways Baj questioned the values of the bourgeois world in which he lived.