One of the most elusive late 20th-century artists, Rome-based Gino De Dominicis became a cult figure in Europe during his lifetime, and the legend has continued to grow since his death in 1998 at age 51. Fueled by the artist’s eccentricities, numerous myths surround his biography. (Some initially believed his death had been faked, its announcement echoing a 1969 work in which he issued a poster bearing his own death notice.) He shunned the art world, particularly in later years, exhibited infrequently and rarely allowed his work to be photographed or reproduced. For these reasons, the opportunity to see a broad selection of De Dominicis’s output is a special event. This show, the artist’s first international museum survey, fell short of a comprehensive retrospective as it focused on later works, but it was nevertheless illuminating and, at times, dazzling.
Organized by Italian curators Andrea Bellini and Laura Cherubini, the exhibition debuted at the Villa Arson in Nice, and traveled to Turin’s Fondazione Merz, where I first saw it. The P.S.1 version (co-curated with Alanna Heiss), containing 40 major works, left out several key pieces from the European showings, although it managed to be comparably effective.
Fundamentally conceptual, De Dominicis’s early work encompasses performance, film, installation and sound pieces. In later years, he produced highly refined paintings, drawings and sculptures, attempting to imbue each with a sense of metaphysical mystery. Uniting this disparate oeuvreis his firm belief in the power of the artist as a shaman or seer, and in the possibility of creating an artwork that would transcend time and history.
A darkened basement gallery at P.S.1 featured a provocative 1971 audio work, D’IO,in which a continuous loop of raucous laughter set one’s teeth on edge. Spotlit high on a far wall, a 1973 photo piece, Unique Work—Image of a Nonexistent Statue,showing a votive statue of the Madonna wearing an inane grin, contributed to the room’s maddening intensity. Upstairs, a monitor played a film of his absurdist 1969 performance Attempting to Fly, featuring the artist flapping his arms and jumping off a shallow rocky ledge to mimic the flight of a bird. Perhaps the most striking early work here, Asta (1967), is a nearly 10-foot-tall brass rod about 1½ inches in diameter. Standing on its pointy tip, the rod seems miraculously balanced. It is, in fact, secured by a powerful magnet hidden in a box attached to the ceiling. Magic, indeed.
At the core of the show were large monochrome paintings and drawings from the 1980s and ’90s, displayed under glass in heavy white or black frames. Many images feature a delicately wrought figure or head, with an elongated pointed nose and squinting eyes. These schematic renderings have a sci-fi feel and also reflect an interest in the art of the Sumerians, who, De Dominicis maintained, “invented everything.” Outstanding among these works was a trio of untitled 1992 paintings that filled one large gallery. The pristine hard-edge compositions in white and gold leaf include circular forms that refer to cosmic systems and highly stylized male and female stick figures enclosed in abstracted architectonic spaces. Appearing at once futuristic and archaic, these stunning works perhaps come closest to advancing De Dominicis to his highest goal: immortality.