Domenico Gnoli (1933-1970)
Domenico Gnoli (1933-1970)

Purple Bust

Domenico Gnoli (1933-1970)
Purple Bust
signed, titled and dated 'D. Gnoli 1969 'Purple bust'" (on the reverse)
acrylic and sand on canvas
59 x 59 in. (149.9 x 149.9 cm.)
Painted in 1969.
Estate of the artist
Luxembourg & Dayan, London
Private collection, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner
V. Sgarbi, DOMENICO GNOLI, Milan, 1983, no. 194.
D. Cimorelli, Domenico Gnoli, Milan, 2001, p. 69.
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Domenico Gnoli in His First American Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture, 1969, no. 22.
Rome, X Quadriennale, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Aspetti dell'Arte Figurativa Contemporanea, November 1972-May 1973, p. 233, no. 14.
Paris, Galeria Isy Brachot, Domenico Gnoli, September-November 1978, no. 17 (illustrated in color).
Verona, Galleria d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Palazzo Forti, Domenico Gnoli Antologica, November 1982-January 1983, p. 48, no. 30 (illustrated in color).
Hamburg, Thomas Levy, Domenico Gnoli: Bilder - Zeichnungen - Skulpturen - Grafik, May-June 1983, no. 24 (illustrated in color).
Lausanne, Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Rétrospective Domenico Gnoli, 1983.
Spoleto, XXVIII Festival dei Due Mondi, Palazzo Racani-Arroni, Domenico Gnoli, June-July 1985, pp. 82-83, no. 21 (illustrated in color).
Milan, Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea, Domenico Gnoli - Disegno e Pittura, September-November 1985, p. 82, no. 21 (illustrated in color).
Paris and Brussels, Galeria Isy Brachot, Domenico Gnoli 1933-1970, November 1986-April 1987, n.p. (illustrated in color).
Saint Paul de Vence, Fondation Maeght, Domenico Gnoli, May-June 1987, pp. 80-81, no. 39 (illustrated in color).
Mallorca, Fundación Yannick y Ben Jakober, "SA NOSTRA": Domenico Gnoli: Pintures Escultures Dibuixos Gravats Esbossos, July-September 1997, pp. 47 and 179, pl. 18 (illustrated in color).

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Joanna Szymkowiak
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Lot Essay

Included in Domenico Gnoli’s first ever American exhibition, which garnered much critical acclaim at the Sidney Janis Gallery, Purple Bust (1969) is one of several major canvases the artist painted between 1968 and 1969 in the idyllic locale of S’Estaca, Mallorca. In preparation for what would be the last exhibition before his untimely death a year later, Gnoli worked tirelessly to create a dazzling array of texturally rich and visually captivating works that surely represent the apex of his energetic but tragically short career. An enticingly sumptuous composition, Purple Bust is a stand-out example of the artist’s knack for rendering the everyday as something alien, surreal, and bordering on the abstract. Often employing close focus and immaculate brushwork learned from the study of Renaissance artists, and resembling the eerie stillness present in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, Gnoli’s canvases nevertheless reveal depth in the common object and beauty in the fleeting texture. “My themes come from the present,” Gnoli explained, “from familiar situations, from daily life; because I never intervene actively against the object; I feel the magic of its presence” (D. Gnoli, extracts from an interview with J. Daval, Journal de Genève, 1968). Though sometimes corralled into discussions of Pop Art and Surrealism alike, Gnoli proved to be neither, and pushed toward a strikingly individual mixture of nostalgia and the commonplace.

Filling almost the entirety of a nearly five feet square canvas, a woman’s voluptuous torso strains at the seams of her dress. Rendered in a deep maroon, the fabric is form-fitting but seems thick and lustrous to the touch. The addition of sand to the canvas helps to further enhance this visual allure. Focused in on the breasts and abdomen of the female figure, Gnoli goes to great lengths to make sure the garment takes over the work. Though the covering is taut across the figure’s chest, it is decidedly less than sexual, reveling instead in its formal and tactile qualities. The hands are tucked behind the back, and the model’s neckline is barely visible at the top of the composition as a small patch of tan skin peeks through. At other points around the canvas, a steely blue-gray can be seen as it shines through the pockets between the shoulders and the frame, the torso and the arms, and the hips and the edge of the picture plane. This extreme magnification and central presentation of the subject is typical of Gnoli’s later work, and helps to enforce the existential queries so present in his paintings. By bringing attention to the texture of fabric, the fullness of the flesh beneath it, and evacuating the scene of all sense of the individual, Gnoli lets the viewer more fully enter the work on an intimate level. He noted about this interest in extreme views and extended looking, “You begin looking at things, and they look just fine, as normal as ever; but then you look for a while longer and your feelings get involved and they begin changing things for you and they go on and on till you don’t see the house any longer, you only see them, I mean your feelings, and that’s why you see this mess” (D. Gnoli, Appunti per un testo incompleto, 1968, quoted in W. Guadagnini, Domenico Gnoli, Milan, 2001, p.13). Each magnified tableau is a study into particular instances in time. Stopping the clock to more furtively study the weave of a fabric, the twist of a knot or the roughness of a bit of masonry (as in Brick Wall [1968]), Gnoli cast his gaze on specific moments and entities that often go overlooked.

The son of an art historian, Gnoli felt that his life as a painter was fate, noting, “I was born knowing that I would be a painter, because my father, an art critic, always presented painting as the only acceptable thing. He pointed me towards classical Italian painting, against which I rebelled soon enough. However, I never lost a Renaissance sense of taste and craft” (D. Gnoli quoted in Y. Vu, Domenico Gnoli a Mallorca 1963-70, Palma 2006, p. 32). This early absorption of European masterworks had a profound effect on the young Gnoli, and his work presents an uneasy balance between the painters of the Quattrocento and more avant-garde art movements like Surrealism and de Chirico’s Pittura Metafisica. By harnessing a deft eye for detail and putting it to the service of his brush, Gnoli was able to create a link between these seemingly disparate schools of thought. At the same time, he actively tied his practice to the consumer culture of the 1960s but was careful to skirt the realm of Pop in favor of a more meditative practice.

Born in Italy, the precocious Gnoli had his first one-man exhibition at the age of seventeen before studying stage design at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. After several years of success in that field, he started living on and off in New York where he worked as an illustrator for magazines. However, unlike other illustrators at the time, Gnoli drew from older artists like William Hogarth and Jacques Callot who employed caricature and exaggerated line work in their compositions. This early predilection for hyperbole figures prominently into works like Purple Bust where the woman’s features have been emphasized to the utmost and have all but taken over the entirety of the picture plane. In the 1960s, Gnoli began to paint almost exclusively, and turned his gaze toward the everyday with an emphasis on patterns and textures found in fabric and ordinary objects. His interest in pedestrian subjects linked the artist’s practice to the burgeoning gestures of Pop Art, but rather than to comment on the commercial nature of the day-to-day, Gnoli siphoned from the vast well of European art movements that favored bold surreality and cerebral musing over socio-economic critique. The artist noted in 1966, “At a time like this, when iconoclastic anti-painting wants to sever all connections with the past, I want to join my work to that ‘non-elegant’ tradition born in Italy in the Quattrocento and recently filtered through the Metaphysical school. It seems that the experience of those who wanted to interpret, deform, decompose and recreate has come to an end, and reality is presented undaunted and intact. The common object, isolated from its usual context, appears as the most disquieting testimony to our solitude, without further recourse to ideologies and certitudes” (D. Gnoli, from his Premio Marzotto catalogue, 1966, reproduced in Emily Braun (ed.), Italian Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1900-1988, Munich and London, 1989, p. 435). Placing the seemingly mundane under intense scrutiny, and actively eschewing the leading trends of Abstract Expressionism and its ilk, Gnoli established an airless, unnerving style similar to predecessors like de Chirico and René Magritte but with a subject matter more rooted in the earthly. By doing so, the artist was able to form a visual link between the European Avant-garde and the later American postmodernists who brought representation and objecthood to the fore.

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