‘[Schifano] lay his colour on the canvas without worrying about uniformity and precision, even maintaining drippings, gestural expression and traces of dirt to point out that this was in any case painting… He was like Rothko too: he countered contemplation with vitalism, and the achievement of purity with the anxiety of erratic and restless experimentation’
Non misterioso (‘Not mysterious’) is one of Mario Schifano’s Monocromi, the breakthrough series that not only established his reputation as one of the most important artists of 1960s Italy, but also helped redefine the role of painting in the post-war era. Resolutely abstract and yet insistently painterly in their construction, Schifano’s Monochromes are steeped in contemporary life; a vital, vibrant and blatant demonstration of the power of paint in the post-war years. Painted in 1961, a formative year in Schifano’s career, Non misterioso was originally owned by Plinio De Martiis’s Galleria La Tartaruga in Rome, where Schifano’s first one-man show was held the same year.
At the time that Schifano painted Non misterioso, representation and by extension the medium of painting was regarded as decidedly retrograde, shunned due to its traditional and mimetic connotations as abstraction reigned supreme. Schifano recognised however that painting could be repositioned to stand at the forefront of the avant-garde. With a playful irreverence, Schifano took the tools and the inherent concept of painting – to create a readable image – and repurposed these to create works that purposefully blur the boundaries between painting, object and image. Indeed, the single, luminous colour that floods the canvases of the present work recalls Henri Matisse’s seminal L’Atelier rouge of 1911, a work which, when it entered the MoMA’s collection in 1949, served as a critical influence on the young New York painters, inspiring the immersive, monochrome colour-field painting of Rothko and all-over technique of Pollock, among many others.
Schifano’s expressive use of enamel paint in works like Non misterioso was groundbreaking in the early 1960s. He applied the slick industrial paint onto brown parcel paper, which was then affixed onto canvas. Gone are the authorless, flat monochrome surfaces that his colleagues were creating, and in their place remain surfaces rich with texture and reflections. This use of industrial supplies and techniques revitalised contemporary Italian painting, predating the emergence of Arte Povera, a movement that was based upon the use of non-artistic materials, in 1967. By using these unorthodox materials and laying bare the processes of artistic production, Schifano demystified abstract painting, removing the aura and mystique that characterises the large-scale colour field painting of Schifano’s contemporaries, and instead steeping his abstractions with life. It is this concept that is perhaps alluded to in the title of the present work: Non misterioso.