This work is registered in the Archivio Mario Schifano, Rome, under no. 00653070929.
Living and working in Rome in sixties, Mario Schifano led a colourful life as a painter, filmmaker and rock musician whose work reflected the contemporary urban environment and cultural shifts in post-war Italy. Like the work of Jannis Kounellis, with whom he exhibited regularly during this period, Schifano was interested in borrowing signs and language to integrate the graphic elements of everyday life into his painting, deconstructing words as conveyors of meaning to announce a new poetry of modern living. Fully aware that the language of advertising trades in loaded symbols, Schifano specifically targeted internationally recognized logos of American corporations, inevitably politicizing his art and leading to his association with the Pop art movement.
Created in the year of his exposure at the landmark Pop exhibition The New Realists at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, Schifano's Particolare del disegno di energia bianco combines the reductivist look of minimalist abstraction with hurried, expressive brushwork that creates a whitewashed ghost of the original red, white and blue logo. As a commercial sign, the Esso logo is usually glimpsed in passing, barely grabbing our attention, but the present painted typeface becomes an image that demands to be studied. Separated from its functional purpose as the promotional tool for a service, the emblem is raised to the status of an aesthetic object, instantly subject to judgments about its appearance and meaning. Unlike the crisp manufactured road signs that can be found on every highway, Schifano's insignia bears all the painterly hallmarks of a handmade object. Amalgamating the personalised singularity of high art with the commonplace materials and messages of mass production, the pasted segments of brown paper over the canvas leave a rough surface that prefaces the ephemeral and commonplace materials that would be adopted by the Arte Povera movement in Italy. Painted as if viewed through a moving car window or beamed through a cathode ray tube, the logo is fragmented but remains instantly recognisable, an indicator of the saturating power of commercial branding.
Although the Esso brand's widespread familiarity may render it a generic symbol of big business, in a broader social context, the emblem is unforgettably entwined with the dominance American businesses held over oil distribution in the mid 20th century. Schifano's choice of logo can be seen to represent the American monopoly controlling worldwide oil supply and distribution at this time. With the ever-increasing demand for fuel during the post-war economic boom, the Italian government threw itself into political wranglings to gain greater and fairer controls over these resources, with several high-profile politicians involved in the cause dying in suspicious circumstances in 1962. The Pop leanings evident in Schifano's Particolare del disegno di energia bianco were not only a direct challenge to the prevailing modes of art concerned with the introverted outpourings of the soul, but a street-smart acknowledgement of the politics of consumerism. In the hands of an Italian artist, the insignia of the American conglomerate becomes an allegory for the commercial might and global dissemination of the super-power's culture.