Bustling with a frantic array of colorful gestures, Porta Portese, suggests the frenzied, yet lyrical beauty of the famous open-air flea market in Rome from which it draws its name. One of the celebrated pioneers of post-war Italian art, Afro's emersion into the New York art world, through his frequent visits to the United States and his invaluable friendships with both its artists and patrons, freed him from the Italian critical debate of his contemporaries. The lyrical, emotive quality of his paintings went beyond the limits of figurative abstract art, outlining a form of painting even closer to American Abstract Expressionism in a spontaneous flow of free, light brushstrokes. While the influence Abstract Expressionism had on the style of his painting set him apart from his Italian counterparts, the support he garnered from his American patrons was an essential factor in gaining artistic recognition. Among his closest supporters were Mr. and Mrs. Schulhof, who adamantly championed Afro's career amid American institutions. Writing to the Schulhof's, Afro expresses his gratitude for their support, "I wanted to tell you both how happy I was when we were together, how much I appreciated and enjoyed your natural and affectionate friendship, and how much I thank you for your cordial hospitality" (Afro in personal correspondence with H. Schulhof, n.d.).
The icy blues, vibrant oranges, pale pinks and strokes of deep navy in Porta Portese offer a continuous stimulus derived from its organic, osmotic flow of color and sign, light and form. An increased sensation of emotion emerges from the center of the composition with chromatic intensity and firm brushwork. Afro's dynamic gestures and overlaid colors create a pictorial universe. As suggested by the titles of his paintings from the 1960s, the works from this period harmoniously combine the dimension of memory with an immediate expressiveness, in which every possible figurative element is filtered and reduced to sign by an urgent inner need. "The development of my lines creates a space that is not different than the depth of memory," Afro explains. "The forms open and they are determined as imprints, dimensions coming from far away. I often think of myself as a painter of stories. If my deeper feelings, my memories, my judgments on matters, my intolerances, and even my errors and fears condense themselves in the course of a line, in the brightness of a tone, I feel that the mystery with which my whole life flows in the painting can be understood differently and allow the images of the painting to resurface as far as the origins of my life" (Afro, quoted in Il Disegno Italiano Moderno e Contemporaneo, exh. cat., San Polo di Reggio Emilia, 2004, p. 5).
Afro's work reveals a highly personal abstraction of memories. Fundamental to his work is the "depth of memory," of which Afro himself speaks of in the catalogue for the 1955 exhibition, New Decade: 22 European Painters and Sculptors at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He explains that every painting reveals "a new space representing the dimension of memory," the "mysterious flow" of existence condensed into pictorial elements: the substance of color, the luminosity of a chromatic tone, the development of a line (Afro, quoted in E. Geuna, Afro, Burri, Fontana, exh. cat., Haunch of Venison, New York, 2012, p. 8). Interpreting the effects of light through a balanced use of color, harmonizing hues and shades, and playing around with the density of his paint, Afro transforms his visions and memories into poetic abstractions, diffused with a spiritual resonance.
While Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana and Afro all matured in the same years and remained close friends, their respective artistic enterprises were all distinctly different. Unlike these close contemporaries who explored abstraction through found materials or slashing gestures, Afro adopted a strictly painterly practice. After traveling to New York in 1950, Afro began developing his own lyrical abstractions in 1952, adding fluid signs, rounded contours, and a brighter palette. That same year he joined the Gruppo degli Otto Pittori Italiani with fellow Italian abstract painter, Emilio Vedova. The group's "abstract-concrete" leanings formed an alternative to the Italian abstraction-realism polarization. After exhibiting together for nearly two years, Afro decided to distance himself from the Otto in a move that coincided with the introduction of an increasingly dynamic gesture in his works. More dramatic and spontaneous, Afro's later works testify to his growing interest in Abstract Expressionism amplified by his friendship with Willem de Kooning, whom Afro frequently visited in New York and who stayed in Afro's studio in Rome in 1959. His art found its closest expressive contact with the American experiences of Abstract Expressionism which, unlike other Italian artists of the same period, he was able to see in person and understood profoundly. This newly expressive alteration in Afro's style attributed largely to a number of honors the artist received in the following years. In 1956 he was awarded the Painting Prize for the best Italian artist at the 28th Venice Biennale, and two years later he won the Guggenheim Prize in New York--an impressive feat for an artist whose works would only mature through the 1960s.
While largely separated from his Italian contemporaries, Afro maintained a clear artistic autonomy: the lyrical, emotive quality of his paintings went beyond the limits of figurative and abstract art, outlining a form of painting ever closer to American Abstract Expressionism in a spontaneous flow of free, light brushstrokes. His poetic abstractions evoke universal memories of time and place. Porta Portese is a stunning example of Afro's finest abstraction, influenced by American tradition, coupled with the rich culture of Italy.