With its rippling waves of gleaming black flowing down the monumental expanse of the picture surface, Domenico Gnoli’s Black Hair is one of the masterpieces that he created at the pinnacle - and end - of his career, only months before his untimely death. In the course of 1969, Gnoli created only twenty-one paintings, yet many of these, including Black Hair, rank amongst his greatest and mostrecognised masterpieces, with a number of them now in international museum collections. Like this picture, they are often characterised by an elegant concision, focussing on one subject, enlarged to the point of abstraction. The streams of black hair that tumble down the canvas recall the abstract works of artists as diverse as Morris Louis and Ad Reinhardt; conversely, they have the magnified intensity of Pop Art; and at the same time, this monumental view of the back of the woman’s head recalls Surrealism, with its twist on the artistic tradition of portraiture. It is an indication of Gnoli’s own esteem of this picture that it featured in his first one-man show in the United States, held at the Sidney Janis Gallery later that year. The exhibition received acclaim, and also resulted in a number of sales. This work was purchased at that time by the legendary Harry Torczyner, a New York-based lawyer who assembled a momentous array of works by a number of artists, including a world-class group of pictures by René Magritte. Janis, who held Gnoli’s show, also represented Magritte and in part because of this knew Torczyner too.
Black Hair, like a handful of other pictures from the period including Central Partition, appears to show the hair of Gnoli’s wife, the sculptress Yannick Vu. The couple had met in 1962 and married a few years later. This adds a profound sense of personal connection to Black Hair. After all, as Gnoli himself declared, ‘My themes come from actuality, familiar situations’ (D. Gnoli, quoted in Domenico Gnoli: Ultimas Obras 1963-1969, exh. cat., Madrid, Fundación Caja de Pensiones, 1990, p. 28). Showing this hair in such intense, reverent detail, on such an immense scale, introduces a heightened sense of proximity and immediacy - and therefore intimacy. This is a picture that springs from a sense of wonder at the landscape of Gnoli’s own everyday universe.
That sense of awe at the poetic power of daily life relates to Magritte’s works, which often took normal objects and treated them as ‘problems’ that required pictorial solutions. Magritte would exploit mysterious juxtapositions or place elements in new contexts in order to point to the inherent absurdity of life, revealing its magic. Gnoli has pared back that process, instead using scale in order to remove any context. The hair takes up almost the entirety of the composition, and thus becomes the sole focus for the viewer, stretching almost two metres. The difference between these approaches is perhaps best exemplified by the comparison between Black Hair and Magritte’s La reproduction interdite of 1937, now in the Museum Boijmans-Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, which shows a man from behind looking into a mirror, where the rear of his head is again impossibly shown. In Black Hair, by contrast, there are no visual twists other than the vivid focus on the magnified head of hair.
From the mid-1960s, Gnoli’s pictures had increasingly looked at the less-celebrated corners of everyday life, be it desks, suitcases, walls, buttons or heads of hair. He often allowed these to swallow the entire surface of his canvases. This practice appears to have derived in part from his experiences as an illustrator for magazines - in publishing, cropping was used often. At first, Gnoli’s own cropping appeared related to extant images, such as those of the Old Masters. Indeed, as early as 1964, he had created Indéfrisable, an image of a head seen from behind which appeared to be based on a work by Masaccio. Gnoli’s visual erudition was extreme: he was the son of an art historian and had therefore grown up surrounded by paintings such as those from the Quattrocento. In the earlier works, he was augmenting and celebrating the incidental details and characters of the Old Masters, granting new stature to those forgotten, faceless figures who are looking away from the viewer in their compositions. At the same time, Gnoli was taking this opportunity to deconstruct the entire nature of portraiture. The figure in Black Hair, like that in Indéfrisable, is almost unidentifiable: it is only the back of the head that is seen, a twist that recalls Magritte, and indeed Gerhard Richter’s 1988 painting Betty. Gnoli is undermining the nature of portraiture, perhaps reflecting the 1967 work of Giulio Paolini, Giovane che guarda Lorenzo Lotto in which he reproduced one of Lotto’s portraits of a young man, highlighting the way that it places the viewer into the place of the artist. Both Paolini and Gnoli were using the Italian canon to look at art through a series of revolutionary reversals.
Looking at Indéfrisable and Black Hair, one can see the difference that emerged over the intervening years in Gnoli’s pictures, not least in terms of finish: by 1969, he had abandoned the matte palette which was so reminiscent of the frescoes of the Italian artists of earlier eras in favour of the more gleaming, textural, almost brilliantined vinyl-like hair shown cascading down the canvas. In this way, Gnoli appeared to be referring not to the vanished realm of the Old Masters, but instead to the pulsing world of the late 1960s. This change extended deeper, as Gnoli looked at the art of his contemporaries: in art historical terms, the palette of his earlier paintings can be seen to have been influenced by Old Masters and also by Pittura Metafisica. There was a sense of timelessness to those earlier pictures which was accentuated by the composition: the heads were shown in their entirety, often with shoulders. Now, the zoom was more extreme: in Black Hair, Gnoli has extracted a more abstract quality from his subject matter.
The rivulets of black hair which run down the canvas have been rendered with painstaking care, as is exemplified by the loose strands shown to either side, highlighted against the backdrop. And yet they perfectly echo the flow of paint down the canvases of Morris Louis. In this way, Gnoli has used the subject matter of human hair, which is emphatically figurative, in order to echo the works of the abstract avant garde artists on the other side of the Atlantic. In Black Hair, the streams of black that run down the canvas are subtly variegated in a manner that seems to a playful parody of Ad Reinhardt’s black-on-black canvases. Like Reinhardt’s celebrated monochrome works, Gnoli’s painting is dominated by black, yet the flashes of light reflected in the hair and the upper corners both provide visual relief, ensuring that the viewer is aware of the nature and subject presented. Indeed, the dominance of the black and of the hair is deliberately overpowering, allowing Gnoli to express his own sense of wonder at the sheer beauty of this overlooked element of his wife’s appearance.
The connection between Black Hair and American Abstraction is all the more pertinent because this appears to be one of the pictures that Gnoli created for his show at Janis’ gallery in New York. Originally scheduled for earlier in 1969, the exhibition had to be pushed back so that Janis could secure loans of some of Gnoli’s older works. This gave the artist a reprieve: he was able to work in a frenzy of creativity at his home, S’Estaca, in Mallorca, creating a string of masterpieces including Black Hair which now stand not only as some of his best-known works, but also a fitting testimony to his career, which was cut short by his early death the following year.
It is only too fitting that Black Hair was owned by Harry Torczyner. A Belgian-born polyglot, Torczyner became a lawyer, working in New York with astonishing success, having earlier worked in the Office of War Information. One day, heading out to buy a sewing machine, Torczyner returned instead having spent the money on a painting by Amedée Ozenfant. This marked the beginning of an illustrious career of surrounding himself with visually arresting and intriguing art that reached a new pinnacle when he struck up a friendship with Magritte. Over the years of their acquaintance, he would come to acquire a large number of Magritte’s works, including many of the best, as was fitting for someone who knew the artist well enough to edit a monograph on him. That book, Magritte: Ideas and Images, comprised various writings by Magritte himself, accompanied by illustrations, allowing the viewer to consider the artist’s works and words without the intermediary of an art historian. Among Torczyner’s works by Magritte was one, Le tombeau des lutteurs of 1960, which showed a gigantic rose filling a room; this concept, inspired by American abstraction, would find an intriguing resonance in Black Hair, which he acquired shortly after the Janis exhibition. A great friend and confidante of many artists, Torczyner’s home and office also contained works by a diverse range of artists including works by Francis Bacon, Lucio Fontana, Paul Klee, George Segal and Mark Tobey alongside those by Gnoli.