A pioneer of European Pop art, Mimmo Rotella’s 150 work survey focuses on his early pieces from 1953 – 1964. Works of his contemporaries like Andy Warhol, Piero Manzoni, Cy Twombley and a signature mirrored portrait by Michelangelo Pistoletto add an interesting historical context to the beautifully curated exhibition.
After returning to Rome in 1952 from the American Midwest, where he studied under a Fulbright grant, Rotella experienced what he described as a “Zen moment.” “After two years of crises, it was like an illumination. This would be the new language that I needed to come up with,” he explained in 1954. He was describing his intuition of tearing advertising posters directly from walls, specifically in Rome’s Piazza Popolo area where his studio (and that of many other artists) was located.
Viewing the advertisements in a new urban context, his initial abstract experiments with torn poster collages transmuted to a more recognizable style, featuring movie stars and consumer products. While ripping and layering poster fragments, Rotella deconstructed his canvases to replicate peeling billboards. At the same time, he also experimented with sound poetry, which he stayed actively involved with throughout his long career.
His distinctive vision drew international attention. In 1957, he showed at London’s ICA, followed by participation in a group show in the 1961 Museum of Modern Art’s “The Art of Assemblage” in New York. Working with French artists Pierre Restany, Yves Klein, Arman and Jean Tinguely, he moved to Paris and was part of the “Noveau Realisme” group. He represented Italy in the 33rd Venice Biennale of 1964.
Rotella’s decollages are actual collages, drawn from materials gathered on the streets themselves. By disassociating and dissembling commercial images, Rotella adapted the Dadaist term, “decollage” implying both provocation and a new perception of communication. The “retro d’affiches’” were meant as urban artifacts, actually emphasizing the backs of posters with grainy, glued backs in a limited palette. As the decollages became more realistic, the retros reflected the actual physical surfaces, devoid of literal references.
Rotella continued working until his death in 2006. He translated manipulated posters to plexiglass sculptures and created large scale decollages on sheet metal. Moving back to Milan in the eighties, he remarried and became a familiar and glamorous figure at subsequent Venice Bienalles. He traveled to Cuba where he worked, and designed an iconic Swatch watch in the nineties.
The works presented here share a prescient vision, embracing, examining and manipulating popular cultural iconography. Created more then half a century ago, the masterful show feels surprisingly contemporary. Prolific and passionate, Mimmo Rotella can be viewed as a true anthropological poet.