Milton Gendel at New York’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò

April 17, 2014
Monina von Opel
AAR President Mark Robbins
Curators Peter Benson Miller and Barbara Drudi
Baronessa Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimo and Mark Robbins
Ara Merjian and Stefano Albertini
Marica Sawin, Irving Sandler and Barbara Drudi
Andrea Blanch and Mirella Petteni Haggiag
AAR President Mark Robbins and Melba Ruffo di Calabria
Anna Mathias
Peter Benson Miller and Kara Vander Weg, Gagosian Gallery Director
Justin Dorazio and his family with a photo of his father Piero Dorazio
Peter Benson Miller and Peter Barbarie
Patricia Cronin and Deborah Kass
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A native New Yorker and an adopted Italian, Milton Gendel’s life and work represent over sixty years of in-depth cultural dialogue between his two homelands. Yet it was only in 2011 that the American Academy in Rome and Museo Carlo Bilotti mounted the first complete career retrospective in dual exhibitions that visually traced his steps through life in New York, military service in China and his Italian dolce vita. A selection of his photographs, taken in Italy and elsewhere, now form the basis of a new show at New York University’s Casa Italiana, which understands his photography in light of his Surrealist influences, his writings on contemporary art, and his role as an important catalyst in the cultural dialogue between Italy and the United States. The exhibition, curated by Andrew Heiskell Arts Director Peter Benson Miller and Barbara Drudi, opened last Friday and runs until May 23rd.

Stefano Albertini, Director of Casa Italiana, initiated evening events by welcoming the capacity crowd and introducing Academy President and CEO, Mark Robbins, FAAR’97, who remarked on the successful collaboration between the two institutions. President Robbins briefly told the story of the exhibition and that of Milton Gendel, who has been a long-time friend of the American Academy. He then extended the Academy’s thanks to Madeline Weinrib and Melos International for supporting the New York show and Mirella Haggiag for tireless support of the original 2011 Rome retrospective. Assistant Professor of Italian and Art History at NYU Ara Merjian introduced Peter Benson Miller to provide context for the show. He explained that while Milton Gendel was an “accidental photographer” who never received professional training, he had an innate talent for photographic composition. Miller was then joined by Merjian, author of Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School (1997) Marica Sawin, Professor of Art History at SUNY Purchase Irving Sandler, and co-curator Barbara Drudi for a roundtable discussion. Also in attendance were Baronessa Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimo, Founder of the Casa Italiana and Peter Barbarie, curator of photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Milton Gendel’s daughter, Anna Mathias, extended her father’s greetings and thanks to everyone in attendance before guests perused the gallery and drank to Milton Gendel’s health during the opening reception. 

It might well be impossible to understand Gendel’s profound cultural impact without considering his complex biography. In his myriad lives as photographer, art critic, writer and collector, Gendel became a cross-cultural conduit of artistic experience. He lived at the center of artistic circles first in New York City among the exiled Surrealists, then later among the literati of postwar Rome. Coming to Italy as a Fulbright scholar in 1949, he translated Bruno Zevi’s Saper vedere l’architettura into English, and a job offer as an assistant to Adriano Olivetti allowed him to stay on living the Italian economic miracle. In 1954 Gendel began a long career as the Rome correspondent for ArtNews, in which he published influential articles about Alberto Burri and Toti Scialoja. In 1957 he helped Frances McCann open the Rome-New York Art Foundation on the Isola Tiberina where shows featured the work of artists like Franz Kline, Lucio Fontana, and Jackson Pollock.

Gendel’s images are infused with that sense of the “marvelous” that his circle of exiled friends, including André Breton, Roberto Matta Echaurren and Max Ernst, brought with them to New York. Among his New York friends he counted Alexander Calder, whose impromptu sketches of Gendel on the soles of his plaster-covered shoes appear on the cover of the exhibition brochure in the self-portrait Triple Mug Shot (2006). That merger of dream and reality, a fusion of absurdity and gravity, that Breton dubbed surreality, characterizes a lifetime of his photographs. If Gendel is known for the portraits he took of famous friends, including Queen Elizabeth II, J.Paul Getty and Salvador Dali, it is the same privilege of intimacy that afforded him magical views of Roman happenings, shop windows, and palazzo interiors.

In his reflective self-portraits Gendel also captures the personal realities of a life that imitated art and an art that imitated life in the best tradition of the avant-garde. Here Gendel presents a complex image of himself peeking out from behind a camera and through Calder’s portraits, reflecting on his manifold identity as a critic, collector and creator of art. In Self-Portrait on the Via Appia Antica (1950) Gendel photographed his shadow cast across a grassy field with ruins on the horizon. Here he offers up an image of art itself, positioned between the metaphorical shadow of history and the shadow of the living artist cast onto an empty field of possibility. In many ways the photograph is a prophetic articulation of the bridge that Milton Gendel became, uniting the Eternal City and the City that Never Sleeps in the pursuit of art.