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Milton Gendel Tribute

November 30, 2018
From left: Lindsay Harris, Adachiara Zevi, Maurizio Mochetti, Marella Caracciolo Chia, Barbara Drudi, Peter Benson Miller, and Paola Sartorio (photograph by Federico Tribbioli)
Anna Mathias (center) and family (photograph by Federico Tribbioli)
Nicola Caracciolo and Marella Caracciolo Chia (photograph by Federico Tribbioli)
Adachiara Zevi and Maurizio Mochetti
Speakers discuss Milton Gendel’s life and career (photograph by Federico Tribbioli)
Milton Gendel, “Vegetable Vendor”
Double-page spread of Milton Gendel’s “Burri Makes a Picture,” published in ARTnews in 1954
Peter Benson Miller, Andrew Heiskell Arts Director of the American Academy in Rome (photograph by Federico Tribbioli)
Monica Incisa, “Portrait of Milton Gendel,” 2018, pencil drawing on rag paper, after a photograph by Enrico Petrelli
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By Claudia Trezza.

Friends and colleagues of Milton Gendel paid tribute to this celebrated artist and critic at the American Academy in Rome’s Villa Aurelia for a bittersweet gathering that honored his work and full life during his nearly seventh years in his adopted home. The event, held on November 13 as part of the American Academy in Rome’s Conversations/Conversazioni series, was originally planned as a one hundredth birthday celebration for Gendel, who died in October, but became a remarkable commemoration crystallizing his love of Rome, and the love of Romans for him.

“He really loved being here,” his daughter Anna Mathias said, speaking in Italian. “This was a place where he was very happy as it represented his love for work, his energy, the importance of work for him, and because it was American and he was a proud American.” She added that for an iconoclast like her father, a man “who was his own cultural microclimate,” the Academy made for a fitting home. “The Academy was the perfect place for Milton,” she said. Gendel’s photographic work was twice exhibited at the American Academy, first in 1981 and again in 2011 (for Milton Gendel: Portraits), but his contributions exceeded that as a valued part of the community.

A native New Yorker who studied art history at Columbia University, Gendel surrounded himself with exiled European Surrealists and other artists, including his best friend Robert Motherwell. Gendel’s house on 61 Washington Square, decorated with flamboyant art and papier-mâché, became one of the city’s most sought-after salons, a place where people like Peggy Guggenheim, Arshile Gorky, and André Breton enjoyed “strong cocktails and guacamole,” said Mariella Caracciolo Chia, a writer and friend.

After enlisting in the US Army in World War II, Gendel was stationed in China and sought to return there as a Fulbright fellow. But the politics of the time got in the way, and he and his first wife instead followed the fellowship to Italy, where he had traveled to before the war. He fell in love with the place and made his life and home here, meeting his second wife, Judith Montagu, and living in spectacular Roman palaces, probably the most memorable of which was the Palazzo Pierleoni Caetani on the ancient Tiber Island. Gendel’s home became a destination for British and Italian aristocrats, Hollywood stars, and artists like Toti Scialoja, Alberto Burri, Bruno Zevi, and Alexander Calder. The palazzo even appeared in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 film L’Avventura.

Gendel was a gracious host, but also a tireless professional. As the Rome correspondent for ARTnews, he penned a landmark essay, “Burri Makes a Picture,” in 1954. In an appreciation by Emily Braun, an art historian at Hunter College, which was read at the event, Gendel’s description of a painter as having “made” a painting as opposed to having “painted” a painting was heralded as revolutionary. His criticism has been described as nonideological, driven by a deep curiosity about the world. As the Italian art historian Barbara Drudi said at the event, his language was “simple and clear” as opposed to Italian critics “who used cryptic vocabulary.” She called him a careful observer who “was able to capture the paradoxical and sometimes grotesque side of life.”

Gendel was also a practitioner. The art historian Lindsay Harris said his photography was the work of a “humanist.” His picture of a Sicilian child selling vegetables off a donkey cart conveyed, she said, an intimate familiarity with the struggles of the human condition, “even though he has barely lived long enough to have experienced those conditions himself.” About seventy thousand negatives of Gendel’s work, much of it infused with a sense of comedy, are now conserved by the Fondazione Primoli in Rome.

It became clear at the event that he left more than that behind. As his third wife and widow, the artist Monica Incisa, listened to the appreciations, speaker after speaker attested to Gendel’s virtue beyond his success as an artist, critic, and feature of the Roman art scene. He was a “singular” character, a true cultural ambassador and good friend. As Peter Benson Miller, the Andrew Heiskell Arts Director at the Academy, said in his opening remarks, “I was struck tonight by how many friends—people—Milton touched, received, advised, made laugh.” Or, as Braun remembered, “his eyes never stopped twinkling.”