The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

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FEB 2022 Issue
In Memoriam

A Tribute to Carlo Maria Mariani

Edited by David Ebony

Carlo Maria Mariani at the British Museum, London, 1998. Photo: Carol Lane Mariani.
Carlo Maria Mariani at the British Museum, London, 1998. Photo: Carol Lane Mariani.

David Ebony

The Italian-born artist best known for his refined, Renaissance technique and neoclassical imagery, and widely regarded as a forerunner of Postmodernism in painting of the 1980s, Carlo Maria Mariani died in New York on November 19 of complications due to multiple myeloma. He was 90. A central figure in Rome’s avant-garde in the 1970s, engaged with Conceptual art and performative pieces, Mariani achieved an international reputation beginning in the early 1980s for arcane and often controversial paintings steeped in allusions to historical works by Renaissance artists including Leonardo, Raphael, and Dürer, as well as modernists such as Picasso, Calder, Brancusi, and particularly Duchamp. These allusions were frequently joined in the same composition. Mariani employed his formidable academic skills in painting and drawing to create classical heads and archetypal figures, androgynous beings with idealized features, typically inspired by ancient Greco-Roman painting and sculpture.

Mariani regarded these schematic forms as symbols of beauty in constant conflict with the harsh realities of contemporary life. The figures often float freely in an infinite space that the artist referred to as a “cosmic realm” inspired in part by the ethereal fields of color in paintings by Mark Rothko, one of his favorites. Despite the retro technique, mythological subjects, and the archaic appearance of his compositions, Mariani always maintained that his work had little to do with nostalgia, and instead, constituted a rather acerbic, running commentary on the present day. He was a dear friend, and a close collaborator on two monographs I wrote about his work.

Among Mariani’s best-known pieces are large-scale works featuring portraits of influential art world figures such as Costellazione del Leone (Constellation of Leo) (1981) now in the collection of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome. This canvas depicts with nearly photographic precision a number of prominent members of the Italian avant-garde of the 1980s, including artists Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia, and Luigi Ontani, curators Italo Mussa, Achille Bonito Oliva, and dealers Gian Enzo Sperone and Mario Diacono, all gathered around the artist in an imaginative symposium on Mount Parnassus.

Carlo Maria Mariani,<em> Constellation of Leo</em>, 1980-81. Courtesy Mariani Studio/
Carlo Maria Mariani, Constellation of Leo, 1980-81. Courtesy Mariani Studio/

Mariani was born in the Trastévere district of Rome in 1931, at the same time his older brother—also named Carlo and seven years his senior—succumbed to a fatal attack of meningitis. Under the circumstances, growing up as an only child, the future artist was acutely aware of the fleetingness of life; in later efforts he aimed to convey through art a feeling of melancholy in contemplating the infinite universe. A formative childhood memory was watching a neighbor, an art restorer, repair a period copy of Caravaggio’s Medusa. The image haunted him and would eventually reappear in a number of his mature works. In the 1950s, he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, where he absorbed the lessons of Titian and Rubens, and was especially attracted to the work of Tintoretto and Modigliani. Early efforts corresponded to the Metaphysical school of Italian painting exemplified by Giorgio Morandi and Carlo Carrá. Mariani also immersed himself in literature, focusing on Goethe, Baudelaire, Kierkegaard, and Carl Gustav Jung. The devastation and suffering wrought by World War II, and particularly the destruction of a number of buildings in Rome by US-led bombing raids, also made an indelible impact on the young artist.

Carlo Maria Mariani in his studio, 2017. Photo: David Ebony.
Carlo Maria Mariani in his studio, 2017. Photo: David Ebony.

Soon after graduating from the Academy, Mariani met his first wife, a Danish artist studying in Rome, and went with her to Denmark where he lived for two years. During that time he held a solo show at the Gallery Admiralgade in Copenhagen in 1958. During the 1960s, back in Rome, Mariani supported himself by designing and executing mosaics, mostly prestigious commissions from the Catholic church. Mariani did not consider himself particularly religious, although he appreciated the pageantry of Catholic rites. He always felt more intellectually attracted to the Greco-Roman pantheon, its myths and rituals. Returning to painting in the early 1970s, he adopted a form of refined figuration with Pop art elements. Subsequently, in the mid ’70s, he worked on a series of large-scale paintings of fragments of the body that garnered significant attention within the Italian avant-garde. These hyperrealist renderings in oil were associated with the nascent photorealist movement, although Mariani never used photo projections or other techniques favored by practitioners of the genre. During this period, he wrote several books of poetry (as yet unpublished), which he illustrated with delicate rubbings taken from works of ancient art.

As his work began to garner attention in Europe during the mid-1970s, Mariani took a deep dive into art-historical research, which led to his fascination with the then-neglected field of neoclassical art, and connections among 18th and 19th-century artists, including Anton Raphael Mengs and Angelica Kauffmann, and writers, such as the Brontë sisters. Rather than copy their works, Mariani adopted these artists’ techniques and incorporated them into a unique, contemporary vision. As a kind of forensic scientist of art history, Mariani would create, or re-create, from surviving written descriptions, works by these artists and others that had been lost to the ravages of time.

Mariani’s technical prowess, as well as his ability to reimagine the past, at times confounded his critics, as well as some avant-garde colleagues who felt that the artist engaged in a reactionary form of anachronistic painting that disavowed, or at least discounted, the revolutionary tenets of modernism. Mariani, however, always insisted that his work was a conceptual endeavor whose aim was to further the cause of painting, to elevate the radical nature of art, and the endless, multifarious possibilities of art-historical research.

By the 1980s, Mariani caused a stir with his complex—and disturbing to some—monumental figurative compositions, each of which constituted a stunning conflation of old-master technique and novel, esoteric imagery that demands to be read as a contemporary allegory. In addition, in the 1980s, he began to espouse the notion that the goal of art today, including his own, should offer an alternative or an antidote to mass media, and counter the nullifying, if not demeaning effects of the combination of technology and entertainment that seems to define contemporary culture.

In 1986 Mariani met Carol Lane, an American art director living in Rome, who had worked for photographer Richard Avedon. She would eventually become Mariani’s curator and advisor. The couple married in 1990, and while maintaining a home in Italy, they gradually relocated to New York City and Bridgehampton, New York.

Carlo Maria Mariani, <em>Water Music</em>, 2007. Courtesy Mariani Studio/
Carlo Maria Mariani, Water Music, 2007. Courtesy Mariani Studio/

The 1990s were a time of honors for Mariani, as he represented Italy for the third time at the Venice Biennale, in 1990. And in 1998, he received the prestigious Antonio Feltrinelli Award for lifetime achievement in painting. In the US, with limited skills in English, Mariani welcomed a kind of relative isolation, a reprieve from the limelight and art world fray that often distracted him from his work. Over the next decades he developed a singular visual vocabulary, and a unique worldview, in a wide range of paintings, drawings, and prints. As he once told me, “I try to invent a world I can enter in order to escape reality, if only while I am painting or drawing.”

Mariani’s work has been the subject of several major museum exhibitions, including a touring retrospective, Utopia Now!, which debuted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1992 and traveled to the Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt in Germany. A career survey appeared at the Frye Art Museum, Seattle, in 1999, and a retrospective was held at the Center for Italian Contemporary Art, Foligno, Italy, in 2013. His work has been featured in numerous international exhibitions, including Documenta, the Venice Biennale, and the São Paulo Bienal. He has held numerous solo gallery exhibitions around the world. In the US, he showed with Michael Kohn Gallery, Santa Monica; Hackett-Freedman, San Francisco; Riva Yares and Gerald Peters, Santa Fe; and in New York, Sperone Westwater, Hirschl & Adler Modern, Associated American Artists, and most recently, at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art. Mariani’s works are held in major public and private collections throughout the world, including the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Frye Museum, Seattle; the Kansas City Museum of Contemporary Art; the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands; and numerous art institutions in Italy.

In autumn, 2021, the catalogue raisonné of Mariani’s paintings was published by Allemandi. Carlo Maria Mariani is survived by his wife Carol Lane Mariani, and two children from a previous marriage.

Sandro Chia

Dear Carlo,

Thank you for all the years you have dedicated to your work, with so much grace, passion, kindness, and wisdom.

Thank you for having existed, and thank you for always being so generous with me.

Your stature and your work are indelible in art history. 

A dear salutation to you my friend,
Sandro Chia

Carter Ratcliff

Writing about the paintings of Carlo Maria Mariani, in 1982, I argued that he deployed neoclassical clarity and the long-familiar iconography of ancient myth to exert control over style and meaning. He was, I said, an authoritarian standing against the flourishes of ambiguity, the hints of chaos, that billowed through the hectic carnival called “The Return to the Figure.” Now I see his paintings as endlessly ambiguous—mysterious, even, though Mariani provides no clues to the solution of the mysteries he presents. The grandest of these jumps out at you: what on earth does it mean to paint so brilliantly in a style that was not just obsolete when the painter embraced it in the 1980s but a defense, in its own time, against the disruptions of the new? An adequate answer to this question would require a survey of painting since the time of Raphael. For now, I’ll say only that Mariani’s art was not calming but disruptive in ways many in his audience—including me—simply didn’t get.

Skin is flawlessly smooth in neoclassical painting. In the neoclassicism Mariani reinvented with magisterial wit, skin is hyper-smooth. His figures’ surfaces have the glow of unimaginably delicate porcelain. Yet their bodies do not look fragile. The painter gives them the graceful solidity we see in the gods and goddesses Canova carved from marble. Mythology, a lithograph from 1986, shows one of Mariani’s elegantly muscled male nudes hip deep in a gently agitated sea. This, it seems, is the Mediterranean. With his left arm, the figure holds a large globe against his body. With his right hand, he balances the head of a larger-than-life statue on his shoulder. Cued by the print’s title, we could see in this fragment of an ancient Greek or Roman artwork a symbol of all the myths we bear from one moment to the next—a body of meaning that is surely more than enough for a lifetime. But whose lifetime? That of the individual, yes, but also that of the West. Mariani invokes the classical era, the Renaissance, the stylistic revivals of early modern times, and the culture of the avant-garde, as well, for he expanded his Greco-Roman repertory to include images borrowed from Duchamp and Picasso. Duchamp’s bottle rack joins with his other found objects to prompt a last, tentative thought: what if, for Mariani, neoclassicism was not an inheritance in the usual sense of the word but a found style, a tantalizingly intangible readymade?

Carlo Maria Mariani, <em>The City 6</em>, 2002. Courtesy Mariani Studio/
Carlo Maria Mariani, The City 6, 2002. Courtesy Mariani Studio/

Donald Kuspit

Carlo Maria Mariani is a new old master or, if one wishes, a Neo-Traditionalist, that is, a painter who has mastered the skills of the old masters and pays homage, with nostalgic regard and mournful tenderness, to what Baudelaire called “the great tradition,” with its “idealization of ancient life.” It thrived in the Renaissance; many of Mariani’s paintings read as a kind of homage to such “high art,” a term that has gone out of fashion in a society flooded with “low art.” I spoke with Carlo many times over the years; we enjoyed each other’s company as we discussed the state of art, and the meaning of his art.

Mariani’s last self-portrait, Vision (Self-Portrait) (2019), reads as a metaphor for the situation of a new old master painter. The artist appears trapped in the cage of Duchamp’s Bottle Rack (1914), an object manufactured and found rather than imagined and created. It is empty at the core—whatever feelings and ideas one fills it with, art (even as-if art) as well as nature abhorring a vacuum, quickly run out of it, for it is not a container. Mariani presents himself here as a victim of a Dada joke, not to say a malicious jokester.

It was “necessary to put an end to idealism” in art, Breton wrote in support of Duchamp’s nihilism—so-called avant-gardism—but Mariani shows that art can still be idealistic—should be idealistic if it is to do humanity any good. Barnett Newman said “the impulse of modern art was this desire to destroy beauty,” but Mariani shows that beauty cannot be destroyed. He shows that it is still possible to make beautiful, idealistic art—art that celebrates the good rather than is ironically bad, art that is sacred rather than profanes life—and with that, to return art to its roots, which is why his art will live despite his death.    

Fabio Belloni

Carlo Maria Mariani,  <em>Mythology</em>, 1986. Courtesy Mariani Studio/
Carlo Maria Mariani, Mythology, 1986. Courtesy Mariani Studio/

I first encountered Carlo Maria Mariani’s work at his solo exhibition in Milan at Studio d'Arte Cannaviello in 1996, when I was a young student. The artist presented about 20 small-format works in which figures of neoclassical inspiration were associated with motifs taken from Picasso, Brancusi, or Calder. My attraction was deep. I was fascinated by the great technical ability, but also by the desire to generate a temporal short-circuit between ancient and modern. Each painting told a story, a sort of allegory that needed to be interpreted. To understand these paintings, it was necessary to know not only art-historical works, but also earlier works by this painter. As I would later understand, Mariani practiced a profound sort of self-citation within his oeuvre. At the time, Mariani was a painter who already had a long career. He was over 60 years old and had been living in New York for a few years. Even though he had had great success in past decades, by the mid-1990s there was not much talk about him in Italy. From that moment, I began to learn more about his work, looking through the few books and catalogues on Mariani that I could find. I thus learned about his beginnings in the 1960s, his “hyperrealist” phase, and then the research and conceptual works in the 1970s, preceding the “Postmodern” paintings of the 1980s, when Mariani really came into his own.

I met Mariani sometime later in Rome, and visited his studio in New York several times, always with his wife Carol Lane. Each time I was impressed by his elegant figure. He was not very talkative, and was perhaps a little shy. At each meeting he reiterated to me his deep attraction for the past, but not in simple nostalgic terms that the rest of us might have. It was as if Mariani were fascinated by past lives, and in this regard, I remember he told me about the great enthusiasm he had for the books on Madame Blavatsky and esotericism that he read in his youth. A few years ago, in 2019, in an exhibition curated by Daniela Lancioni at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, I saw Mariani’s La costellazione del leone (Constellation of Leo) (1981) alongside its preparatory drawing. This is a monumental, ambitious work, perfectly emblematic of its time. This was the moment that marked Mariani’s return to painting and figuration after so many years of technical and conceptual experimentation. In front of that painting, I asked myself why there has not yet been a Mariani survey of his 60 years of work. With his cultured and provocative paintings, Carlo Maria Mariani has long since entered the art history books. Now is the time for a major museum exhibition in Italy and the United States to acknowledge the importance of his work.

Raphael Rubinstein

Carlo Maria Mariani, <em>The Hand Submits to the Intellect</em>, 1983. Courtesy Mariani Studio/
Carlo Maria Mariani, The Hand Submits to the Intellect, 1983. Courtesy Mariani Studio/

I remember being puzzled by Carlo Maria Mariani’s paintings when I first encountered them in the early 1980s, initially as reproductions in the pages of art magazines—especially Flash Art, at the time the best source for Americans curious about new art from Europe—and then in solo exhibitions at Sperone Westwater and in group exhibitions such as the massive, and massively controversial, An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture at MoMA in 1984. Actually, “puzzled” is too mild a word: “dumbfounded” or even “shocked” are closer to what I felt. Still a few years away from taking my first steps as an art critic, I was in a phase of self-education about contemporary art, which meant, more often than not, trying to make sense of the return of figurative and representational painting in the work of artists such as Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente, and a cohort of German Neo-Expressionist painters of varying degrees of interest. Mariani’s work arrived on the same waves as this work, and, like it, seemed to laugh at the taboo against figurative painting, or, indeed, any kind of painting that had recently been in place in advanced galleries and art schools. But from the beginning there was something about Mariani’s approach that set him apart, that made his work distinctive and unassimilable.

His embrace of a neoclassical style—both in his painterly technique and his allegorical compositions—was so blatantly and unapologetically anachronistic and so faultlessly executed that it was difficult at first to discern its relationship to contemporary life. Trying to comprehend how and why an artist would devote himself so thoroughly to neoclassicism in the 1980s made one realize the relativity and contingency of all styles. Yet this was not simply a project of retreat from the present. Then, as throughout his career, Mariani delighted in slipping anachronisms (i.e., 20th-century motifs) into his anachronist paintings so that the work seemed to undermine its own premises. More often than not, these modern details derived from art itself (for instance, a Calder mobile or Duchamp’s urinal). And, of course, Mariani loved to portray other contemporary artists, most famously in group portraits like Constellazione del Leone (Constellation of Leo) of 1981, where he cast the leading figures of the Italian art world as denizens of an 18th-century Rome, itself fixated on classical Rome. A double fantasy, or maybe a triple one. An extravagant tribute, or possibly a subtle satire. As always with Mariani, who I finally had the great pleasure to meet when he invited me to contribute an essay to the catalogue for his 1999 exhibition at the Frye Art Museum, there’s plenty for the viewer to unpack. How sad that there will be no more such layered allegories from his hand, but, ars longa, the paintings he did make remain.

Carlo Maria Mariani, <em>Vision (Self-Portrait)</em>, 2019. Courtesy Mariani Studio/
Carlo Maria Mariani, Vision (Self-Portrait), 2019. Courtesy Mariani Studio/

Audrey Flack

I feel strongly about Carlo Maria Mariani’s work. In these days of internet information, I get images from hundreds of galleries throughout the world and since I’m interested in what’s going on, I look at almost all of them. However, things were different in days of old when galleries sent their brochures through the postal mail. I would receive dozens of postcard-sized announcements of exhibitions with images of the artist’s work and invitations to openings printed on them, which most of us attended. 

Some 20 to 30 years ago, maybe more, I received one of these announcements for an artist I didn’t know. It was for an exhibition by Carlo Maria Mariani. It resonated with me, and I have saved that announcement to this day. I knew then as I know now, that this is a terrific artist whose work is unique, impressive, and beautiful.

His technique is exquisite. It may appear to be academic, but it goes way deeper than that. He is not just interested in surface, and God knows his work is not boring. His ideas and references to mythological characters, combined with his own iconographic additions, which personify his views of art, go far beyond academicism. Revisiting Carlo’s work on the occasion of his passing also makes me realize that perhaps it’s time to take another look at the best qualities of academic art. Above all, Carlo’s paintings capture the highest spirit of art with resonate beauty. 

He was a kind and gentle man whose company I enjoyed. He embodied the process of slow art, which is particularly valuable in these high-speed days of instant gratification. And I believe this attention and dedication to his craft will make his work important for generations to come. 

Clayton Calvert

Carlo Maria Mariani, <em>Giant Head (Ermetico)</em>, 1997. Courtesy Mariani Studio/
Carlo Maria Mariani, Giant Head (Ermetico), 1997. Courtesy Mariani Studio/

Carlo Maria Mariani is one of the most influential people in my life. I was 24 when we first met in January 2012. When I began working with him and Carol Lane Mariani, his curator and spouse, none of us knew just how close we would become, but there was a sense of kindred spirits from the very beginning. Carlo lived a life dedicated to art, and he was very generous in bestowing his vast technical knowledge as well as art historical expertise on others. He was even willing to share his painting techniques and process with me. He spent his life creating art that, as he put it, was “fuori dal tempo,” translated as “outside of time.” Carlo usually had a unique anecdote or interesting thought to share when speaking about Caravaggio, Raphael, Duchamp, David, or any artist he admired for that matter. He had strong opinions about art and he loved looking at it. 

Carlo seemed destined to be an artist. His unparalleled knowledge of antiquity, the Renaissance, and the Baroque came from growing up in Rome with unique access and contacts that enabled him to learn as much as possible about the vast trove of art there. His father was a writer who secured access for him to draw in the Vatican Museums as a young child and his mother came from a family with several artists in past generations. Carlo shared so many things about Rome with me. He always told tales with a grin and to know him was to hear many obscure anecdotes with frequency and enthusiasm. We enjoyed meals at La Campana, his favorite restaurant in Rome, and one night after a meal there he showed me where Caravaggio used to live all the while telling some little-known stories about the Italian painter. We once visited Galleria Borghese together on the last day of their landmark Bernini exhibition in 2018. Hearing him talk about the works in the show and the museum was one of the best art experiences of my life. It even snowed in Rome on that trip and my brother Parker captured a photo that day which Carlo kept in his studio. 

Carlo’s love for Rome was perpetual but he also enjoyed being in New York City. His art was profoundly impacted by his time here. Carlo was grateful to be in such a contemporary setting and he had many favorite places. I think Carlo loved the diversity of NYC, in addition to the incredible art and architecture, and of course the cuisine. He loved the Guggenheim, the Met, the Whitney, the MoMA, and the Frick. He enjoyed dim sum in Chinatown, kasha knishes from Murray’s, desserts from Boulud, and The Leopard when craving authentic Italian. He became a New Yorker with Carol’s help. Carlo Maria Mariani enriched the lives of everyone he encountered and his contribution to art is profound. Perhaps he can best be remembered in his own words “Io sono l’opus,” translated as “I am the work.”

Carlo Maria Mariani, <em>Monument to Poetry</em>, 1999. Courtesy Mariani Studio/
Carlo Maria Mariani, Monument to Poetry, 1999. Courtesy Mariani Studio/

Marcia E. Vetrocq

I can’t claim to have known Carlo well, but much of what I initially thought about his art came to be revised and enriched by the evenings I was fortunate to spend with him at the apartment he shared with Carol Lane, his wife. Carlo was always cordial yet reserved, a gracious host, even though a trace of melancholy suffused his gentle reserve. His disinclination to learn English was the verbal equivalent of a cloak of invisibility; it insulated him from the pressure of New York’s art world, just as spending most of each year in New York shielded him from Italy’s. On each of those evenings, a moment would arrive to enter the studio to see his latest works, the highlight being a new painting on the easel. I knew a fair amount about 20th-century Italian art, and, with Carlo’s tolerance for my rusty Italian, we’d manage a brief but happy exchange. When it was time to return to socializing in the living room, he left the studio with evident reluctance.

Carlo’s art was dismissed by some critics who discounted his superlative painting skill and detected empty erudition in his art-historical citations. Yet for a painter born in Rome in 1931 and trained at that city’s Accademia di Belle Arti, the marvel was the extent to which Carlo seemed fortified—not burdened—by art history, and the fact that he felt no need to forfeit virtuosity in exchange for being considered contemporary. I came to understand that his work was more political than I had thought and, in its cultivation of paradox, more darkly humorous, too. I recalled Robert Rosenblum alerting us to the coexistence in neoclassicism of reason and horror, beauty and the grotesque. Centuries of art history coexist in Carlo’s art, with its nods to Raphael, Mengs, Canova, Picasso, Magritte, and more. Carlo also joined Pistoletto and Paolini in decontextualizing classical sculpture and claiming it for his own purposes. One painting by Carlo presents a line of little wooden Pinocchios goose-stepping across the back of an Ingresque nude: infantile fantasies and dreams of ideal beauty both find a home in fascism. In his self-portrait titled Vision, Carlo appears with his shoulders and head inserted inside Duchamp’s Bottle Rack. The metal device is coming apart, leaving him momentarily encircled by fragments that resemble a crown of thorns, a medical immobilization frame, and celebratory ribbons. To be a painter is a paradoxical thing.

© Marcia E. Vetrocq 2021

Carlo Maria Mariani, <em>The Awakening</em>, 1973. Courtesy Mariani Studio/
Carlo Maria Mariani, The Awakening, 1973. Courtesy Mariani Studio/

Dan Cameron

I can’t deny that Carlo Maria Mariani’s work confused me almost from the moment I first laid eyes on it. It was a three-step reaction that will likely be familiar to most viewers seeing his work for the first time: dazzled by his technique, followed by puzzlement over his philosophical point of view, and ending with questions along the lines of “What’s this work all about, anyway?” While he paid genuine tribute to painting from the Italian Renaissance and Baroque, he was clearly transfixed early in his career by Conceptual art and Arte Povera, as evidenced by his early 1970s work in those genres, along with the 1973 painting The Awakening, which could easily be confused with work made by a more hardcore conceptualist like his contemporary Giulio Paolini. Mariani also appears to have had a near-obsession with Marcel Duchamp, which, even from a 21st century perspective, isn’t entirely unreasonable.

Carlo Maria Mariani, <em>It is only a Question of the Eye</em>, 1995. Courtesy Mariani Studio/
Carlo Maria Mariani, It is only a Question of the Eye, 1995. Courtesy Mariani Studio/

Since first meeting Carlo and writing about his work in the early 1990s, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to wonder if in fact he wasn’t at heart a brilliant but essentially conservative artist, perhaps with a reactionary streak that deepened, as happens, over time. It’s still hard to say—with his 1981 tour de force canvas, Constellation of Leo, he gave us a sly depiction of the Italian art world’s most influential critics, Germano Celant and Achille Bonito Oliva, surrounded by some of the artists they had brought to international fame, with the painting’s author presiding at the center. Based on an 18th-century painting by the neoclassicist Raphael Mengs, Mariani’s implied send-up of the scene he was depicting, if indeed it was a parody, remains relatively benign compared to how the gatekeepers of the critical establishment in American art responded at the time to Pop and Minimalism. Many years later, Mariani would update the scene in his massive A Flight of Doves (2012–16) by depicting gallerists and critics who were especially sympathetic to his work during his lifetime.

Mariani’s recent passing has nudged me to reconsider how, for instance, an Italian artist steeped in the history of his medium might understand art’s seemingly radical transformations during the second half of the 20th century and perceive a continuity, or at least plurality, while the style wars that gripped so much American discourse were predicated on a kind of zero-sum game, wherein the mantle of civilization itself could only be shouldered by those who either embraced or rejected the avant-garde’s perennial campaign for innovation. In Italy, by contrast, it often appears that those who dedicate their entire lives to art share a common bond that transcends the limits of style, particularly in the wake of post-modernity’s dissolving of past antagonisms into a stew of interchangeable sources to appropriate. In the end, Mariani was still a conceptualist at heart, as well as an unabashed romantic in terms of how he built a gleefully contrarian platform for the deeply humanist impulses that drove his artistic production.

Daniela Lancioni

I remember Carlo Maria Mariani’s gaze, which was both lively and gentle. His eyes sparkled but were never agitated or restlessness. They alighted calmly, on things and on people. I met him when I first began studying the art of Rome in the 1970s. Patiently, and in great detail, Mariani described his production from that time. He shared with me the journeys into the unknown he had taken, guided by theosophy, but most of all, in my view at least, by his innate confidence in his own ability to perceive time. For Mariani, time was relative, circular or linear; but it could never be separated by history, which renders it an inherently human affair. This perception of time links people and things, heedless of ideology or faith, and was in no way abstract, which I believe Mariani summoned all of his senses to evoke.

At Enzo Cannaviello’s gallery in Rome, in 1973, the large format canvases by Mariani featured in the exhibition “Iper / ri / cognizione 1” alluded to both hearing and sight with the imposing details of his facial features. In these sad times after his passing, I turn the pages of Mariani’s precious catalogue raisonnéof, edited by Emanuela Termine, which has just been published. In it I see again the beautiful images of the paintings from that show. Two works feature a closeup detail of his eyes. In one they are closed, the subject having given way to sleep in order to open himself up to his dreams. In the other, the eyes are open, looking out at us, treasured images to feed our dreams.

In the work, I see Mariani’s gaze, undimmed by time. It is a gaze capable of seeing details and similarities, of intercepting the clue to unravel a story, of recognising metamorphoses and repetitions. It is with such a gaze that, still today, Mariani converses with Anton Raphael Mengs and Anton von Maron, or presides in Olympian splendour among the aesthetical deities in Costellazione del Leone (Constellation of Leo), 1981. A hint of a smile attests to the revelation having taken place. Indeed, Mariani understands the secret of time.

Emanuela Termine

I will always remember Carlo Maria Mariani as a very kind, distinguished man of rare elegance and discretion. Nonetheless, he was animated by a very strong dedication and a sharp consciousness. Both his deep thinking and his irony were expressed by images, through his art mastery. He didn't like to talk much about his artworks, maybe a kind of shyness restrained him from using too many words in order to explain them. I think he wanted to protect them. On the other hand, Carlo was extremely respectful of those who wrote about his art, and he always acknowledged the importance of art critics. I am grateful to Carlo for having trusted me, and to let me curate the catalogue raisonné of his paintings. I was a young researcher when Mary Angela Schroth introduced me to him and his wife Carol Lane in Rome in 2013, on the occasion of a group exhibition curated by Daniela Lancioni at Palazzo delle Esposizioni. I fondly remember our last meeting in Rome in a trattoria where Carlo was used to spend time as a young artist, with his friends and colleagues. During that dinner we found out we were born on the same day, and we toasted to that strange coincidence as a good luck sign for our collaboration.

Carlo Maria Mariani also represents for me the soul of an old time Rome, where refined and popular vibes, classicism and modernity were melted together. I pictured a young Carlo exploring those Roman paths, looking for the trails of artists and masterpieces, between art workshops and dusty archives, between the Villa Medici and Raffaello's Farnesina. Whoever experienced Rome knows that classical antiquity is not lost, yet continuously present, running as an underground river, hidden but alive.

In his masterpiece The Constellation of Leo (1981), Carlo portrays himself pointing at an image he's showing as a manifesto, a program or a declaration. It's the Medusa Rondanini, with which Goethe fell in love and talked about in his letters, finding it impossible to describe its beauty. In the memories of Carlo's childhood there is also a Medusa, a copy from Caravaggio he probably saw in the workshop of Mario Cellini in Trastevere, where he lived with his parents. Carlo's relationship with antiquity (and maybe with contemporary life as well) was something like that: philological and psychic at the same time. In his own words: “Io non sono un pittore, io non sono l’artista, io sono l’opus (“I am not a painter, I am not the artist, I am the work”).

Francis M. Naumann

Carlo Maria Mariani and I met in 2007. Over the following 12 years, we collaborated on a number of successful exhibitions at my gallery, until it closed in 2019. We were introduced by my former professor of art history, Robert Pincus-Witten, who knew the artist personally and had written about his work. Mariani was looking for a gallery in New York to show his drawings, and I jumped at the opportunity. Since nearly every artist I represented derived most of their inspiration from the history of art, Mariani’s work could not have been more appropriate. My own training as an art historian began with the art of the Italian Renaissance, and eventually evolved into a study of Dadaism. Mariani fused aspects of both artistic movements flawlessly into his paintings, so I could not wait to meet him.

He and Carol Lane, his wife and curator, walked into the gallery and, although I had a rough idea of what Carlo looked like from photographs of him that I had seen, I did not expect to witness the embodiment of Raphael and Duchamp, which I found him to be. He was quiet, kind, soft-spoken and, from what I could tell, extremely modest. I had seen his work reproduced in countless magazines since the 1980s, and I vividly recalled his Costellazione del Leone (Constellation of Leo), a monumental, nearly 15-foot-wide painting that was always on display in the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome.

Carlo Maria Mariani, <em>A Flight of Doves</em>, 2017. Courtesy Mariani Studio/
Carlo Maria Mariani, A Flight of Doves, 2017. Courtesy Mariani Studio/

After seeing his drawings, I immediately scheduled a show and catalogue, for which Pincus-Witten graciously wrote the introductory text. The single most memorable exhibition for me was his display of an exceptionally large drawing on canvas, A Flight of Doves (2012–16), a monumental, nearly eight-foot-wide composition that portrayed individuals in the international art world who were influential forces in his work over the course of the prior 40 years. Just before the painting went on display, Carlo asked me to install a wooden prayer bench before it, inviting viewers to kneel as they contemplated the saints and sinners of the art world.

Carlo used to tell me that I understood his work like no other art dealer, but I think he said that because I recognized not only its technical proficiency—which virtually everyone who saw it openly acknowledged—but I also appreciated its underlying conceptual elements, which often traced their origin to Marcel Duchamp, an artist whom we both held in exceptionally high regard. Carlo’s last series of paintings were homages to Duchamp and Raphael, artists from history who influenced him more than any others. He will be remembered as a painter who utilized techniques derived from the Italian High Renaissance to create some of the most engaging conceptual pictures of the modern era, in that sense, a true uomo universale.

Francine Tint

I knew Carlo for a long time, 36 years. He was the High Renaissance Raphael of the contemporary world, as well as a beautiful man, and a brilliant cook. I will remember his delicious pasta, good humor, sweet soul, and good taste. We couldn’t ask for more. We admired and respected each other as artists and friends. We spoke different languages though, in speech as well as in art. I’m on the abstract art side, and he focused on innovative and imaginary representation. I work in large scale, dealing with colors and space. He worked both large and small. Carlo’s meticulous proficiency in neoclassical painting, together with his visionary imagination, placed his work between invention and mimesis, in search of a greater balance between shape and color within the composition as a whole.

One can’t know Carlo without knowing Carol, his wife and curator. Carlo and Carol never missed one of my exhibitions. I never missed any of his. I remember Carlo’s solo show at Sperone Westwater gallery in 1984. That was the very moment I was caught by Carlo Maria Mariani’s way of depicting the inexplicable. He was exceptionally deft at interweaving ambiguity with irony, combining dreams of classical imagery with a contemporary sensibility. Having known Carlo for a long time, I can tell that his art was the precise projection of his deep personality: meticulous and humorous. He never missed a thing.

Despite our different interests, our mutual understanding was based on a deep sensitivity, genuine authenticity, and faithfulness in dedicating ourselves to the universal artistic expression.

We are fortunate to have his paintings with us as a reminder of who Carlo was. We are left with Carlo’s spirit embodied: humor, talent, and light.

Gerard McCarthy

Carlo Maria Mariani, <em>Recluse</em>, 2019. Courtesy Mariani Studio/
Carlo Maria Mariani, Recluse, 2019. Courtesy Mariani Studio/

I first met Carlo Maria Mariani 30years ago soon after encountering his extraordinary portraits of famous artists: Sollemnis Caerimonia (Solemn Ceremony) (1986). They were part of a private collection near Philadelphia that I was cataloguing. The portrait subjects stare out at the viewer as vulnerable apparitions, however embellished with togas, wreaths and ermine.  All is transient save for recurring dreams; Mariani has bequeathed us world-class dreams. 

I got to know Carlo, a shy, private artist, after visiting his studio with David Ebony. Later, when I was with him and his wife Carol Lane in Rome, visiting the streets of his early life, Carlo was whimsical in his attachment to his hometown. He was as much bemused as bewildered that the Eternal City survives. It was an honor for me to be present at the Feltrinelli Award ceremony in Rome in 1998. This prestigious prize acknowledged Carlo’s importance for Italian culture. In a grand palazzo the stiff guards sprouting red plumed tricorne hats had an outlandish presence ripe for the maestro to appropriate as walk-ons in one of his spectacular scenarios. In 2019 the Palazzo delle Esposizione presented selections from significant contemporary art exhibitions held in Rome since the 1950s. The knockout work for me was La Costellazione del Leone (1981) Mariani’s enormous painting featuring many colleagues with whom he investigated aesthetic strategies for the looming Post-modern era.

He finessed the illusionistic pictorial space developed in ancient Rome with painting techniques of the more recent past. Androgynous bodies fashioned in gossamer flesh conjure his imaginary fables. The glistening eyes—inward and outward looking at the same time—and soft chins betray a sentient melancholy in these coldly sculptural young beings. Their pliant engagement with various attributes including useless regalia, forgotten symbolism, and modernist familiars generates a temporal conundrum: the conjunction of the eternal with the inherently obsolescent.

This is not nostalgia but pragmatism as in the way the ancient Romans retrieved ideas from Classical Greece for their own purpose. They also delivered the copies whose white marble bodies generate cyclical events of poetic discovery, sensibility and imitation. And Carlo, steeped in the irony of Rome’s spectral continuity in the face of rupture, knows how to put a marble body to good use: paint it back to life. He had a great sense of humor: at first he laughed at his English, then later he laughed at my Italian. We enjoyed many dinners at my eccentric apartment that Carlo wanted for his painting studio (in the last two years it became my sculpture studio). It made me very happy when he fa scarpetta the bowl of my linguine with spinach and mushrooms (fare scarpetta is to make a little shoe shape with bread to clean up the sauce).

Carlo Maria Mariani in his studio, 2019. Photo: David Ebony.
Carlo Maria Mariani in his studio, 2019. Photo: David Ebony.

The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

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