Wax Poetic

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The New York Sun

The Center for Italian Modern Art, operating a new space in SoHo, has mounted a must-see exhibition of works by Medardo Rosso (1858-1928). This small yet invaluable exhibit illuminates the creative process of a sculptor who has been among the most elusive of late-nineteenth century artists, known for just a few wax-covered plaster busts.

Rosso began his career as a stone carver in Milan. At 23 he entered the Brera Academy and by 1884 he was in Paris, where he befriended Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Rosso maintained a studio in Paris, traveled back to Italy and exhibited in New York. During the early 20th century he was admired by Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) and the Italian Futurists, who identified with his representations of forms moving through space and time. Today he is a peripheral figure; the exhibit demonstrates why he ought not be quickly dismissed.

Rosso’s signature wax-covered pieces keep details to a minimum, giving the softly modeled figures an air of mystery. The Center for Italian Modern Art has included examples of these sculptures, but also displays Rosso’s drawings as well as his photography.

Photography was integral to his studio practice. Rosso took pictures of his sculptures, exploring variations in lighting conditions and point of view. He also took remarkably experimental photos of his drawings; he freely cropped his photos, cutting pictures up, collaging them together, making photomontages from his composites. Rosso snapped pictures of his small drawings, enlarging the photos and exhibiting his blow-ups.

In later life, much of Rosso’s work was in revising earlier sculptural projects by changing their material and exploring various casting techniques. This exhibit shows Rosso’s sculptures in series, pieces realized in bronze, painted plaster and wax.

“Enfant malade (Sick Child),” 1889, in wax, and “Bambino Malato (Sick Child),” circa 1908, in plaster, are variations on a theme. In these works the angled, delicate face of a sick boy is modeled with restraint. The excitement is in the difference between the two versions. The plaster bust is boldly modeled, planes and direct light creating clarity of form in space. In Rosso’s wax version, light is absorbed into the sculpture, connecting the form with the space around it, a sculpture that is at once solid and atmospheric.

Rosso’s luminous sculpture of a laughing woman, “Rieuse (Laughing Woman),” 1902, is just a fragment of a face. But rather than seeming incomplete, the piece implies the complete figure. Not a fragment of a whole, but a fragment revealing the whole. The gallery says this wax-on-plaster “mask” was “inspired by the enigmatic smiles of the women in Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings.”

Though a number of Rosso’s most ambitious sculpture projects were destroyed, the Center for Italian Modern Art is displaying life-size reproductions of Rosso’s photographs of these works.

“Paris, la Nuit: Impression de Boulevard,” circa 1898, is a monumental sculpture of contemporary life. Rosso kept the details hazy in this ambitious piece to convey blurred motion and moving light. Depicting a group of people walking down a street, the space surrounding and moving through the figures unifies the sculpture. Rosso emphasizes this further in his cropped and re-photographed pictures that focus on the large areas of space between his figures.

Rosso’s drawings are the highpoint of this exhibition. Small figure studies, sketches of horses and landscape drawings are rendered with an aggressive line that moves roughly in and out, over, through, around and between forms.

Casual works on torn bits of paper, the drawings in this show are reminiscent of the seemingly offhand sketches of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). Like Bonard, Rosso’s drawings stay open, flexible, protean in their ability to change and reinvent themselves.

The exhibition itself is unusual. Appointments to visit the gallery must be scheduled in advance and tours are led by the Center’s research fellows. After, visitors are permitted to roam the exhibit on their own.

It will be interesting to see how the exhibition program develops. A show of works by Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) is coming this fall. The artwork of under-recognized Italian figurative sculptors, Arturo Martini (1889-1947) or Marino Marini (1901-1980 ), would provides fertile territory for more illuminating exhibits. The Center for Italian Modern Art does a great service by bringing Rosso’s work to New York with this eye-opening display. Visitors are left hoping for more to come.

Medardo Rosso, on view through June 27, 2015, The Center for Italian Modern Art, 421 Broome Street, 4th floor, New York, NY, 646-370-3596, www.italianmodernart.org

(Exhibition tours are available Fridays and Saturdays by appointment only at 11:00am, 1:00pm, and 3:00pm. In case extra incentive is needed, tours begin with an espresso from sponsor Lavazza. $10 admission, free with student ID.)

More information about Simon Carr’s work can be found at www.simoncarrstudio.com

The New York Sun

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