Born on September 20, 1934 in Libya, where his father worked as an archaeologist, Mario Schifano settled in Rome in 1941 and then spent most of his life there. Without ever having completed middle school, he began working as an assistant restorer at the National Museum of Etruscan Art in Rome and approach drawing and painting as a self-taught. Thanks to the closeness of intellectuals such as Emilio Villa and Mario Diacono, he was able to exhibit his first works, cements on canvas. Soon after, he got for himself a seat among the city's main artists of the time - Franco Angeli, Tano Festa, Francesco Lo Savio and Giuseppe Uncini - and the painters of the generation just before, from Piero Dorazio to Toti Scialoja, from Achille Perilli to Mimmo Rotella.
In 1960, he began to work only with painting: he soon developed a technique of his own, which involved the application of very bright industrial enamels on sheets of paper previously glued to the canvas. His monochromes were exhibited in Rome between 1960 and 1961 in important galleries such as La Salita and La Tartaruga, and attracted the attention of the American gallerist Ileana Sonnabend, who put him under contract and also gave him the great opportunity to exhibit his own work at the New York exhibition The New Realists, held in the spaces of the Sidney Janis Gallery in October 1962. On that occasion Schifano - who did not travel and did not see the exhibition in person - exhibited one of the first works from his well-known Grande particolare di propaganda series, with which the artist left behind the season of monochromes, approaching instead figurative subjects. Specifically, this series isolated a detail of the Coca-Cola logo and reproduced it enlarged, painted with very rich, runny enamels that intentionally allowed glimpses of the inaccuracies of the sheets glued to the canvas.
The inclusion of the artist in that exhibition favoured the American reception of Schifano as a Pop or new-Dada artist. Interestingly, the works of the Propaganda series, contemporary for example to the analogous paintings on the Esso logos, were elaborated in total independence from the coeval works by Andy Warhol on the same Coca-Cola theme.
The beginning of this new "figurative" path also coincided with the separation from the gallery owner Sonnabend and the closeness to the Roman Gallery Odyssia. In December 1963 Schifano made his first trip to New York. In the six months spent there with his fiancée Anita Pallenberg, Schifano had the opportunity to see the works of artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Larry Rivers and Jim Dine. In April 1964 he also held his first solo exhibition in the New York branch of the Odyssia Gallery. Relationships with buyers and other artists, however, were probably more difficult than expected (and in this the fairly turbulent breakup with Ileana Sonnabend did not help - on this entire early season, see Gastaldon 2015 and Gastaldon 2021). Nonetheless, Schifano was fortunate enough to meet (and, for a time, to live only one floor away from) poet, critic, and MoMA curator Frank O'Hara, who introduced him and Pallenberg to the city's underground scene, jazz music, and the poets of the New York School. During that spring, Schifano and O'Hara also collaborated on a series of sheets, drawn by the former and with texts by the latter, that were later brought and exhibited in Italy (De Bei, Ronchi 2017; Framing Words&Drawings... 2021).
At the end of May, the American trip ended and Schifano returned to Europe: the participation in the Venetian Biennial of 1964 confirmed his success, which was consolidated in the following two years thanks to important exhibitions in Rome and thanks to the collaboration with the gallerist Giò Marconi. Increasingly known throughout Italy, Schifano became a fundamental point of reference for the Roman cultural scene and was a friend of the most important artists, writers and intellectuals of the time - from Alberto Moravia to Giuseppe Ungaretti, from Sandro Penna to Renato Guttuso and Goffredo Parise (Facing America, New York 2021). In the meantime, at the beginning of 1965, a second, less documented trip took him back to the United States together with his friend Tano Festa. Probably disappointed by the lack of contacts, however, Schifano returned across the Atlantic only once more, in 1970: on that occasion, the artist also reached Washington D.C. and California. We have a few photographs of this trip, which were to serve for a film that was however never shot.
In the second half of the sixties Schifano not only completed some of his best-known works - a few of which very explicitly express his closeness to the circles of the extra-parliamentary left - but also decided to combine painting with works with other media. Initially he devoted himself to photography and cinema, as a director, and then to a long work with moving images and television. Also at the end of the sixties he had the opportunity to meet and work with the Rolling Stones, who dedicated to him their song Monkey Man (1969).
In the seventies, eighties and nineties Schifano spent most of his time in Rome, where he never stopped painting or selling his works - and his success, indeed, never knew a crisis. The friendships, adventures, loves and works of those years have been well told by the friends who knew him personally, whose memories now form an important artist biography (Ronchi 2012).
Schifano died in Rome on January 26, 1998.
Poet, Writer, Translator
Writer, journalist, playwright, poet
Soft Drink - Coca Cola Company
De Bei, Ronchi 2017: Monica De Bei e Luca Ronchi. Words & Drawings. Frank O'Hara Mario Schifano. Roma: Archivio Mario Schifano, 2017.
Gastaldon 2015: Giorgia Gastaldon, Ileana Sonnabend e Mario Schifano: un epistolario (1962-1963), «Storia dell’arte», n. 140, gennaio-aprile 2015, pp. 148-176.
Gastaldon, Giorgia. Schifano. Comunque qualcos’altro 1958-1964, Roma 2021.
Guzzetti, Franceso (eds.). Facing America 2021: Facing America. Mario Schifano 1960-1965, catalogo di mostra (New York, Center for Italian Modern Art, Jan. 24-Nov. 13 2021), New York 2021.
Framing Words&Drawings… 2021: Framing Words&Drawings. Mario Schifano, Frank O’Hara, and Poet-Painter Collaborations around 1964, registrazione delle giornate di studi (New York, Center for Italian Modern Art, 17 giugno-1 luglio 2021), disponibili al link: https://vimeo.com/italianmodernart.
Ronchi, Ronchi (eds.), Mario Schifano. Una biografia, Monza 2008.