“Ten years ago things were different: I took photos all the time. Not anymore, now I just watch.”
– Mario Schifano
At one point during the 1970s, Mario Schifano had televisions going in every room of his home, as well as in his studio. It helped him work. For the Italian painter and filmmaker, TV was not only the lens through which his generation had come to see the world, but ripe material for his own art. From the blank screens evoked by his early monochrome paintings to his close-cropped compositions of brand names, the physical structure of television—its essential TV-ness—had a clear aesthetic influence. But of all his postmodern works, perhaps nothing captures the omnipresent glow in a dark apartment, the sense of a world mediated through and populated by screens, better than the 1970s series Paesaggi TV (TV Landscapes). These works, first exhibited in Milan in 1970 by the gallerist Giorgio Marconi, will return to view this September as part of his son Gió Marconi’s presentation at Independent 20th Century.
For an artist who cultivated a rock star persona and a circle of celebrity friends, it made sense, this fascination with TV. Born in 1934 in Libya, Schifano came of age in the Rome of the late 1950s, a time when the postwar dollars of the Marshall Plan were glazing into the charmed ennui of La Dolce Vita. A member of the Piazza del Popolo school, he responded to the changing urban landscape with stenciled paintings of Coca-Cola and Esso logos, works that aligned him with the experiments of American Pop artists across the ocean. Schifano showed first with Ileana Sonnabend in Paris, then Sidney Janis in New York, where in 1963 he linked up with Frank O’Hara, Jasper Johns, and his American counterpart Andy Warhol.
A hard partier, Schifano struggled with drug addiction (which landed him in prison on several occasions), and dated Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull, who left Mick Jagger for him. The Rolling Stones wrote the 1969 song “Monkey Man” about him. Though the drugs would haunt him, Schifano remained prolific, both through his painting career and by nurturing an experimental filmmaking practice. In 1970, he traveled across the United States, visiting NASA and the Pentagon for a sci-fi film he was preparing, Human Lab. The film was never made, its content deemed too un-American for its producers, and Schifano returned to Rome, frustrated, and turned on the television.
At the time, Italy’s public national broadcaster had two TV channels: Rai 1 and Rai 2. If Italian cinema had provided a sense of national identity to previous generations, television in the early 70s ushered the country into the world of consumer capitalism. It was a totalizing, yet atomizing force, stretching to document the napalming of Vietnam, while shrinking to the beam of light connecting each individual couch to cathode-ray set.
Schifano’s TV Landscapes convey this estrangement, while anticipating that it was here to stay. Merging photography, painting, and sculpture, these works possess the eerily luminous presence of a television left on in the other room—or, in Schifano’s case, rooms. To create them, Schifano photographed his television set, then printed the broadcasted image onto canvas. The stills were quickly painted in lurid shades of enamel and aniline, an industrial dye, and then encased in Perspex.
The resulting selection of freeze frames is gloriously, decadently democratic. Stills from old movies appear alongside footage of political rallies, as well as history or travel documentaries. Seeing them one after the other, each rimmed with the thick black border of the set itself, evokes a feeling of struggling to stay awake late at night, eyelids slowly closing, as storylines dissolve and the images blur into something more universal. Spliced together, the works form the televised world. Note that they are called landscapes.
Rather than simply replicating flat images from the screen on canvas, Schifano gave the works a pronounced objecthood, using plexiglass as a wrap-around packaging device that fits over the paintings. The TV Landscapes freeze time and reify the televised image—blurred, cropped, garish—pulling it out into the space of the room. And while these paintings do not exactly simulate the hulking vacuum-tubed TV sets of their day, they do bear an uncanny resemblance to today’s wall-mounted flatscreens. In those early years of the ascendance of screen culture, Schifano seemed to recognize that the technology would soon supplant our private lives and memories with the massification of experience.
It is fitting that one of contemporary art’s earliest celebrities would foreshadow the parabolic rise of images, as well as the devices made for their dissemination. And while Warhol apparently patented the logic of the social media age—15 minutes of fame and all that—Schifano can claim its architecture, be it wall-mounted or hand-held. Through Schifano’s legacy, an interest in both the imagery and materiality of Pop has filtered down to younger generations of artists, from Wade Guyton and Seth Price to Alex Da Corte, and will only become more important as image culture increasingly dominates the physical landscape.
Hunter Braithwaite is a writer, editor, and consultant based in New York. He was the founding editor of Affidavit and the Miami Rail, and has written about art for numerous publications, including Artforum, BOMB, Modern Painters, The Paris Review Daily, and The White Review. He received his MFA in fiction from New York University.