Grotesque lounging button-eyed faces scowl at viewers from wallpapered canvases, flashing rows of pointed teeth, in Luxembourg & Dayan’s new exhibit on Italian artist Enrico Baj. One can also see mountains standing against patterned textile skies, and pink-skinned humanoid bathers against a rippled, pointillist background in a mutant caricature that pays homage to Georges Seurat’s masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
As eccentric as they are, Baj’s compositions of both medium and subject are remarkably mundane and almost reminiscent of a child’s craft project.
“There is certainly a kind of naïveté in the choice of subject matter, a simplification that’s meant to draw more attention to the materials and how they function,” curator Tamar Margalit said. “It comes at a time when artists are making very abstract art with theory-heavy ideas behind it. Instead of piling up significance, [Baj] strips down everything and focuses on what [he sees].”
Baj is no more conventional than his creations. Although he was born in Milan, Baj fled fascist Italy in 1944 to avoid conscription. He returned to Milan after World War II, publicly embraced anarchism, and became a central figure of the Italian neo-avant garde, a group of experimental and innovative art movements that included Dada and situationism. The exhibit at Luxembourg & Dayan is the first time Baj’s work has been displayed in New York.
“[Baj’s work] feels very relevant to what artists are making now, especially younger artists. He uses a lot of motifs and materials that now artists are increasingly looking at,” Margalit said. “He worked in collaboration with a lot of artists, but he was very idiosyncratic always. He followed his own vision and was true to himself and not necessarily the trend or what was considered the bon temps of the time.”
Central to Baj’s thoughts on art was his refusal to settle for a signature style. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Baj preferred to associate himself with a wide range of art movements, sometimes stitching together styles that at first glance seem diametrically opposed to each other. This defiance of any particular signature style stemmed from Baj’s criticism of the overall commercialization of art.
“Enrico Baj was an artist who kept pushing against the idea of a signature style. He wrote a manifesto in 1957 called ‘Anti-Style’ and he really went against the idea of artists replicating the same gesture over and over again,” Margalit said. “He kept going and going—reinventing himself every time and collaborating with different artists. He really pushed the envelope with what an artist stands for—the variety speaks for itself.”
Notable art movements that influenced Baj include European surrealism and Dada—in particular, Baj collaborated with French surrealists Marcel Duchamp and André Breton. In the 1950s, he worked alongside Asger Jorn, a prominent member of CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam), an international art movement based on situationism. Similar to the Arte Povera (“poor art”) movement that was predominant in Italy at the time, Baj assembled his works from found objects—commonplace, mass-produced commodities. However, Baj always incorporated his own kitsch emblems into his works, unlike the abstract Arte Povera. As a result, some even characterize Baj’s works as an early prototype of pop art.
“[Both Baj and Asger Jorn] worked with the same idea of salvaging paintings from being a commodity. He would buy a painting from a flea market, usually with the appearance of a very commercial product, and he would subvert it with a gesture or a sign [that he would add to the painting],” Margalit said. “He would claim that it was art, which opens up the question of what is art or in what way does art speak to the realm of commodities—the back-and-forth between high art and commodity culture that was the founding principle of CoBrA.”
A good example of Baj’s technique is the series “Modifications,” which comically juxtaposed Baj’s hellish figures with nondescript images of nude women and landscapes.
Margalit cited Baj’s personal preferences for displaying his works as an inspiration for the setup of the exhibit. Curators took full advantage of the gallery’s location—an Upper East Side townhouse—in order to replicate the low ceilings and non-hierarchical arrangements that Baj preferred. Unlike in most contemporary art galleries, dense hangings of artworks crowd the walls so as to further erase any pretensions the exhibit might otherwise connote.
“It wouldn’t be right to show a small number of works in a white pristine cube. … [We wanted to] illustrate how unique his vision is and how total it is. It’s not just about the one artwork but about the context that you give it and the setting—everything is important,” Margalit said.
“Enrico Baj” opened Nov. 5 and runs until Jan. 30, 2016 at Luxembourg & Dayan.