For a long time I’ve wondered why the paintings of Valerio Adami aren’t better appreciated in the U.S. His excursions into history, especially the tragic history of 20th century Europe, are as subtle and probing as those of Kitaj (though markedly less emotional); his distinctive use of flat color, which he has been employing since the mid-1960s, brilliantly marries the color printing of Hergé’s Tintin books and medieval stained-glass; the stylized eroticism of his sinuous line and his eye for the fetish object is every bit as seductive as John Wesley’s, and often much grittier, especially in the early work; he is incomparable in his deployment of writing as a visual motif; his paintings feature densely layered, thought provoking allusions to European culture, from Classical mythology to notable writers, thinkers and composers of the modern era.
Perhaps the density of cultural allusions in Adami’s paintings—often presented with extreme fragmentation—has been an obstacle for some viewers, who find his works too imbued with a certain European refinement, a refinement that finds embodiment in the smooth tapering black lines that slice through his planes of bold color. Take, for example, Finlandia, an acrylic painting from 1987 of a man and woman embracing in the stern of a wooden boat that a third figure appears to be launching onto a vast body of milky water. Adami has recounted in an interview how in the 1950s he was a passionate reader of Adorno’s essays on music and how he attempted to apply aspects of 12-tone composition to his art. Then, during a stay in Finland in the mid-1980s he began to listen to Sibelius, whose music Adorno famously detested. Having fallen in love with Sibelius’s Finlandia, Adami felt compelled to create his work as, he says, “a sort of mea culpa.”
Other Adami paintings are equally dense with historical references, from his early 1970s series of rebus-like paintings about Freud to more recent works on the theme of melancholy. But he has also created paintings that pointedly turn from the realm of high culture to its supposed opposite. I am thinking, in particular, of his 1960s paintings of distorted figures in public toilets, hotel rooms and other seedy loci of sexual assignations. Often based on photos he took during visits to London and New York, paintings such as Gli omosessuali—Privacy (1966) and Hotel Chelsea Bathroom (1968) are like Pop versions of Francis Bacon’s meaty psychodramas or illustrations of scenes from the writings of William S. Burroughs.
Born in Italy (in 1935) and working for most of his career in Paris, Adami was initially associated in the 1960s with “la Figuration Narrative.” Although he has always been better known in the U.S. than most of the other Pop-inspired Paris painters of the 1960s, he has still suffered from New York’s longstanding rejection of European Pop. (Maybe other parts of the country are less caught up in old biases: last winter there was a small Adami survey at the Boca Raton Museum of Art.) Adami is probably best known here not for his art but for Jacques Derrida’s 1975 essay on his work (reprinted in Derrida’s book The Truth in Painting that features an Adami drawing on its cover). Many well-known authors have written eloquently about Adami’s work (including Italo Calvino, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Hubert Damisch and Jean-Luc Nancy), but Derrida’s punning, grapheme-obsessed approach is particularly well-suited to the subject, especially when engaging the mise-en-abyme confusions sparked by Adami’s drawing of some pages from one of Derrida’s own notebooks.
Among the many pleasures and provocations offered by Adami’s stylish excavations of the European unconscious is his distinctive handling of drawing and color. To close, a few words from Derrida’s essay (translated by Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod): “Because the gush of color is held back, it mobilizes more violence, potentializes the double energy: first the full encircling ring, the black line, incisive, definitive, then the flood of broad chromatic scales in a wash of color.”