“I don’t know why, but I’m always painting Pompeii and New York”, said Luca Pignatelli. “New York is like a costola of Europe – a rib"
Since 1986, the Italian artist has spent long periods of time in New York City. His Paintings of Gotham focus on its built environment: the artist originally trained as an architect and, in the tradition of somewhat older Italian asrts-architects like Aldo Rossi and Massimo Scolari, he began to paint. Pignatelli attends in particular to New York’s historic structures – a selection that reflects this broad fascination with the past and its contemporary presence. He collects antiques, and his paintings often describe ancient statures to which he gives modern form: Augustus Caesar with a camera, for example, and classical portraits originally in marble that he renders on railway tarpaulin or spray-paints onto worn Persian carpets.
New York features two prominent skyscrapers in the Financial District of Manhattan: the Irving Trust Company Building at 1 Wall Street on the left and the Trump Building (formerly the Manhattan Company Building)at 40 Wall Street on the right.
The two skyscrapers distinguish many of Pignatelli’s works, including a wider vista of the same region that more clearly defines their abstracted forms and locates them next to 70 Pine Street, formerly known as 60 Wall Tower, the Cities Service Building, and the American International Building.These structures helped to define the pre-World II skyline of Lower Manhattan. Completed in 1931, the Irving Trust Company Building, designed by Ralph Thomas Walker, epitomizes Art Deco. The fifty-story-tall, limestone-faced skyscraper evokes the form of a fluted column ad incorporates a series of subtle setback leading to a narrow tower whose faceted corners and channeled bays with pointed tops create the impression of a crystalline crown. The Manhattan Company Building, completed in 1030 and designed by H. Craig Severance with Yasuo Matsui and Shreve & Lamb, boasts French Gothic detailing and distinctive pyramidal roof topped by a spire that reaches 927 feet in the air. It competed during its construction in a battle of heights with the Chrysler Building.
Pignatelli renders this early New York skyline in a moody and romantic visual language. His canvas surface plays a part in his evocation of time passing. The buildings with their different rooflines and fenestrations, are sketchily defined in tones of sepia and black, and their texture becomes that of a coarse grid of warp and weft. Painting the cloudy sky last, Pignatelli let stains of dilute silver paint obscure the building tops and long drips run down their facades.
The City blocks break into dark and abstract forms. This is haunting image-evocative of an old photograph or a damaged painting of a New York cityscape of yesteryear, emerging ghost-like through a scrim of materials.
In the 1980s, when the artist began visiting New York, layered artistic allusions we being pursued by architects and designers in Pignatelli’s Milan, and the Milanese group that calleds itself Memphis identified Postmodernism as a new development in the applied arts. Their revivals shed light on the painter’s thought about the modern presentation of historic forms: “For me, all art is contemporary. Time doesn’t move in a straight line; it moves in a circle”.
1. Jushua Levine, “For Italian Painter Luca Pignatelli, All Art is Contemporary”, W, December 5, 2019: https://www.wmagazine.com/story/luca-pignatelli-home-studio-milan.
2. For the artist, see Danilo Eccher, Luca Pignatelli: Italia (Milan: Charta, 2003); Achille Bonito Oliva et al., Luca Pignatelli, exh. cat., Museo Archeologico Nazionale Napoli (Milan: Mondadori Electa, 2007); Sergio Risaliti, ed., Luca Pignatelli: Senza data, exh. cat., Museo Stefano Bardini (Florence: Forma, 2019)
3. I am grateful to Joseph Ditta, H-YHS Library, for identifying the buildings.
4. Luca Pignatelli, New York, 2011, whereabouts unknown. See http://www.artnet.com/artists/luca-pignatelli/new-york-5EG_OoUJDxbrnu6KsxhEEg2/.
6. Landmarks Preservation Commission: Designation List 269 LP-1936, December 12, 1995: https://s-media.nyc.gov/agencies/lpc/lp/1936.pdf/. See also Christopher Gray “Streetscapes: 40 Wall Street; A Race for the Skies, Lost by a Spire”, New York Times, November 15, 1992.
7. Levine, “For Italian Painter Luca Pignatelli”.