In 1954, the Calabrian artist Mimmo Rotella moved to Rome, and discovered his muse in the city’s post-war, pockmarked streets. “One evening, as I was leaving my studio, I was attracted to the colours and the boldness of the torn posters that were hanging from the walls,” he recalled. “They were living things that stirred strong emotions in me.”
Rotella began to roam the capital, tearing down sheets of paper heralding the talents of Marilyn Monroe, ministers and circus acts. Passers-by were aghast. “Those eyes of theirs define me as part rascal, part vandal and part out of my mind,” he noted. But for the artist, who is the subject of a new book, Mimmo Rotella: Manifesto, this laceration of billboards was a kind of modern excavation, in a city that is one vast archaeological site. At his atelier near Piazza del Popolo, the fragments of posters were glued, layer upon layer, on to canvas, before being ripped, torn and scraped to create “new, unpredictable forms”.
He exhibited his first poster work in 1955, at a group exhibition on a houseboat on the Tiber owned by a Roman entrepreneur called Rodolfo Benedetti, nicknamed “The Eel”. Rotella’s technique was generally a hit with critics, who compared him to “art informel” artists such as Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana. Rotella would spend the next half-century, until his death in 2006, riffing on the potential of posters to convey the mores of Italian society.
Born in 1918, the son of a seamstress in Catanzaro, on the sole of Italy’s boot, Rotella’s arrival in Rome coincided with the golden age of Italian posters. This was the era of Cinecittà (the studio nicknamed “Hollywood on the Tiber”), an influx of American tourists and Italy’s “economic miracle”. Rotella would come to see his compositions as metaphors for the fluctuating fortunes of his country.
“Ripping the posters off walls is the only revenge, the only protest against a society that has lost its enthusiasm for changes and amazing transformations,” he once remarked. “You can make good paintings with ugly posters.” By the Seventies, the images of cowboys and leading ladies and logos for Pan Am and Peroni in his work had given way to Red Brigade propaganda and garish adverts for blue movies.
Rotella described his discovery of posters as a medium as a moment of “Zen illumination”. His early works delivered an abstract chaos of shapes and hues; later, they fixed on figures and typography. He had met the pop art pioneers Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg when they were in Rome in the Fifties, but whereas pop art duplicated consumer imagery, Rotella interfered with it.
His allegiances were closer to Pierre Restany’s nouveau réalisme group of the Sixties, which was fixated on collage and assemblage, but Rotella called his own art of erosion “décollage” – the opposite of collage. When he tired of layering ephemera, he turned the posters around to show their plaster-flaked, mouldy versos. “I liked material subjected to bad weather, I liked being able to take it as it was and showing it. It was a theft of reality,” he said. Later, he made “blanks”, in which he obscured advertisements with bold planes of red, orange and violet.
Rotella’s character was as colourful as his canvases. In the Sixties, he summered in St Tropez, hung out with Yves Klein in Paris and was imprisoned for five months on drugs charges in Rome. At the Chelsea Hotel in New York, he staged “happenings-vérité” in which participants combined transcendental meditation with sexualised yoga positions. The Italian novelist Milena Milani recalled meeting him “in a room full of weapons, where there was the French painter Arman and a half-naked American girl”.
Later that decade, he toured America with his phonetic poetry, releasing two albums in which he delivered words, whistles and howls accompanied by cow bells and typewriters. He then reinvented himself as an avant-garde, bandanna-wearing lothario. Playboy called him the “most erotically advanced” artist in Italy.
Since his death in 2006, this rootless interrogator of consumer culture has become a high-end brand himself. In 2016, one of his monumental décollages – a mash-up of Rock Hudson and Frank Sinatra posters – sold at auction for £1.08 million. Huge crowds descended on a recent Rotella retrospective at La Galleria Nazionale in Rome, where this cultural chameleon was billed as a “Cubodadaistphonoperistalticoverpaintersuperartypo”.
There is a nostalgic pleasure for film buffs and europhiles – the Cinema Paradiso effect – to be had from all the torn glimpses of starlets and matinee idols. But Rotella also takes us on a tour around the edges of several art movements, while maintaining a mode of expression as personal as Pollock’s drip. He simply liked to rip things up a little.
Mimmo Rotella: Manifesto is published by Silvana Editoriale