The Inner Life of Dreamscapes


45 Greene Street Offers Rare Chance to View Six Decades of Gian Berto Vanni

It is a thrilling yet perplexing treat to discover an artist’s comprehensive oeuvre that for no particular reason, other than a lack of public exposure, has remained relatively unknown.

The work of the Italian artist Gian Berto Vanni is such a case. During a conversation with the artist on the eve of his current retrospective at 45 Greene Street, he stressed that avoiding the New York gallery system was a conscious choice based on several bad experiences, such as his work getting lost, and belated payments and ones not made at all.

Instead, he preferred to handle the exhibition of his work privately, hosting a biannual open studio in Soho, where he established himself when he arrived in New York in 1978. It is no exaggeration to say that this new retrospective in Lower Manhattan, which is not organized by a gallery but privately, is this city’s long overdue opportunity to be introduced to Vanni’s work.

The critic’s challenge is discussing a wide-ranging body of work created over an entire lifetime without falling into the trap of superficial generalization. Approximately 70 works are exhibited, gathered from private collections as well as the artist’s inventory, spanning the period from 1943 to today. Included are a monumental 55-foot canvas, paintings from the 1950s and ’60s made in Europe, and works from what Vanni calls his “American Period.”

The work encompasses many tendencies and loose references, ranging from Redon to Gorky and Matta, and the show follows the artist navigating different styles and techniques. The exhibition is installed on three floors, and studying the works separately, as well as in relation to each other, one can’t help but be awestruck by the evident passion and lifelong commitment. It is important to drop any conventional expectation of a white-cube viewing environment and embrace the diversity that makes this particular display unpredictable and enticing.

What unifies all the works, no matter the period, is Vanni’s devotion to spatial concerns. Most of his works are purely abstract. They can be gestural or employ geometric as well as patterned elements and detailed ornamentation reminiscent of Klimt. Vanni’s compositions are animated by the exploration of counterpoints and moments of friction. Interestingly, he cites Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) as his main artistic influence. Pirandello wrote plays based on the investigation of frictions between rational truth and socially accepted truth.

Vanni’s works are atmospheric, and can appear as dreamscapes, vast horizon lines, flames, blood streams, or aerial views of an unfamiliar planet’s surface structure. Nature is a predominant theme, but rather than present reflections of nature as found in the world outside us, Vanni’s work speaks to the inner nature and interior life we all experience.

Vanni was never associated with any art movements, but he was exposed to two strong proponents of abstract art during his formative years. After receiving a rather traditional art education at the University of Rome’s School of Art and Architecture in the 1940s, Vanni continued his studies in 1949 in Amsterdam at the atelier of the De Stijl member Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart.

After receiving a Fulbright grant, he went on to Yale, where he studied under Josef Albers.

Vanni’s work has nothing of the strict geometricized forms that characterize both these teachers’ works – in seeking influences in Vanni’s early work, Paul Klee’s is the most evident – but it reveals his trust in abstraction as the most potent visual language to communicate feelings and to depict places and experiences.

The strong sense of energetic eclecticism characterizing Vanni’s oeuvre corresponds to the arc of his life, which has been rich in extensive travel and long periods spent in different countries. Born in Rome in 1927, he began his voyage while in his 20s. For most of the 1950s, he spent his time between Rome, Paris, and New York. Another constant in his life has been the Greek island of Kythira, where he bought a plot of land and built his own studio.

His travels have also led him to southern India, including the palaces of Mysore, the deserts of Rajasthan in northwest India, the shrines of Bali, and the Egyptian royal tombs of Luxor.

Vanni’s paintings might serve as snapshots of what he has gathered here and abroad – the noise, the silence, the different light and colors specific to each locale.

In Vanni, we find these elements internalized, processed, and spun into their own microcosm.