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exhibition: Macchine Naturali: Abstract Collages by Joseph Stella

date: 15 September - 29 October 2005

Macchine Naturali at Peter Freeman, Inc. focuses on Joseph Stella's abstract collages which differ from the artist's main creation and represent also the most avant-garde work of his career. An exceptional group of 29 collages from the 1920's through 1940's has been gathered for this exhibition. The show displays the internal paradox of these collages and reveals deep connections with Stella's sensibility towards urbanization and the modern society.

Joseph Stella (1877-1946) was born in Muro Lucano, Italy and emigrated to the United States in 1896. He first studied medicine but his talent led him to the New York School of Art. Around 1909, he travelled through Europe and studied Old Masters. However his first significant contact with Modernist art took place in Paris in 1911 where he met Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and discovered Cubism and Futurism. Returning to New York, he attended the famous Armory Show of 1913 where he showed what is considered by most to be the first Futurist painting created by an American artist and thus contributed in bringing Modern Art to the United States. Joseph Stella who did not want his work to be categorized, oscillated his entire life between Realism, Abstraction and Symbolism, trying to unify traditions and innovations.

Stella produced collages from 1918 until his death in 1946 in Queens, New York. Although it is very difficult to establish a chronology, these works are made with many datable materials such as newspapers articles, fragments of letters or reproductions of his own works. They remained a private and intimate part of his creation. He never explained their meaning whether verbally or in writing and never exhibited them. Only two of them were reproduced while he was alive, in the Stella number of The Little Review of 1922.

One can recognize the respective influences of Cubism, Dada, Schwitters and the readymade in these collages although his work remains essentially unique. Initially Stella seems to have chosen the technique and idea of the papiers collés introduced by Picasso and Braque. Soon after, he was attracted to the rebellious aspect of Dada but he never subscribed to the anti-art implications of this movement. It is known that he saw Kurt Schwitters' Merz Collages at the Societe Anonyme in 1920 but their approaches are diverging. While Schwitters insists on the painterly and design aspect of the collages, Stella emphasizes the materials themselves for their quality as objects. Only the intervention of the artist elevates them to the status of works of art. Therefore, it is possible to draw parallels with Duchamp's readymades and the concept of appropriation. Despite the context mentioned above, Joseph Stella's collages stand out in art history because he explores shapes, textures and colors through their abstract and expressive properties and because he infuses his collages with personal meanings like none of his contemporaries. That is why, after World War II, Stella's collages began to be greatly admired and collected. Their influence over important artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Antoni Tapiès is undeniable.

At the end of his life, Joseph Stella referred to his collages as macchine naturali, "natural constructions" (with mechanical or industrial overtones). This association of words carries a multilayered symbolism. Stella's collages are created from dirty cardboard, crumbled bits of papers, theater tickets, tobacco wrappers, envelopes, fragments of magazines, debris from the streets but also natural elements such as leaves. The juxtaposition between industrial progress and forces of natures, between the preciousness of a work of art and discarded products, between inevitable decay and renewal through art, between randomness and choice conveys Stella's conflicting sentiments. The collages are nostalgic but also odes to the beauty of the modern city. Paper itself is a metaphor for the industrial transformation of a natural fiber. While in his collages, he is free of the challenge with the Old Masters, he tries to reconcile the old and the new, the man-made and the machine-made and thus, to fill the spiritual need of a technological era. As a foreigner, he always felt like a castaway redeemed by art like the disdained pieces of paper he assembled into masterpieces.