Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Francesco Vezzoli: Teatro Romano" at MoMA PS1

Describing itself as a “catalyst and an advocate for new ideas”, MoMA PS1 is not the first place one would expect to find antiquities. Nevertheless, a cavernous gallery on the museum’s second floor is presently home to several Roman sculptures, dating to the first- and second-century AD. These five works – Roman busts – have been painted and assembled by Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli.

The busts are installed atop thin, minimalist pedestals, each spot lit in an otherwise near pitch-black gallery. Each brightly lit work is brilliantly life-like, bearing flesh-tone skin, brightly colored eyes, and other animating details. Vezzoli, in coordination with Clemente Marconi – a historian of Roman art – has painted each to closely resemble how it would have originally appeared during the Roman Empire.

Though it is easy now to envision the ancient Western world as a paradise of glistening white – a world of bright white temples filled with gleaming white sculpture – it is known in academic circles that polychrome was the norm. In truth, the polished marbles the public now knows are the results of over-zealous post-excavation cleaning efforts common in prior centuries.

By painting these busts ­– an immensely interpretive act – Vezzoli hugely alters the appearance of the sculptures, and subsequently their reception by the public. Further, positioning the busts in an unapologetically modern setting alters their reception still more. In lieu of lifeless, marble sculptures presented in the staid setting of an encyclopedic museum, Vezzoli presents polychrome busts in a quasi-theatrical setting, turning their usual presentation on its head.

At the same time Vezzoli’s painting of the busts is a restorative act, bringing them closer to their original appearance. Vezzoli’s painting of them closely mirrors what would have been done in Roman times. Normally made in workshops, busts of this sort would have had multiple authors. After the work of the sculptor was done, the turn of the painter would come; the painter’s work altering the sculptor’s.

Vezzoli’s alteration of these busts, as simple an action as it is, successfully problematizes myriad forgotten issues about the way these busts are treated, displayed and understood.


  1. When looking at the polychrome paint on the busts for the first time, I was like any other modern day viewer, slightly bewildered, and had my brain trying hard to get over how cartoonish or comic such superficial treatment makes the sculpture. But that's not objectively looking at it. And that's where I think Vezzoli gets you the most. Is that such fresh colors and also the idea that in Greek culture that's where we get superhero like imagery - that maybe this is the reason why comic book storytelling is so popular nowadays because we've reduced our fascinations and idolizations on caricatured, unhuman, otherworldly to comic universes much like Greek theology was. So I would disagree with you about calling the viewing experience contemporary. I get what you're saying, but i would tweak it as "the viewing experience is irrefutably" 21st century not necessarily contemporary. Restoration isn't tied to just our time period now and the use of a scholar to help guide the artist's probably boring task of painting (which I kinda think of as those classes you take at the pseudo ceramics studios where you just paint a prefabricated piggy bank or bisque ware ceramic) is tied to a long tradition.

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  3. It is well-written review. Your interpretation of Vezzoli's gesture makes me understand what his intention is. I agree your last paragraph. Applying polychrome paint on the surface of ancient sculptures can be deconstruction and reinterpretation rather than restoration of them. His basic form is an ancient element but it becomes a contemporary art through his gesture. The polished marbles are a result of restoration like an original state through traditional ways but it makes me a question of what a definition of 'originality' is. Your sentence "the viewing experience is irrefutably" reconsiders me the tactful contradiction from his works.