In the 1930s and 1940s, the Houston neighborhoods of Montrose and Midtown were colloquially known as the city’s “Little Bohemia” due to the concentration of artists living there. A central figure among them was Gene Charlton (1909–1979), who studied and exhibited art alongside artists like Forrest Bess (1911–1977) and Robert Preusser (1919–1992). This cohort was united by their love of Cubism and German Expressionism, movements that inflected their abstract works. After serving in the army, Charlton moved to New York in 1946 to pursue his art career, and by 1957 he had moved abroad and was splitting his time between Rome and Positano, Italy, a fishing village on the Amalfi Coast. After setting up his studio in Rome, Charlton soon began making work that reflected the realities of his new surroundings.
By the 1950s, Italy was experiencing a period of unprecedented growth and modernization. For many, the question arose of how to partake in the new economy while still remaining true to the country’s history and heritage. Although Italian artists may have been freed from the Fascist directive that art align with classicism and the Roman glories of the past, there was a lingering expectation that their increasingly abstract work should comment on the new political state. Rome in particular had once again become a beacon for young artists from home and abroad; however, the city’s fabled ruins were now synonymous with the hurried industrialization of the postwar rebuilding efforts. Local and expatriate artists alike drew inspiration from the revitalized art scene, though the artists from abroad were largely detached from the local debates and trauma that informed it. Existing in a liminal space between home country and host country, Charlton and many other expatriate artists made work that held affinities with the prevailing artistic trends of Italy, but were drastically different in concept.
Charlton was struck by the work of the leading Italian artists of the day such as Alberto Burri (1915–1995), Lucio Fontana (1899–1968), and Mimmo Rotella (1918–2006), all of whom attacked the surfaces and substrates of their paintings and drawings through varied processes. Charlton was most taken with the affichistes—with whom Rotella was affiliated—a loose association of European artists who used street poster advertisements in their art. These posters were one of the more visible signs that Europe was moving towards an economy based on trade, industry, and consumerism. The affichistes conceptually engaged with this rapid modernization by tearing these commercially printed papers to pieces and reconstituting them into décollages held together with gloppy paste. Rotella’s untitled work from 1958, seen here (fig. 1) creates painterly swirls from the source material through ripping and gluing alone, the composition both subverting and celebrating advertising culture.
Charlton adopted this method of ripping down and reassembling these weathered papers, but he furthered his intervention by marking them with ink, crayon, and paint. In one piece from 1959 (fig. 2), he placed strips of blue paper atop another poster in thin, jagged strips that disrupt and break apart the sideward typeface. In a collage from 1958 (fig. 3), the found posters have been reversed, with the side covered in paste facing the viewer. The plaster stuck in the adhesive creates a gritty texture that floats against the smooth surface surrounding it, not unlike that of Rome’s rubble and ruin entwined with the modern city. The artist first exhibited this suite of collages in Houston’s New Arts Gallery in 1961, returning to the city where he had begun his career decades earlier. The de Menils purchased three collages from that exhibition, the acquisition reflecting their interest in local artists alongside sustained engagement with the European avant-garde.
Charlton was not the only American artist in Rome contemplating the residue of city life; Cy Twombly (1928–2011) had moved to the city the same year as Charlton. The two would come to know each other when they both occupied studios adjacent to the Campo de’ Fiori, a prominent city square. Soon after his arrival in Italy, Twombly began exhibiting paintings like The Age of Alexander, 1959–60 (fig. 4), a canvas that bears resemblance to Roman walls with markings that conjure both ancient emblems and the anonymous graffito and scribblings of contemporary life. Twombly similarly joined these Roman paradoxes in his art: antiquity with the pulsing present.
While many modern Italian artists were engaging with the city’s raw energy to ease the weight of the classical past and recent wars, the cacophony of the streets fascinated Twombly and Charlton precisely because it compounded the millennia of history. Charlton’s collages reveal his desire to situate his work within this context; in the posters and papers he found a material that allowed him immediate access to these layers of time. For expatriate artists, Italy’s historic grandeur was not a burden, it was an asset to explore.