Notes: Part 3

by Letizia Pitigliani

In 1958 I packed a crate of paintings and went to New York. It had been a long time since I had seen the United States. I had my first one-man show at the Barzansky Gallery, exhibiting work from Israel, Paris and Amsterdam. The number of galleries at the time was about six hundred, all competing for attention. I felt like the proverbial needle in the haystack. I had not remembered how huge New York City was compared to Rome.

This sense of vastness and isolation influenced my art. I was overwhelmed by the variety and yet the sameness of the Manhattan vision. Each day, each moment, the light was different. Sometimes it would be cool and northern. Sometimes with the sun reflecting off the corroded brick buildings of the West Side where I lived, it was as hot and southern as Naples. I had seen the buildings of Europe as reflections of a personality or a culture. Here the contrasts were amazing, and not just in architectural style, but in their wish to evoke the past even in its most capricious aspects - and all this posturing high up in the sky of the city amidst the vast indifference of its citizens, who went about their business on the sidewalk hundreds of feet below.

This vision was for me the summation of modern life. Here in stone, steel and cement were my companions in flight, architectural beings amassed haphazardly, each an important personality, whose contrast created yet other beings, other atmospheres, other paintings. These symbolic rooftops, turrets, spires, decaying decorative friezes and walls with faded legends almost illegible, bore witness to the indifference of the surrounding city and the corrosive passage of time, more tangible here than in any other part of the world. It seemed pointless to extract myself from what I saw, to try and formalize these visions by simplifying their shapes or ignoring their exactness. It was their reality which was miraculous. Certainly pictorially it was quite a challenge. I found myself, who had run off a painting in a few hours, meticulously painting row upon row of windows, each reflecting a different light, painstakingly evoking brick after brick like rosary beads, to be sure that the whole would convey just the right texture, the right tonal value. Where others seemed to find emptiness, I found a wealth of sensual revelations waiting to take form.

Right after the Barzansky exhibit closed, I left with my crate full of pictures for a tour of lectures and exhibitions in the West. I played the role of an exotic traveling salesman of art, showing paintings in spacious, often forlorn galleries. The cultural centers I toured were akin to medieval monasteries, places of learning in the middle of endless fields of corn and wheat, where in those days, before widespread television had unified us all, people thirsted for the outside world.

Scattered in this almost cultural vacuum I found fine painters, sculptors and potters. We would cling to each other like shipwrecked souls who meet by chance in a sea of grass. But how kind and spunky the students were. Sometimes they would congregate in the snow under my window and sing. I painted their portraits at rest and attending classes; we were all about the same age, and shared secrets or swapped stories like college roommates.

When the tour finished, I returned to New York where I met my future husband, a lawyer whose interests lay in human rights. He was later to head Amnesty International in the United States. His family was in New York and mine in Rome, so we married aboard the ocean liner S.S. Constitution somewhere in between. Like many young couples, we settled into a tiny New York apartment. A storefront became vacant across the street and I moved my paintings into it. It was the first of a half dozen studios. Each time I moved to a bigger one, my paintings got larger. A few mornings a week I taught history of art at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art. The rest of the time I painted in my Lexington Avenue storefront studio.

When I was expecting a child, we moved to larger quarters on the West Side. I had no idea what a wonderfully creative act having a child would be! We were blessed with a gloriously beautiful son Alexander in 1962, and four years later with a lively, lovely daughter Daniela. These children changed the way I painted, not during their early years of babyhood when I worked during lulls in routines of sleeping and feeding, but later, when the children needed to know why things were the way they were, continually asking for explanations, narratives and evaluations. They renewed my sense of wonder. I had to be more exact, clearer, more descriptive. This reflects in my paintings of these years; careful portraits, cheerful orderly landscapes and bright flowers. Self-analysis, introspection, and taking great chunks of time to develop an idea were replaced by a gentle flow of reflections and revelations worked out on a patch schedule a bit at a time, the way a spider weaves its web.

The storytelling quality of my work during my poster years came from being with my children. I liked to work late into the night while the children were sleeping. When we become parents, we become narrators. The artist's single-minded need for abstraction gives way to the joyous complication of explaining the world, while at the same time celebrating its wonders. And so it was fitting that during all their childhood years, I painted pictures of celebrations and festivals, bringing home the buoyant diversity of the world.

Keeping up is not easy in a place as impulsive as New York, where avarice can down a landmark overnight or, paradoxically, human sweetness can conjure collective miracles like the jubilant, celebratory parades of sailing ships up its broad rivers. So many factors contribute to the regeneration of this City, which like a child grows despondent and cruel from lack of caring or, conversely, rises to Olympian heights of human grace in response to what it senses as loving tribute or worthy effort. And so it follows that those of us creatively involved with the City perforce become custodians of its past and nurturers of its future.