Notes: Part 4

by Letizia Pitigliani

In 1973, I rented a studio at Union Square where I did a series of landmark paintings. The forlorn nobility of these buildings moved me. I became interested in their plight, their vulnerability. These paintings also admonished us to cherish our precious architectural heritage, for in the booming, relentless construction of the City, many proud sentinels of the past were threatened. Some succumbed outright to greed, others were dispatched because too little value was placed on their historic importance. Often the lofty and idealistic statements of their architects were muted as inevitably the roles of the buildings changed with the changing times.

New York has little patience with architectural nostalgia vis-à-vis the dynamism of change. Worthy buildings suffer the indignities of the old from the clamoring self-assertion of the new. Especially wrenching was the threat to graceful, massive Grand Central Station which I studied in depth, creating dozens of detailed drawings and a large painting later shown at the Vanderbilt Avenue headquarters of the Committee to Save Grand Central Station. The painting, widely publicized, found its way into the public consciousness where it revealed the particular beauty of the subject while alerting the viewer to its possible destruction. It was my first experience with the large scale propagation of ideas through artistic imagery. Here began my ongoing, almost romantic interaction with a vast, unseen audience.

In 1976, in the splendid halls of the New York Yacht Club, I heard described the upcoming New York harbor spectacle: a parade of the world's largest sailing ships to celebrate the Bicentennial of the United States. The following morning I met the organizing force behind this vision, Frank O. Braynard, a sea historian, illustrator, and dreamer - a regular Wizard of Oz. When I described the picture I wanted to paint, he exclaimed, "You are the answer to a virgin's prayer," and so I began to paint the large oil Parade of the Windjammers. New York Magazine featured the painting across two pages as living proof that the fiscal and moral doldrums of New York City were over at last. The final sketch was seen by Kent Barwick, Commissioner of Landmarks, who suggested it be printed as a New York subway poster and helped arrange it.

The Port of New York rises in spires from its roots of granite. Isolated by reflecting water, it is more an entity than a port. It is an astounding, glittering backdrop for even the most banal seagoing activity. When the careful planning of men produces a spectacle of great sailing ships and ocean liners that circle like great white pearls around its gleaming throat, Manhattan becomes the stuff dreams are made of. Impossible to see unless one is out on the water or up in the sky, it becomes the task of an artist to convey some of this splendor. The complexity of Manhattan's architecture seen from afar, especially the magical twinkling of its million lights, is for me best portrayed using the painstaking technique of drawing, then painting with transparent inks on rich, creamy French paper. The unifying impasto of oil painting is more adept at conveying volume and surfaces of mass than the changeling curtain of New York's skyline.

My first poster, the first of over fifty in the next twelve years, shines brightly in my memory as something magical. It was as though all New York became enchanted. The public display of my painting as an oversized subway poster was an astounding experience. When the poster had been installed in the rectangles along the platforms of a hundred stations, I would take the local train and head downtown lust for the fun of seeing them flash by.

After more than a decade of American posters I turned once again to Europe for inspiration. Venice has always been a siren call for me. On the desk I keep a picture of my great-grandmother with her family posing languidly on the terrace of their villa Near Treviso. Festival and fancy dress fascinate me, so in February of 1986 I went to see the Carnival in Venice. I was unprepared for its splendor. It was not so much the organized part of Carnival, although that year Venice had a rich array of street dancers, concerts and performances; it was the frenetic enthusiasm of the participants, their number and their dazzling costumes against the backdrop of ghostly nighttime canals, alleyways and piazzas. Unhampered by the noise of modern life, these timeless figures pulsated at will, suspended in the golden foggy light.

But even Carnival must come to an end, for what is it but a temporary release, a deliberate escape into the world of dreams - and I went home again to New York. Yet the element of transfiguration, the fluid intermingling of reality and imagination I had witnessed in Venice stayed on in my mind and in my art.

In 1987 I went on safari in Africa and came face to face with yet another reality, the kingdom of animals. I felt the need to visually justify their existence in the modern world. I wanted to describe the awe I felt in the presence of their unique vitality, their grandeur, and so I painted them larger than life against the glass, steel and bricks of the inner city. This bizarre juxtaposition is the painter's way of contrasting our instinctive, primitive nature with the harsh, intellectual fantasy of the metropolis. The purity and exotic beauty of the beast transcends the cerebral confines of the city.

Morning Note was painted in 1989 with these thoughts in mind. The lion stalks across a dark foreground. Behind him in the dawn light the city comes awake. I enriched the image with a buoyant note of hope, a promise of excellence in the dawning day embodied in the flying figure. In fact Morning Note is a tribute to the clarion sound of the young American trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis, and the poetry of music, its emotive quality and evocative power, that can propel images right onto the mind's eye.

Whereas the flying figures, animals, winged buildings, gulls overhead and personages among the planes, spheres and towers of earlier paintings were meant to impart movement and a note of humanity to the whole, the shift toward fantasy in recent works creates dramatic impact and comes from a need to transcend rather than define, to liberate rather than explain, to see things from a distance and help the soul fly.