New York Introduction

Mayor Ed Koch with USS Intrepid poster at Intrepid Museum inauguration, 1982

by Richard McLanathan

The idea of the city has long haunted the minds of poets and painters. And understandably, for certain cities, especially of the Old World, have merely to be mentioned for each of us to have a personal vision, a combination of memory and feeling, of experience or projection. Full of reminders of the past, no matter how obtrusive and noisy they may be, they convey a sense of time that may be felt without reference to history or guidebook. Centuries of human activity have left a patination that even the most blatant evidence of progress cannot eliminate.

Of all the great cities New York is for most artists, however, a different matter. It is not that it is not old enough; three eventful centuries is sufficient time to produce a past, momentary though it may seem in contrast to the ancient cities of the world. Instead it has become for them a compelling symbol of the constant present in its neverending state of incompleteness and feverish change, of what Henry James called "danger, disorder, and permanent earthquake conditions," with a pattern of compulsive mutability and an undercurrent of extravagance and violence that frequently finds expression in their work.

We can see by contrast what New York becomes for Letizia Pitigliani, who brings to it an experience of Europe, especially Italy and the Netherlands, as well as of America, both east and west. For her, New York is a view from an upper-story window, a landscape of cornices and rooftops, of water towers and chimneys, forms that are firm and geometric, and so ordinary a part of the urban scene that most of us do not see them even when we look at them. Her roofscapes are solidly composed and painted with a sense of substance, of brick, concrete, wood, and metal. She reminds us further of their sub- stantiality by giving them textures that both characterize them and enhance the expres- siveness of the picture's surface, as do the repetitious patterns of brickwork, windows and lattice. She arranges her forms with unobtrusive sureness so that each painting has an architectural structure and is completed only with the added dimension of color, sensitively but coolly felt, linking form and space. The magic of light, whether the apricot and ochre of dawn or the gray-blues and murky browns of a winter twilight, gives unity to the whole. Her pictures are empty of people, yet they are not dehumanized. The implication of humanity is always present, in the lighted windows, smoking chim- neys, and the staccato accents of television antennae against the smoke-tinged evening sky. They are also not without a sense of the past: a patched and peeling wall seems, in the swift passage of recent time, as ancient as some section of masonry in the Trastevere; a fragment of ornate cornice, a sculptured cartouche, a grandiose balustrade, darkened with grime, suggest the decaying grandeur of an era already too remote for remembering, each a kind of archeological relic, lost and forgotten in the empty air.

The mood changes with the light, from high-keyed brilliance to muted neutral tones, in infinite variety, each momentary and implying further change. The familiar shapes mutate also, becoming sometimes monumental, occasionally almost ominous, sometimes appearing forthrightly three-dimensional, at others about to dissolve into the surrounding atmosphere. So rarely does a living thing enter the scene that, when it does, it comes almost as a shock and dominates by becoming the central element of the whole, as the tiny shape of the bird on the television antenna, dark against the lowering, saturated sky, in Winter Rooftops. Everything is subjected to a process of ordering that results in an apparent simplicity which seems random, but it is through this process of deliberately imposed limitation that the artist transforms the endless variability of the city into nuances of atmosphere that are variations on a theme, at times somber and grave, at others lyric and light, in moods very like those of music, but always hushed. The paintings never demand. Each is an invitation to share an experience that is both personal and significant, the artist's view of the city, seen across its empty rooftops with contemplation and reverie, in a vision that reveals the poetry of the drab and the commonplace, and suggests the mystery that lies within the familiar

 

by Lella Vignelli

I met Letizia Pitigliani twenty years ago at the United Nations School where our children were students. Ours was for years the easygoing friendship of two Italian mothers, recent transplants to New York City, coping with a new reality which, with our enthusiasm, did not seem particularly difficult. Because we were raised in the same cultural milieu, we shared a common bond that only someone who has lived abroad a long time can understand. With my foreign friends I feel there is always a past not only in our own lives, but also in the history of our countries, which is impossible for us to share - and this to me limits one's understanding of the formation of a personality, the profound knowledge of that person.

Our friendship developed quite naturally and spontaneously during the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies. Those were very lively years in New York City: peace marches, crises and struggles of the Feminist movement; New York then being the living center for art and fulcrum of the world.

Striving to be part of everything - to work, to raise our children and to grow ourselves in this new world so different from the one we came from, Letizia and I were able to help each other. Because Letizia was a painter and I an architect, we had much in common. I had no doubt that Letizia was a painter by vocation after having seen only one painting, at an auction to raise funds for the United Nations School. It was a view of New York rooftops seen with the fresh eye of a European, singling out Curious and peculiar juxtapositions of water towers and flat, corniced rooftops - all details so familiar to New Yorkers, so strange to us.

We were discovering America and New York during very exciting years, years full of hope and ideology, years when Pop Art was the strongest movement in the New York art scene. Letizia was moving in her own direction, sure of herself and of her urge to paint as she knew. She painted realistically, but in her own style and before Hyper-realism became a movement. Her creations evolved in her own language. I never knew Letizia to be in a crisis, worried about whether or not she was in the mainstream. She kept working away at her images of the city - images of the icons of New York, landmarks in danger of being destroyed - fighting the cultural battle for their preservation (a battle that in the United States was new), bringing to it her Italian sense of history, contributing to it her inborn appreciation of historic landmarks.

There was a period when Letizia painted only New York buildings. For me, with my architectural background, this was her most interesting work, the closest to my heart. Hers was an obsession to Paint New York architecture, the old and the new, as if to possess it, to understand it, to understand the city.

These are the paintings that I love: Abandoned House, Wall, Grand Central Station Façade - formal portraits of buildings with Letizia's strong, very personal interpretation, dramatic cut and point of view, demonstrating at the same time a great grasp of scale relationship and chromatic contrast of the materials.

In the paintings there is a correct rendition of the particular New York light. In this city with its streets perfectly oriented east/west and its avenues north/south, the shadows of the buildings have a precise geometry, a hard edge. No figures appear: here the interest is purely architectural, the taut, interactive balance of forms and surfaces grouped in a particular light, and although Letizia approaches her subiect matter with American directness, her techinique remains European, her love of mass Roman.