Fabio Mauri’s Outsider Art
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Fabio Mauri’s Outsider Art

The late Italian’s first N.Y. show reveals a border-crossing artist informed by the Holocaust.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

In between an experiential installation about walking on the moon and a World War II film screened on a wall of old prison lockers, some very challenging art on the Holocaust is on view this month at Hauser & Wirth, an Upper East Side gallery.

“I was not new” is the first New York show of the work of the late Fabio Mauri, an Italian artist known for his painting, installation art, theater and performance pieces, along with his teaching and writing about art and theory. He was not Jewish (many assumed he was), but much of his art is informed by and in reaction to his strong feelings about the Holocaust and fascism; he was always interested in memory, language, ideology and meaning. His work is in fact layered with meaning and often beauty: Each piece has multiple interpretations, leaving the viewer with much to ponder.

For Mauri, as Umberto Eco explains in the preface to a book “Fabio Mauri: Ideology and Memory,” “Art is the way of reliving (and not forgetting) the history of the present.”

Mauri was born in Rome in 1926 into circles of wealth and culture. At 18, he was drafted into the Italian army, and as he learned the details of the horrors of the Holocaust, he went silent for a year, and was sent to a psychiatric hospital. Only his father knew at first where he was, said his younger brother, Achile Mauri, here in New York for the opening of the show. In the hospital, Mauri received 33 electroshock treatments. But, as he would often sit surrounded by the other patients, teaching them, the doctors came to see that he was indeed quite sane. After being discharged, he taught in an orphanage before joining his family’s publishing company, Bompiani. He went on to teach aesthetics, and beginning in the late 1950s he created art in many formats, crossing borders between avant-garde styles, always on the outside.

“I’m not Jewish, nor were my parents. I remember wishing I was. I feel Jewish as often as possible, each time I am discriminated against,” he wrote. In fact, as his brother said, he had one Jewish grandmother, which would make his father Jewish, but he didn’t identify as such.

Perhaps his most famous work is the performance piece, “Ebrea,” or Jewess, which had its debut in Venice in 1971 and has been restaged many times, most recently — and for the first time in the U.S. — at Hauser & Wirth last week. A solo female character removes her work shirt and approaches a mirror cabinet, her back to the public. Six times, she slowly cuts of strands of her hair and applies it to the mirror, creating a Star of David. (The Jewish Museum has in its collection the mirrored cabinet and shirt from a production, “Small Closet with Shirt.”)

A lot of the works on view involve representations of screens, related to Mauri’s interest in television, cinema, and the idea of projected images. Many of the screens are white, and it’s up to the viewer to transfer an image; some of the screens are broken. A series of large doormats he created with words cut out fill the floor of one room. One features the words “Non ero nuovo,” I was not new. In another room, he has written the words “On The Liberty” in script along a wall, out of a cord that leads to a lamp, lit with a single bulb, illuminating freedom.

To view and experience “Luna,” one takes off one’s shoes and enters a room through two oval doors, resembling the doors of a spaceship. The floor of the dark space is lined with about a foot or two of tiny white polystyrene balls; footsteps create tracks and piles — it feels like walking through piles of very light sand. The piece was created a few months before the Apollo 11 landing in 1969.

Not on display here, one of Mauri’s most well-known works is his wall of packed suitcases, as though left behind, with one left open, or perhaps torn open. Titled “Il muro occidentale o del pianto” (The Western or Wailing Wall), it is a powerful statement about exile and displacement, and has been on display in museums in Europe, as part of the Italian exhibition at the Venice Biennale, and his brother reports that a major American museum tried to acquire it.

Achile Mauro, 13 years junior to Fabio, said that he was the person Fabio confided in, despite the age difference. He praises his brother’s eclecticism and says their childhood home was filled with poets, doctors, artists, engineers — “and most were not only one thing.” He recalls that Fabio first learned of the Shoah reading the international newspapers their father would bring home daily.

The works available for sale are priced between $35,000 and $1 million. Mauri’s work will again be featured at this year’s Venice Biennale.

“Fabio Mauri. I was not new” is on view through May 2 at Hauser & Wirth, 32 E. 69th St. hauserwirth.com.

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