Giorgio Morandi, Still Life (Natura morta), 1954. Oil on canvas, 10" x 28."
"There are times when I would have loved to have been one, I mean a non-objective artist, so-called, but I always have to find something to hang the paint on."
-Jim Dine, from a 1982 interview
It's very easy to get swept away in the poetry and romance of Morandi still life paintings of the 1950's, with their quiet arrangements of strangely dignified small things and that palette which consists only of the muted colors of memories. My wife nearly cried while looking at some of the pictures at the big exhibition currently on view at the Met, and I must say that as I stood in front of his final canvas, I got a little choked up myself.
But that grid he employed in the fifties, drawn with such force and clarity, is so rigorous and logical and perfect that one has to wonder if the little bottles and boxes were actually the meditations of a philosopher- poet (the preferred Morandi mythology), or was it that they simply provided a place to hang the paint on, to drape a grid over. Those pictures were nearly as formal as Mondrian, and, with their narrow value range, they were flatter than many cubist still-life paintings.
Most agree that abstract painting comes out of landscape and still life. There are no people, no eyes to look at, no events unfolding, and as a result, attention is much more easily spread over the entire surface of the canvas. Morandi's still life paintings and landscapes are always a few brushstrokes away from being muted geometric abstractions; little studies in formal perfection. Like Monet's water lilies or very late Turners, the pictures are barely representational.
So was Morandi in essence an abstract painter who used his bottles and boxes simply as a compositional starting point but ultimately viewed then with indifference? This is one of those arguments which would probably unfold very much like a discussion of whether or not there is a god - both sides would make their case with force and vehemence, but in all likelihood neither would be swayed. But even if you love the late Morandi pictures for their considerable formal achievement, I think it's ok to get a little misty over the poetry of it all; life is complicated, and apparently, so is still life.