Marthe Keller

Diva installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Keller: An Italian Life

1. Early years in Rome

Italy has been in my life since I was 12. My family moved to Rome in 1961. That was a jolt from living in rural upstate New York. My family roots are not Italian; they are Northern European Jewish, but as my Polish grandma said, "in the kitchen Yiddish and Napolitano are the same." We went on a whim. It could have been Paris, but luckily Rome was a particularly welcoming place for Americans, especially artists on the left. There was a sense of promise and creative excitement after the Second World War. Fascism had been defeated. One could be Catholic and Communist at once.  Italians understood complexity. They were so culturally sophisticated compared to Americans.(Of course sofisticato can be glamorous or negative, as in vino sofisticato, adulterated.) La Dolce Vita had recently come out, and Rome felt excitingly decadent to a farm girl. 

The artist as a teenager in Rome, 1964

Vota comunista, 1964

My folks, a painter and a nurse, were finally able to travel after the House Un-American Activities Committee of the United States Senate was ended by JFK, and their passports were returned. They had meant to stay in Rome for a year but fell in love with the city and extended their stay for 12. Our apartment was in a 500-year-old palazzo in the heart of Rome. Anna Magnani was our neighbor. Our mynah birds talked to each other in the interior cortile. Down the block was the Chiesa del Gesù with its amazing tromp l'oeil ceiling frescos that gave me vertigo. My bus stop was next to the Pantheon, in front of Bernini’s elephant holding an Egyptian obelisk. I was mind-blown every day just going to school. 

Merlo sparito, looking for Loretto, the lost mynah bird, 1965

My brother, Dan, and I studied Italian in our various international schools, but mostly spoke English in class. Our baby sister, Katy, went to asilo in Italian and wore a grembiule, with a big starched bow. Early on, I studied the harp and I remember feeling lost and intimidated in solfeggio class at the venerable Accademia di Santa Cecilia, but the professor kindly ignored me since I barely understood a word then.

One of my school chums and his friend explored the Catacombs with carbide lamps, much to the horror of the parents, since thieves used the tunnels to hide loot. I never had the nerve to go in. My role was as a lookout for the carabinieri who thought my girlfriend and I were puttane because we were hanging around a desolate area. 

Rome was much more conservative than London or Paris. When my girlfriend from London visited in a miniskirt, a man ran his Cinquecento Fiat onto the sidewalk and pinned her to the wall. When I called to the carabiniere, he said it was the girl's fault, the man couldn't help it! She kicked the little car off, leaving a big dent in it. It was war!

As schoolgirls we learned how to defend ourselves from unwanted gropes on the tram and in crowds. We wore armor--tight girdles under our skirts impervious to pinches. And we all had heavy pocket books we practiced swinging at groin height. Macho was the norm.

Tram, a painting by the artist's father, Charles Keller

There was a vibrant community of expatriates. My folks socialized with artists, composers, writers, filmmakers, journalists, historians, archeologists, and Jesuit scholars. Dad painted and Mom worked at Cinecittà, directing the dubbing of spaghetti westerns into English. My brother acted in a movie with Rock Hudson, and his voice is in many films. His school friend had a part in Cleopatra with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, and out sister hung out with Dino de Laurentiis's son. It was far from the apple farm in the Hudson Valley!

As the Vietnam War was raging and there was anti-American sentiment in Europe, my father and Gore Vidal organized a peace rally in Rome. A decade later we discovered that the whole family had surveilled. We later surmised that a "journalist" friend was CIA. The United States wanted to subvert the leftward shift of Italian politics. Even my little sister Katy was followed and her friends named in the CIA report. Great use of taxpayer dollars!

Moratorio, November 15, 1967

During height of the Cold War, in 1978, Aldo Moro Prime Minister of Italy, was murdered. I was deeply shocked. It made no sense. He was loved by all. It has since been revealed that the CIA (with help from the Mafia, Israel, and NATO), had infiltrated and encouraged the Brigatte Rosse to kill Moro. He had been about to create a coalition in the Italian Parliament between the Christian Democrats and Socialists and Communists. That tragic murder, changed the trajectory of Italian history.

As an otherwise disinterested teenager, I ingested the art and ideas around me by osmosis. I saw Arte Informale and Arte Povera, and Fellini, and so many adult things way before I understood them. It is only now that I recognize a deeply imbedded connection I feel to Modern Italian art of the sixties and seventies.

But the most important thing I learned in Italy was in the kitchen. When I was about to leave Rome for college in 1966, Elisabetta, our Neapolitan housekeeper, showed me how to make the marinara sauce she had every day for lunch. It is a very simple procedure with four ingredients that takes minutes to make but is the base of almost everything. She told me that this would keep me fed and happy and find me a husband, and she was right!

2. Art on Both Shores

From early, I knew that I wanted to make abstract work in order to avoid the weight of Western culture so well represented by Italian art. I like to subvert macho moves I learned from my all-male teachers including Dad. One of them, at the Maryland Art Institute, was Salvatore Scarpitta, an Italo American artist from New York City and Rome. Sal was larger than life. He regaled the class with tales of hiding with the Partigiani north of Rome to fight against Mussolini. He thought that that women could not become artists, but we fought back and in the end he was supportive.

In the eighties in New York I worked for Sol LeWitt in his wall-drawing crew. I discovered that he was also connected to Italy. The crew found that Sol’s primary color palette was shifting to become more complex. Apparentlyhis experience of living in Spoleto with his family had affected his color sense.

Working on a Sol LeWitt wall drawing at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut

Now based in New York, I manage to get to Italy annually. In the studio I appreciate both influences. While purist aesthetics dominated in the USA, a different relationship to the condition of painting developed in Italy with Arte Informale and Arte Povera. In France, the Support/Surface movement had also questioned painting’s relationship to its situation.

In SoHo in 1982 I co-curated a show of installations in a raw loft space. Many of the artists in the show had worked in Europe and understood working a la mano, with what is at hand. We said no to the pure white cube. The show featured work made in a space that would eventually be demolished. Eighteen artists dealt with the given. Merrill Wagner used the old tiles of a bathroom wall, Steven Westfall used the brick wall for a little fresco, Richard Nonas ran wood blocks down the length of the loft, Phil Sims and I made wall paintings. 

Marthe Keller wall painting in building slated for demolition, 452 Broadway, New York City

My first major exhibition was in Palermo, Sicily, in 1982 at the Villa Malfitano, a cultural center (where Godfather II  was later filmed). I lived in Palermo for six weeks. My color fields, and play with chance, were conceived as an opportunity to share my experience of American open space with a deeply layered Europe. But I was desperate when I discovered that I had to hang my show in an haute bourgeois villa with not one free wall. I learned how ingenious and flexible Italians can be. They built simple easels to hold big paintings in front of huge tapestries, and they borrowed partitions to hold my grid of minimal pastels floating in a room of Rococo putti. My large sine wave painting ended up in front of a tapestry of King Neptune riding waves. It was an unexpected synergy in a context that changed my thinking. 

From Keller's first major solo exhibition, in Palermo, 1982, at Villa Malfitano: Sine Wave, 1980, oil on canvas, 36 x 72 inches, installed serendipitously in front of a tapestry depicting Neptune

Palermo in 1982 was more conservative than Rome. Spoken Italian was very elegant, or else deep dialect. I was welcomed into the home of a prominent Sicilian family related to a friend of my family. It was a rare gift to be at pranzo in famiglia. I was introduced to delicious local specialties every day for six weeks. Papa was an anti-Mafia Supreme Court judge. It was risky to walk on the street with him. Mama was a doctor, the head of the Health Department of Sicily, and she did everything in the household, too. The sons are dear friends now, but then they were princes who did not lift a finger.

In Palermo's conservative culture, I unwittingly broke taboos. I was excoriated by all for having a male guest overnight, no matter how innocent, and for uttering the word mafia, but my worst sin was the one time I missed pranzo. That was unforgivable. 

The artist, in Palermo, 1982, standing before Senza Titolo, 1981, pigment, wax, and chalk on canvas, 41 x 82 inches

Below: Lines for Five Voices and a Rib Chop, 1982, oil, pigment, crayon, wax on canvas, 60 x 48 inches.

Says the artist: "This is a painting made directly out of an anxious dream I had before bringing my work to Italy. I dreamed lines, like a musical staff in the Hopi Indian colors and a map of the USA on its side, looking like a rib chop. That period in my work was inspired by a long visit to new Mexico after art school in 1973-4. The vast spaces of the Southwest and the chance methods I learned from John Cage grounded my art practice from then on. A metaphor for my fear of losing my American body in the layered culture of Palermo came out of a story by Gaston Bachelard. His own rib had been removed. When he found the bone in a drawer, he threw it off his Paris balcony, whereupon a dog ran away with it. Ironically, my painting was never returned to me. I later found out it was kept as a "gift" by the President of the Fondazione Whitaker."

I have returned to Italy almost every year to visit and trade or borrow studio space. In the early eighties Giuseppe Gallo of the Scuola di San Lorenzo (with Gianni Dessi and Bruno Ceccobelli), let me use his studio in a decommissioned pasta factory in the San Lorenzo area of Rome. He introduced me to art events such as a memorable performance by Jannis Kounellis using fire, smoke drawing, a billiards game, and a live concert.

When I met the painter Carmen Gloria Morales, one of very few women who has a substantial career in Italy, we traded studios. Mine was a loft in New York, hers was a casa capanica, a traditional farm house built over the barn, near Orvieto. The arched doorways, and the materiality of local pigments crept into my abstraction. Carmen Gloria's gift of a large stretcher became Diva, a kind of homage to her generous spirit, which I painted over two summers in another barn near Siena.

Diva now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. 

Marthe Keller working in Studio Morales, Sermugnano, 1980

Luna di Miele, 1986, oil, pigment, and wax on canvas, 84 x 60 inches

Diva in progress in Spannochia, in the eighties

"Spannochia is an estate near Siena that has a castle and some rental houses on it. For two summers my mom rented a house there to write. She let me use the old barn underneath to paint."

Diva on the road. It would end up at the Met

Marthe Keller