In 1968, Domenico Gnoli painted Back View, a work in acrylic and sand on canvas measuring 159 by 110 centimeters. It depicts the back of a painting, revealing the wooden stretcher frame on which the canvas is mounted, and includes a signature in the upper right corner that reads “D. Gnoli 1968, cm 27 1/2 x 37 1/2.” Since these are not the real dimensions of the painting, some scholars have seen the work as a tongue-in-cheek reference to conceptualism. Daniel Soutif, on the other hand, opened his 2004 essay on Gnoli by describing this work as a sort of vanitas. But my guess is that Gnoli was in fact poking fun at the artist Giulio Paolini, who had exhibited a backwards-facing canvas some years earlier, and also others, such as Gerhard Richter or Daniel Buren, who thought of the artistic process as a meditation on its tools.
Gnoli was never close to the avant-garde, and with Back View he decided to emphasize his distance through his work as well, presenting a piece that acts as a statement of intent. The image of an object rendered in perfect realist style, with an effect very similar to trompe-l’oeil, the painting rejects avant-garde experimentation and reemphasizes craft, a value which is perhaps most strongly perceived as imperative by artists such as Gnoli, who came to painting and its universe of meaning as an autodidact. Until the mid-1960s, Gnoli was primarily an illustrator. He started out very young and showed enormous talent, with a felicitously light-handed line, a baroque imagination, and a taste for caricature. He could also have made a career for himself in scenography, after a successful beginning at the Old Vic in London, but gave it up due to his love of freedom: he preferred to move between London, Paris, New York, Rome and Majorca, and live among models, writers, and orchestra conductors. To this end, he regularly attended the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto—always a meeting ground for intellectuals and sophisticated society—and frequented the studios of painters who were mainly lesser-known figures, with the exception of Mario Schifano, whom Gnoli probably met through Alberto Moravia and Enzo Siciliano. Gnoli’s drawings were published in American magazines such as Sports Illustrated (an apparent cult, judging by its recurrence in Bret Easton Ellis’s novels) and Playboy, and in books of fiction and poetry, in addition to being featured in many exhibitions in Italy and abroad. He began painting in the 1950s, though with some initial struggles, because he did not feel at home in the dominant climate of Art Informel. As his exploration focused on the image, Gnoli came to be associated with what in Italy was called “New Figuration.” However, unlike the practitioners of the latter, Gnoli didn’t draw his inspiration from Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland or Alberto Giacometti, but rather from adherents of Pittura Metafisica, like Giorgio Morandi and Carlo Carrà. (Lorenza Trucchi would later argue that the latter had the strongest influence on the young Gnoli, due to a certain biting irony that is especially pervasive in Carrà’s more primitivist works.)
From the mid-1950s until the 1960s, Gnoli painted in the style of Franco Gentilini—with additional inspiration, Trucchi notes, from Paul Klee and Massimo Campigli—and, like him, mixed his paint with river sand, which made the surfaces of his paintings more textured, but also dulled the colors. After this period of stylistic experimentation, Gnoli arrived at what could be called a “solidified image,” as in his painting Linen Baskets (1959), in which laundry hampers, as somber as cannons, have the sharpness of a bas-relief. In short, Gnoli evolved as a painter according to the idea that the main task of the artist is to establish a level of craft through a full-fledged stylistic apprenticeship, a view that led to difficulty sympathizing with the more conceptual practices of his avant-garde contemporaries.