Robert Polidori, Fra Angelico/Opus Operantis @Paul Kasmin

JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 large scale color photographs, framed in dark wood and unmatted, and hung against grey walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints mounted on Dibond, made in 2010. Each is sized 54×44 inches (or reverse), and is available in an edition of 5+2AP. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: While Robert Polidori has followed his camera to New Orleans, Havana, Mumbai, and other far flung locales around the world during his long career, he is perhaps best known for his photographs of the ongoing restorations to the Château de Versailles. He began the project in the 1980s and revisited the site multiple times in the ensuing decades, watching as the ornate rooms were emptied, refurbished, and ultimately reinstalled. His precise images of that deliberate process (reviewed here, in 2013) were particularly aware of both the subtle textures of age and the complexities of space, with memorable pictures of hand-worn door frames leading off into telescoping layers of nested rooms.

So when Polidori was asked by the Convento di San Marco in Florence to visit and make photographs of the Fra Angelico frescoes housed there, there was a certain logic to the invitation – he had already successfully proven that he could smartly re-envision a historical landmark. But the setting itself could hardly have been more different. Compared to the regal finery of Versailles, the convent is an austere and serene place, with spare plastered rooms decorated solely by the frescoes. Curved ceilings, arched doorways, a few wooden-shuttered windows here and there, and one dramatic oculus provide the elemental architectural framework for the paintings. It is a silent environment that has been reduced to its fundamentals, and that reduction gives the frescoes the full attention they deserve.

Artistically, Polidori could hardly have asked for a better partner than Fra Angelico – he too was an adept space flattener, albeit more than five hundred years earlier. His religious frescoes collapse the vaults of a ceiling into curved triangles, present a pass through view of a well within an arched doorway, and turn the steps of a raised dais into perfect geometric rectangles. Fra Angelico also seems to have taken particular notice of where he was installing these scenes, as the curve of a background mountain seems to echo the line of the actual ceiling above, and crucifixions are visible in both directions through the oculus.

Polidori’s photographs of these masterpieces add the conceptual twist of Louise Lawler’s visions of installed art to the artist’s usual bag of tricks. Each picture is an examination of how the fresco has been placed within the context of the room and its various openings. Some use an arched doorway or the oculus as a framing device, spying the fresco from “outside” the room itself and using the geometric form to crop the view, thereby accenting the doubling of forms or rhythms of arcs when the camera flattens the scene into a single plane.

Other images step back and take in the entire fresco and its surroundings, and many are flanked by deep-set windows with wooden doors and defined panes. Polidori uses these windows to create refrains of form, with the ceiling, the curved top of the fresco, and the curve of the window frame falling into gentle repetitions. In one case, the window is open, providing a view across to yet another window, redoubling the layers of space being collapsed; in another, the grid of the panes centers on a tiny window in a nearby building, once again with the same top arched shape. All of these visual echoes are executed with refinement and grace, the strict ordering of the compositions feeling effortless and natural.

Part of what makes Polidori’s Versailles pictures so rich is their intense interest in surface details and the imperfections created by time, and the photographer employs that same meticulous eye in Florence. The dull grey plaster that covers most of the walls is mottled and cracked, with areas of repair visible along some of the seams. The window hardware is made of heavy iron, the surfaces worn down by the touch of visitors and residents, and the floors and doors are made of sturdy wood, the warm patina providing contrast with the asceticism of the plain walls. The rooms are resolutely simple and unadorned, save for the frescoes that shimmer with light and color.

While this project doesn’t seem to have offered Polidori as many compositional freedoms and options as the Versailles setting – it is a much more modest building, with only a limited number of rooms and obvious vantage points to play with – he seems to have made the most of what was available. He has allowed the calm and serenity of the convent to provide the foundation, on top of which he has built his own innovative re-interpretations of Fra Angelico’s scenes. For a small, self-contained effort (that would make a tightly edited single subject photobook), the images have a pensive intelligence, with more consistent depth and fullness than we might have expected.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $25000 each. Polidori’s works are consistently available at auction, with recent prices ranging between roughly $7000 and $70000.

Read more about: Robert Polidori, Paul Kasmin Gallery

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