morandiGiorgio Morandi, 1958, Image from the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Catalogue

The first Morandi painting that I ever saw was at the Pittsburgh International Triennial Exhibition of 1958. I was a first year art student at Carnegie Mellon University, then called Carnegie Tech. I had been sent by one of my teachers to see the show and to write a paragraph on a work that I liked and another on one that I disliked.

The show was astonishing, full of cutting edge works by all the major artists of the day. I saw my first Ellsworth Kelly there. I believe that his piece won the exhibition’s big painting prize. A large poly-chromed sculpture by David Smith had me going round and round, to see it from every angle. I remember thinking that the Picasso piece was disappointing, not one of his best.

1Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta, 1957, Oil, ca. 14 x 16 inches

As I rounded a corner into a new room, I came upon a little gray, putty colored still life painting. It was small and monochromatic, except for one bright salmon colored shape. The objects were all huddled together in the middle of the image. I’d been studying design and this seemed such a poor use of the rectangle. I decided that this was the dumbest, most inconsequential painting in the show. I set about to write my negative paragraph on Morandi’s still life.

As I began to describe the painting and its structure, things turned around for me. Something that had seemed like a bad idea began to seem ingenious. The placement of the salmon shape was perfect: it energized the entire space. The longer I described the picture, the better it got for me. In the end, I was mesmerized and it became my favorite painting in the show. I no longer remember which piece I chose as its opposite.

2Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta, 1955, Oil, ca. 12 x 16 inches

It has been many years since I’ve seen this painting. I searched for references to it in the Carnegie Museum’s 1961 archives, with little success. I searched the Google list of Morandi images and found several that it could have been. It seems that the single salmon note was one of Morandi’s favorite devices. I thought for sure that I was an older student when I saw the painting, but I was wrong. Further searches in the archives proved that it was in the 1958 exhibition when I was a lowly freshman, who hadn’t even begun painting yet.

The museum finally provided a black and white photo of the painting and there it was, as I remembered it. Looking at it and the other similar ones from Google, I marvel at his various strategies. He loved to play games with the table’s back horizon line and the tops of the objects. He always placed the salmon shape exquisitely, sometimes sandwiching it tightly between forms. The dominant light brownish gray is beautiful. How did he mix it? The paint is lush and simply applied. It looks easy to do, but it is not.

3Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta, 1958, Oil, ca. 12 x 18 inches

This painting began my long love affair with Morandi’s work. In 1963, I was in Italy and saw his retrospective in his hometown of Bologna. Morandi was still alive and my companion and I thought about tracking him down and knocking on his door. We didn’t have the courage to impose on him that way. What could we say? “We really like your work Mr. Morandi.” That wouldn’t do. The same year, we saw Fellini’s film “La Dolce Vita” where an early Morandi was prominently displayed and discussed in one of the cocktail party scenes. It was in Italian, so I’m not sure what was said, but I was thrilled to see in what high esteem he was held.

Finally, Morandi gave me the courage to stop worrying about my work being ground breaking or on the “cutting edge.” His example let me follow my instincts to paint ordinary situations, from direct observation. I’m a still life painter too, though not as starkly simple or as eloquent.

35bNancy Hagin, Lace, 2014, Watercolor, 30 x 42 inches, Collection of the Canton Museum of Art, Canton, Ohio

Nancy Hagin is a painter who lives in New York City. She is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon and Yale University and has been represented by Fischbach Gallery since 1980. After teaching in college art schools for 42 years, she retired in 2006.