Picasso famously introduced collage to the Western canon in 1912, including elements like rope and oil-cloth in his work as a part of his ongoing exploration (culminating in cubism) of how to reconcile three-dimensional subject matter with the two-dimensional plane of the canvas. German dadaists like Hannah Höch and John Heartfield picked up on this thread around 1920, compiling collages and photomontages from magazine, newspaper, and catalogue clippings in order to comment on the use of mass media as a political tool and a new, image-saturated world. More than 30 years later, the practitioners of pop art, like Richard Hamilton, used the medium to show how life had become an assemblage of consumer products and cultural references. Collage allowed all of these artists to bring aspects of the outside world into their work; in its three-dimensionality, however subtle, it also allowed them to physically project their art back into the world.
Mimmo Rotella’s work is clearly and deeply linked to all of these movements, which only adds weight to the force of his originality. Rotella began his career as a painter of expressive, geometric abstraction in early 1950s Italy. He then received a Fulbright scholarship to study in the United States, where he traveled around reading his experimental, onomatopoeic, so-called “epistaltic” poetry. (This kind of phonetic verse, sometimes called “words in freedom,” was itself a critical part of avant-garde movements like dada and Italian futurism.) When Rotella returned to Rome in 1952, he began to produce the work for which he is now famous.
Rotella’s oeuvre is so distinct that it requires its own vocabulary. The most important term, which he coined, is décollage: it refers to the collaging process that he developed in which he ripped worn-out posters from outdoor walls of Rome, tore them up further in his studio, and then reassembled them on prepared canvas. His early décollage compositions—like Collage 12 (1954) and Senza titolo (ca. 1960)—resemble cubist or even abstract expressionist works. Later pieces, such as Birra! (1962), are more similar to pop, drawing on advertising, celebrity, and entertainment. In a very late work, Picasso lacerato (2001), Rotella deconstructed and reassembled the poster for a Picasso retrospective, featuring a proto-cubist woman.
Décollage was not Rotella’s only innovation. His other techniques include retro d’affiche, such as Materia 5 (1956), in which he displayed the unmodified but dusty reverse sides of the posters he found; photographic reportage, in which he projected an image onto a canvas treated with emulsion; artypo, like Uno sguardo dal bicchiere (1966), in which he superimposed printing proofs; blanks, such as Blank C blue violet (1980), in which he covered his collages with monochrome sheets of paper; and sovrapitture, like Il bacio al parco (1993), in which he painted over décollages in acrylic.
He may have only been formally a member of two artistic groups (one called “Les Affichistes,” or the poster-ers, and the other, larger one known as the Nouveau Réalistes), but his work—in its formal abstraction, image appropriation, and critique of modern culture—covers the critical bases of 20th-century art history.