One will never find Salvatore Meo’s name listed among the leading artists of any art movement and yet, his body of work looks very familiar. That’s because it consists of everyday objects commonly found flattened on the streets.
Having exhibited along Roberto Matta, Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso, the Philadelphia native born in 1914 to Italian immigrants surely must have gone on to make big money and a long, glamourous career. No. His is not that type of story. Although Meo did live to 90, he withdrew from the art sphere despite enjoying success in the 1950s with solo exhibits and positive reviews. He became a recluse, albeit a highly functional one.
Exactly what he was up to all those years working in his Roman studio behind the Trevi Fountain makes up a new exhibit at Boca Raton Museum of Art. Salvatore Meo and the Poetics of Assemblage features bottlecaps, pencils, shoe heels, glass fragments and pieces of rope arranged in mysterious and amusing ways. The intimate, condensed exhibit runs through July 2 and intends to get its protagonist some overdue thumbs-up.
Pieces of fabric become bodies of water, mountains or islands in his mixed-media works while rusty wires and strings give shape to dances and stick figures. It is impossible to decipher the storyline in these composed arrangements — the titles offer few clues — but one thing is clear, they are dark. Most are housed inside wooden crates and boxes, as if they were coy or didn’t care for attention.
Aside from tiny pieces of glass and flattened aluminum — which provide occasional hints of brightness — the modest materials are stripped of any original glow or varnish they might have possessed once. They don’t shine or return one’s reflection. They have been beaten up, been crushed by the passage of time, cars and commuters. The true skill here is the artist’s process of selection. Consider the objects he picked for each scene and imagine the many he left out.
The Moon on the Roof (La Luna Su Tetto) is one of the most straightforward pieces. It features a silver metal dish sitting on top of a pyramid. The metal plate, featuring discoloration and blotches one can imagine as craters, sports three holes in lieu of a mouth and eyes. A long line caused by the metal folding runs vertically like a scar or a tear. It is a blue moon.
One must get very close, go into finger-framing mode, to notice isolated pockets of brilliant abstraction living within each work. It happens with Bay of Naples and Departure from Lisbon, which are like looking at miniature masterpieces feeding off and living inside larger hosts. In Bay of Naples for instance, the landscape resembles an aerial view of the ocean with clusters of land represented by rusted metal shapes. The greenish surface shows cracks and creases suggesting currents and waves.
In other cases, as with Life Amongst Us and Nocturne Adventure, one needs not to stare that hard or for long to recall Matta’s firework-like splashes and Jackson Pollock’s dripping.
Unlike the expressive and emotionally charged abstractions being produced during his time, the artist seemed more concerned with the physicality and materialism of art. If it was exposed to the natural elements, torn, opened, rusted, broken and discarded, it interested Meo. It is no wonder that many consider his work the prelude to Arte Povera, which celebrated non-traditional materials more closely associated with the trashcan than commercial success. The movement’s name literally stands for “poor art.”
Meo adopted a wounded, post-war Italy as his second home two years after a Tiffany Foundation grant in 1949 allowed him to study there. After the artist’s death in 2004, his studio became the Fondazione Salvatore Meo, which is dedicated to preserving his heritage. It is still in its original state.
But the fact that one can refer to this genre as “poetic” is an admittance of sorts, a confirmation of one’s privilege. Ask a homeless person if this is poetry or if there is beauty in it and he/she most likely would laugh. Rust, broken objects and dirt are part of everyday homeless life. They do not cross one’s mind until something is ready to be trashed or replaced. One gets to admire Poetics of Assemblage from a safe distance, can afford to look without triggering painful memories or negative associations.
There might even be some true to assemblage art needing a poor man’s tools to come to life while requiring a rich man’s pocket to inflate it. The undeniable truth is what one begins noticing shortly after having seen the show: an odd beauty lives in things that stood invisible just hours ago. That must be what they mean by “poetic.”
Salvatore Meo and the Politics of Assemblage runs through July 2 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. Admission: $12. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. first Wednesday of the month; 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Mondays and holidays. Call 561-392-2500, or visit www.bocamuseum.org.