Obituary: Antonio Narducci

WHEN WILLIAM Boyd recently published his book on Nat Tate, a mysterious Abstract Expressionist painter, it was a disguised work of fiction and Boyd had no idea that exactly such a figure actually existed. Hardly anybody had heard of Antonio Narducci, despite his being a founding member of the Abstract Expressionist movement who had done nothing but dedicatedly make art for more than 60 years.

Whatever the reasons for his obscurity, Narducci was a highly trained professional painter who was an integral part of the most important movement of 20th-century American art but who only had one formal exhibition and subsequently refused to show his work. Narducci had the career profile of an eccentric "outsider" recluse, the difference being that he had spent years at art school, teaching and working on government commissions and both knew and was respected by the most famous artists of his era.

The culmination of all his creative labours was the PAN Art Museum and Institute (PAN for Pietro Antonio Narducci) in the small New Jersey town of Denville. Located on Main Street above a row of suburban shops, PAN is a warren of small rooms where Narducci lived and worked for the last 35 years; in previous decades the museum had been located just one block away. It was there that Narducci, obsessed with work, painted all day, every day, conducted optical experiments with unusual materials and gave occasional lessons to local students.

Every evening he put on a small show of his recent paintings for the townspeople, hung and spotlit in the windows of his museum, the only venue he could trust to show his work in exactly the way he wanted. The PAN Museum now houses the entire Narducci archive - at a rough estimate over 2,000 works in a wide variety of media.

Narducci was born in 1915 in a small Italian mountain town in the Gran Sasso, where he could ski into the front room of his parents' house. He was largely raised by priests at the next-door Catholic church. His father left for America and when Narducci was 15 he followed, to escape Mussolini's Fascist recruitment of Italian youth. He joined his father in New Jersey and soon enrolled at the Leonardo da Vinci art school in Manhattan. In 1936 Narducci moved to the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design to study sculpture.

Having studied fresco restoration with the Metropolitan Museum, he began working as a painter for the Federal Arts Project, in the WPA (Works Project Administration) Mural Division and he won the Prix de Rome for one of his gigantic frescoes. This work was shown at Grand Central gallery along with work by Isamu Noguchi and other luminaries. Narducci's classical fresco of wild stallions was painted on a concrete wall so heavy it had to be delivered to the uptown gallery by horse-drawn wagon. When the show ended, the gallery did not know what to do with such a monumental work and let loose jealous students with sledgehammers. It was the last time Narducci would show in public.

The two catalysts for his discovery of Abstract Expressionism and Modernism in general were, first, being introduced to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring by an opera-singer girlfriend and then being led into the Cedar Tavern, an artists' watering-hole in Manhattan. Its roster of nascent stars included Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Sam Francis and Franz Kline, the latter becoming his closest friend in the group and indeed outside of it.

Narducci was known as "Tony" rather than Antonio and his Cedar Tavern nickname was "The Lizard" or "New Jersey Lizard from the Swamps" as he commuted to the bar from Denville. He was also known as "The Prince", because of his aristocratic airs.

The great love of his life was his wife, who went by the stage name of Muriel Reed, an Irish-Catholic- Russian-Jewish ballerina from a theatrical family. It was only after they married in 1943, with his best man the then curator of the Guggenheim Museum, that he discovered she could speak English. The marriage did not work out and in 1951 he was crushed by the simultaneous blow of divorce and the accidental death of his five-year-old only son.

In many ways this was a turning-point. Several of his old artist friends were already dead; the last time he had seen De Kooning the two of them sat on a New York sidewalk sharing a pastrami sandwich, then De Kooning drove back to the Hamptons and Narducci to New Jersey, neither of them ever to return to the city. Elaine de Kooning's words in a letter to Narducci's two daughters described both artists' situation; "Bill, too, is a recluse and never visits the city if he can help it. He just wants to stay in his studio and paint."

That was all Narducci wanted to do, but he also worked at various jobs, such as antique dealing. Planning to join the American air force he discovered he had signed up for American Airlines instead. He was employed there as a graphic artist and designed the company logo of an eagle which is still in use today. But Narducci slowly retreated into self-imposed exile in his museum, taking students but otherwise entirely refusing the outside world. Increasing agoraphobia and sensitivity to cold ensured he rarely left his quarters and would take a taxi just to visit his dentist a few streets away.

His aesthetic experimentations and steady creative evolution were for his eyes only. If his painting style had already changed from neoclassical to Ab Ex, such as the Nebula series of 1954 and cast-concrete sculpture like Apollonian, it then shifted dramatically again. Using an oscilloscope wired to a camera he kept on his fire escape pointing into the sun, Narducci began painting with light and sound waves, the first ever paintings done with the energy of the sun, abstract images captured on film and transformed into cybernetic paintings and huge sculptures such as Cosmic Woman, which was even wired for sound.

Narducci never ceased to try new techniques and considered that his personal breakthrough to the "next step" of purest creativity came in 1985 when he began using acrylics mixed with rainwater and ammonia, elements from the universe taken directly from nature. This series of Quintessential Aesthetics occupied him until his death and was a secret shared only with his children and occasional chosen students.

Pietro Antonio Narducci, artist: born Pietro Carmella, Italy 1 February 1915; married 1943 Muriel Reed (two daughters, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1951); died Denville, New Jersey 1 March 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'