Mario Schifano was one of Italy's leading modern painters. Urban signs were his chosen territory: the fuzz of the television screen, the blare of advertising. He loved to epater les bourgeois, using his conspicuous earnings to fund terrorist groups or experiment with various drugs - an extracurricular activity which earned him six prison sentences.
Schifano was born in Italian-occupied Libya in 1934. He was proud of the fact that he had never got beyond primary school, owing he said to an "involuntary masochism" that led him to "chew through the umbilical cord" that linked him to his family. Odd, then, that his first job should have been as his father's assistant in the restoration office of the Etruscan Museum in Rome; but Schifano would always defend his right to be inconsistent.
His first canvases were a series of "yellow monochromes", exhibited in 1959. At this time the artistic climate in Italy was dominated by the anguished rigours of informalism, as taught by Pollock and De Kooning, and as practised by Burri. Schifano was part of a younger generation of Roman artists - including Tano Festa and Franco Angeli - who believed that such experiments still smacked of the academy. It was the surface of signs that interested Schifano, not their hidden meaning; walking around Rome, he was struck by "those black-and-white poles used by surveyors to mark out the territory" and by "traffic lights, advertising posters" - the accidental semiology of the urban landscape.
By 1962 he had found his voice, with a famous series of canvases in which the Coca-Cola and Esso corporate logos were obsessively repeated and re- elaborated. But he was always uncomfortable with the Pop Art label - partly because he believed he had got there at the same time as the Americans by following a different route; but partly also because of a lifelong (and un-Pop) interest in his materials - which included acrylic paint, photos, plexiglass, lengths of film and branches ripped from trees in the Villa Borghese while painting en plein air.
In later years, Schifano would work in his Roman studio surrounded by televisions, each tuned to a different channel, with the hi-fi at full blast. His painterly elaborations of television images - which he began working on in 1967 - remain probably his best-known works. He made a number of short films and even stage-managed a rock group, Le Stelle di Mario Schifano, in the late Sixties; but his fortune as an artist was always linked to his canvases, which he turned out at breakneck speed, in batches.
In series such as Oxygen Oxygen (1967) and TV Landscapes (1969), he worked small variations on a theme, filling the canvas with blocks of colour; a legacy of Matisse, but also of the Italian Renaissance. Beginning with Futurism Repainted in Colour (1966), he often diverted himself by coming clean about the legacy before it was even spotted: Piero della Francesca, De Chirico, Boccioni, Picabia and Monet were just a few of the Masters done over by Schifano.
Women and drugs were his main weaknesses. He went out with Anita Pallenberg in her pre-Jagger days, and it was a relationship with Afdora Franchetti - later Henry Fonda's wife - which led to his first prison sentence; she was stopped at Fiumicino airport in 1966 with a packet of marijuana destined for Schifano.
Later, living up to his poete maudite image, he took to heroin, often paying his dealers in art. It took him a decade to emerge from the tunnel of addiction and throw himself back into painting; his artistic rehabilitation was marked by an important retrospective in Rome in 1980 and by his 1982 Venice Biennale show.
Schifano had a love-hate relationship with the market. He annoyed the galleries by giving away works to just about anybody who came to visit. In the late Sixties and early Seventies he helped finance extra-parliamentary groups on the far-left fringe, claiming this was the only option for someone who earned money "with such brutal ease".
In his determination to live on the edge, Schifano predated New York's enfant terrible of the Eighties, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Those who knew him well say it was a wonder he lived so long.Reuse content