Anthony Panzera’s solo exhibition, “Because I could not stop for Death,” shown at Hunter College in New York City (July 31–September 26, 2015), explored the memento mori or vanitas genre. The title was borrowed from Emily Dickinson’s famous poem, and the “MM” that Panzera (b. 1941) uses to name his paintings stands for memento mori. His work is art historically rich, as well as aesthetically pleasing. The influence of the still lifes painted by the modern classicist Giorgio Morandi is clear, although Panzera’s palette is more saturated.
Small in scale, MM I Bittersweet (2011) perfectly demonstrates Panzera’s quest for symmetry and proportion, along with his consciousness of the inevitability of death. A cobalt blue backdrop is formed by a luxurious piece of studio cloth, with a sensuously upturned fold revealing, at the bottom left, the edge of a wooden table. On top of the table, set dramatically against the eye-catching cobalt blue of the drapery, is a kiln-made vase, its blue-grey glaze chipped off to reveal the earthy brown of clay. A few twigs of bittersweet in the old vase, with small delicate yellow flowers and drying brown leaves, sustain the theme of impending death. Bittersweet, despite its benign beauty, can wrap itself around a tree and strangle it to death. The traditional memento mori symbol, a skull, is here cropped on the top. Panzera places it at an angle against the vase so that its curve is not entirely disrupted. With the skeletal profile facing towards the right and the branches of bittersweet mirroring its direction, this small work is an ingenious composition.
MM IV Bouguereau’s Medium (2014) is Panzera’s homage to the great nineteenth-century French painter. After discovering this artist in a 1984 exhibition catalogue, Panzera adopted Bouguereau’s painting formula for his own work. (More recently, he has extolled the virtuosity of Bouguereau’s drawing technique; see “Drawing Basics: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, A Girl in Peasant Costume” in Artist Daily, Drawing Blog.) Panzera sets the scene of his homage with a table covered in elegant black satin, recalling the various kinds of satin once required during the different stages of mourning. The objects on the table become players in the drama. Panzera’s studied arrangement of symbols conveys his pursuit of classical harmonious balance, seen best in his depiction of an antique bas-relief of a nude Greek equestrian.
Artistic creations become part of a continuum of inspiration over the centuries in this art historical altar. The table becomes a sort of horizontal epitaph to the artist’s mediums. Panzera includes a palette bearing fresh smudges of oil paint, and a mahl stick is placed reverently on a discarded triangular piece of sculptor’s wood. Behind these objects is the bas-relief, and next to it four bottles in various shapes and sizes, containing the necessary mixing liquids for canvas preparation. A Sennelier marbled-paper drawing portfolio is colored a paler blue than that of the backdrop’s cobalt. A frontal view of a half skull signals the vanity of artistic and intellectual pursuits. Hanging from the far right corner is a beige curtain, its folds partly covering the top of the skull. The rectangles, triangles and curves of the painting signal that geometry plays a vital role in Panzera’s work.
Panzera continues his memento mori and vanitas explorations in MM VII The Sculler (2014). Here he chooses a collage of Thomas Eakins’s famous work to memorialize a young athlete who committed suicide. Indeed, Panzera’s compositions are, in a sense, personal altarpieces, like the retablos of Spanish and Latin American art, which invest still lifes with private significance. Here the artist chooses, instead of the traditional hourglass, a bed of sand to symbolize time’s quick passing. Upon the sand he places his votive objects: a plant with brownish dying leaves, a jar of sea salt and a small box, the interior of which creates another small retablo, in which the artist places the Eakins collage. Beside the collage are a starfish, various shells, a horseshoe crab shell and brittle conches. A skull completes this small memento mori stage set.
Panzera’s fascination with proportion, symmetry and iconography are reflected in his forty-year exploration of Leonardo’s notebooks, which will culminate in his forthcoming book, The Leonardo Series, as well as the exhibition that will accompany it at New York City’s National Academy Museum in January 2016. Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Gallery, Hunter College, 695 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10065. email@example.com
—Cristina La Porta