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"A Grandness of Intent"
by F.D. Cossitt
October 26, 1969

In Williamsburg at the 20th Century Gallery there is a remarkable exhibit of paintings by Salvatore Federico, a young painting teacher at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

Working with single and somewhat economical forms placed upon fields of another solid color, Federico’s work has been notable for a sense of quiet mystery; he uses dark, complementary colors, shying away from the noisy contrast of opposites, and his symmetrical forms, somewhat like a plan of battlements or an aerial view of fortications, are ordered and strong.

But in his current exhibit, Federico has expanded his format, designing unstretched canvases to fit entire gallery walls with the result that the viewer is surrounded by these man-sized forms on fields of color that cover whole rooms, and the imposing, quiet authority of the paintings that might be lost by the casual looker passing a four-foot-square, framed canvas becomes inescapable. One of the byproducts of this is the lesson that Minimal artists (who are practically unheard of in Tidewater) are not simply thinking small, but working with a grandness of intent and limited means.

Most artists, given the opportunity of a show, simply go the accustomed way, two or three pictures on this wall, four there, and so on, come in and look around at my things. This routine setup keeps the viewer in the old “Here I am at a picture exhibit” game in which he has learned to defend his inertia by glancing about distractedly, passing from one thing to another in mindless, butterfly fashion. But here is an example of an artist exerting the power offered him (Caligula, for example, made his horse a senator for life), and making a work of art of the exhibit itself.

It also illustrates a current and valid distrust of the easel-painted, portable work of art. Many are questioning our continuing reverence for what may be an archaic art form involving the genius-painter, the sales-minded gallery man, and the wealthy buyer as snobbish, feudal and basically unartistic, giving us, if we can afford it, art in the living room and ugliness in our streets and cities. Certainly not an art for the people, as art has most often been, from the caves on…

So Federico, thinking of everyone who will find himself in the gallery, provides murals rather than easel paintings, directing himself to a public art rather than a private one. At the exhibit’s opening last Monday night, Federico and a few others remained after festivities were over to experience the exhibit in its natural state, as it should be seen, in which its essential joy is in its sense of order and silence.

Unfortunately, this rather radical move gave rise to certain physical shortcomings that could not be eliminated. The lighting, due to the gallery’s extremely low ceilings, is unduly harsh to some of the surfaces, causing bad reflections, and the lights themselves, blazing away in front of the paintings, are quite distracting. The floors present another drawback, all the other surfaces in each gallery being prepared, so that they became an ungainly and unprepared element in the total effect of the room. But it remains an unforgettable show and one that ought to set a standard for the future here in Virginia.

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