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Piero Dorazio and Mary Obering
Bortolami: The Upstairs at 39 Walker

By David Rhodes, April 29, 2024

This exhibition of two first-rate painters, one Italian, and the other American, who met for the first time in 1968 at the Marlborough Gallery, in New York while Mary Obering (1937-2022) was still a graduate student at the University of Denver. They became friends and colleagues, and are shown together here for the first time. Piero Dorazio (1927-2005) became a mentor for Obering, and their relationship was one of the many bridges enabled by Dorazio between the Italian and New York art worlds. Dorazio had been visiting the U.S. since 1953 for the Harvard International Seminars, stopping off in New York where he knew many European émigré artists, including Duchamp, Richter, and Kiesler. His main interest in American painting then was with that of Newman, Louis, Reinhardt, and Rothko although he knew many others. Dorazio shared with these artists an intensive interest in color, but where his interest diverged was in his specific use of color as energy, light, and efflorescence rhythmically and for its effect—he had also already moved away from Informel and Action Painting in his use of woven geometric structures. 

Rome too, Dorazio’s hometown, was by the 1960s a hub for an Italian/American synthesis in painting cultures that saw influence moving in both directions. Beginning in the late forties, Rome was again the center of the Italian avant-garde, and Dorazio was part of the group Forma I, which included Pietro Consagra, Achille Perilli, Giulio Turcato and Carla Accardi who sought to recover painterly abstraction from the right-wing Futurists. Oberling, living in New York where Minimalism was ascending, also experienced Dorazio’s influence, and support. Obering, a rational reductivist at the outset of her career in New York—who had studied experimental psychology before she transferred to painting—received a BA in Psychology at Hollins College in 1959, studied calculus at Radcliffe College (Harvard’s women’s college) and did post- bachelor work in experimental psychology with BF Skinner at Harvard, at a later date—eventually changed her work significantly: absorbing influences from the Italian Renaissance; using egg tempura and gold leaf; techniques and materials of the Italian Old Masters with contemporary minimalist form.


By the late seventies, the two artists had, and from different directions, arrived at works that are interesting to see together in dialogical relation. Obering’s Sets series: paintings based on the perceptual correspondence of lines differently oriented to the responses of brain cells, comprise various panels in a horizontal format with overlapping tempera bands that optically rise and fall. In the same years, Dorazio, also worked with horizontal paintings and used bands of color that produced animated, highly chromatic interlocking configurations, as we see in paintings from these years presented here.


Mermaid (1984) is a departure for Obering as now an assertive diagonality is introduced in a green, composite, multi-panel painting. Oberling’s interest in science is consistent: Mermaid is from a series named Reptile, referencing a shape that is constructed from smaller versions of itself, a “Rep-tile.” Dorazio, also emphasizing diagonality, takes for example, Wonder (1986) and Vis a Vis (1988) and, while retaining his preoccupation with a retooled Futurist style painting that by the 1980s, in its distilled chromatic dynamism and complexity, had evolved far beyond that aesthetic’s original limits. 


Presented in vitrines, letters, and personal ephemera shared between the two artists during the important years of their relationship that was decades long, are a moving and inspiring testament to see here with their paintings. Quoted in the gallery press release is, and worth repeating here, a letter of July 25, 1997, that Obering wrote to Dorazio, “it was you who made me more aware than ever of my identity and my destiny, and you who helped give me the courage to live my life as an artist.”


Piero Dorazio

Vis a Vis, 1988
Oil on canvas
63 × 78 3/4 inches


Mary Obering
Mermaid, 1984

Egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed panel

36 × 72 inches

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