A Modern Take on an Ancient Art

Smalti di De Poli

After visiting museums and ancient archaeological sites in the 1930s, Paolo De Poli, trained as a traditional landscape painter, turned his focus to the venerable tradition of enamel. Through collaborations with other artists and architects and committing himself to meticulous standards and constant experimentation, De Poli brought the ancient craft into the modern era, becoming one of the greatest artists of the medium.

De Poli began his work in high-fired enameled metal in 1934 and his studio's initial output were colorful, jewel-like decorative objects such as cigarette cases and powder boxes. Though the studio was made to create small production runs, the popularity of these items quickly caught on and the studio steadily grew in both size and ambition. Smalti di De Poli, the company under which he produced his more widely-distributed designs, was officially established in 1937 and it offered a range of vases, tableware, frames, candlesticks and jewelry.

De Poli in his studio, circa 1950

De Poli began collaborating with Gio Ponti in 1944, debuting a collection of decorative panels and furniture with enameled surfaces at Ferruccio Asta in Milan. For the next decade, they worked together on numerous architectural projects, including buildings at the University of Padua and several ocean liners for which Ponti designed the interiors and De Poli created mosaics. In the 1950s, after the war, Ponti and De Poli designed a collection of animal figures—Ponti folded and cut paper to create the angular and expressive forms and De Poli translated them into enameled copper in bright and captivating hues. Selections from this series were included in the influential exhibition Italy at Work: Her Renaissance in Design Today at the Art Institute of Chicago (it was also shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art) in 1950, bringing their charming appeal to a wider audience. The following year, De Poli received his third gold medal at the Milan Triennale for his recent works, including his and Ponti's lively animal sculptures.

Curators at the Art Institute of Chicago, reviewing De Poli's works for the exhibition Italy at Work, circa 1950; Catalog for De Poli's and Ponti's enameled animals, circa 1955. Photos: APV, De Poli photo archive.

Curatorial Alchemy

Our paths first crossed, unknown until many years later, at an intimate yet bustling wedding reception in a south Chicago apartment. This was probably 30 years ago, perhaps even the same year a new gallery, Torno Wright, opened at the end of my street to a fanfare of Eames, heralding new changes to come. Criss-crossing breezes of chance encounters, meandering spirits, hazy focus of time and space, of enthusiasm and knowledge sought, now united again in the same city.

That same serendipity, prompting impulse and discovery, guided welcome reward in the crucible of that great industrial city, still littered with the artefacts of the American mid-century. It was within this uneven yet fertile terrain, hidden slightly below surface, that Patrick’s intuitive talent—honed first as photographer then embellished as artist—would treasure the valuable neglected as passionate collector, and then as the inspirational dealer that I was to meet again, years later in New York City.

If asked to select one word to describe Patrick, I would resist and pick two. The first would be curiosity—a fundamental essential, to stimulate inquiry and rigour in all things, both great and small, of any era or region, type or surface. Even the most fleeting survey of this selection for sale is a celebration of innovation and of inspiration—an unerring eye for the unusually exceptional, or perhaps the exceptionally unusual. The chances are, that these are indeed discoveries that you have not yet realized that you needed to make.

Mentor, would be my second word. If artefacts and objects articulate visual, cultural and historic language, then the fluency of skillful mentorship—to guide, nurture, describe and explain—releases the eloquence of murmuring histories. In this capacity Patrick is that most earnest and sincere of excellent narrators. If ever I had friends, clients or colleagues visiting New York looking for unusual inspiration, there was always the certainty that Patrick’s gallery would offer them a glimpse of the hitherto unseen or the unusually seductive, always with the reassurance of the most fascinating story waiting to be told.

Mentorship and curiosity, when balanced in equal measure, reveal the precious alchemy of a curator. And it is the duty of the mature curator to discern and detect, to cultivate change, and from there to pioneer, and to share. Innovation is never static, and the Present is already the Future. Fresh dialogs evolve, energies to be nurtured, opportunities to be guided. Renewed and re-orientated, Patrick now faces fully forward—as benefactor, interlocutor and mentor to a new, inquisitive generation of talented creators, and the quest for discovery rejuvenates.

— Simon Andrews