Little known in the United States, Fausto Melotti created some of the most charming work of the last century. While “charming” might be perceived as an ideal word for damning with faint praise, that is anything but the case. His work is charming in the sense of an enchantment, an invitation to a world of sparkling harmonies and intricate choreography. Born in Italy in 1901, Melotti took a degree in engineering but eventually turned to sculpture, an occupation that proved in every way a perfect extension of his engineering studies. His earliest work in the 1930s was devoted to modestly scaled, abstract bas-reliefs in plaster. The very use of plaster as the end result was peculiar insofar as it was traditionally the means to an end, that is, something ultimately realized in marble or bronze. Thus, from the start, Melotti underlined his rejection of the monumental in favor of the intimate and the domestic.
While his early work was essentially investigating planar volumes, it also had an architectural presence that would continue into the 1950s. Indeed, the architectural nuance would slowly overtake the abstraction as Melotti increasingly turned to modeled Lilliputian interiors (or stage sets) that surely share the same strange air as Giorgio de Chirico’s haunted cityscapes. Melotti’s tiny “metaphysical theaters” suggest stories that are alternately heartening and tragic; they could easily exist as models for mise-en-scènes dedicated to such contemporaneous authors as Alberto Moravia or Jean-Paul Sartre. Working primarily in ceramic and terra-cotta, Melotti insistently saluted the craft of artisans just as several of the Arte Povera artists would do a decade later. Unlike the Arte Povera contingent, however, he also embraced narrative with the occasional metaphor or whimsical aside enhancing his miniaturized world.
The work that Melotti is arguably best known for emerged in the 1960s when he turned to metal. Inspired by his great passion for music, the artist’s work exploded with glistening, effusive compositions in brass, copper, and steel that are three-dimensional scores for music of your own invention. Delicately wrought and responsive to their environment, these objects, including the Walker Art Center’s Contrappunto Domestico (Domestic Counterpoint) (1973), possess an exquisite nervousness that resonates in the surrounding air. The best of the metal sculptures are balanced abstractions of unquestionable loveliness and brilliant engineering. As is the case with Alexander Calder, another artist who used air as just another material and understood the merits of craft, Melotti makes grace look necessary and beauty natural.