During the 1960s, Italian photographer Ugo Mulas shot the reigning lions and rising stars of New York’s art world. He set out the range of that experience in large contact sheets and, in the process, opened a door to the more conceptual preoccupatios of his final works.Lured from his legal studies by the art talk at Milan’s Bar Giamaica, and armed with a borrowed camera and a few words of advice about f-stops, Ugo Mulas became a photographer. His first assignment was to cover the 1954 Venice Biennale with photojournalist and friend Mario Dondero. Mulas documented every subsequent Biennale through 1972; he died of cancer less than a year later aged 44.During the brief arc of his career, Mulas mastered every professional option offered by the medium at that time: photojournalism, portraiture, street photography, advertising, fashion, book illustration and, as his illnes progressed, studio-bound experiments.Yet the works for which he is best known (or “unknown”, since the photographer’s name is often dissociated from the now-canonical images) are his pictures of artists although these embrace a range of subjects – David Smith in Italy forging the “Voltri” series for the 1962 Spoleto Festival, Alexander Calder clowing outside his studio in Sachè, Lucio Fontana posied to slash a canvas – the most extensive and penetrating body of images is the cumulative record Mulas made of the New York art world during visits to the city in 1964, ’65 and ’67.The catalyst for the first trip was an encounter at the Biennale with Leo Castelli and Alan Solomon, the director of the Jewish Museum, who had organized the United States’s representation in Venice.

Nineteen sixty-four was the watershed year Robert Rauschenberg became the first American to win the international prize for painting; the attraction of the U.S. was irresistible. In New York, Solomon served as Virgil for the photographer, who spoke little English and he later wrote the introduction to the extraordinary book that resulted, New York: The New Art Scene (1967).
Inevitably an air of nostalgia has settled on these pictures of New York’s artists, writers, collectors and dealers. But the photographs always were, and remain, unsentimental, well-informed, canny. Rauschenberg’s unmade bed – his combine Bed of 1955 was in Castelli’s collection – knowingly looms in the foreground of one studio shot. The photograph of Robert and Ethel Scull’s dining room, with a fragment of James Rosenquist’s Silver Skies (1962) just glimpsed across a table strewn with roses and laden with Renaissance bronzes, essay a still-life perspective on the acquisitive temperament well before Louise Lawler ventured into that territory.
Last fall the Castelli Gallery exhibited two dozen vintage photographs by Mulas of Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman and Roy Lichtenstein which were taken during the New York visits. Most were straightforward enlargements, though a few were matted in pairs. One photo crisply summarizes the adjustments and abstractions intrinsic to Lichtenstein’s transpositions from comic-strip graphics to paint. It presents a cropped view of the woman’s head in The Sound of Music (1964), rendered with Lichtenstein’s trademark dots and a fiercely angular stripe for shading, beside a wall taped with source clippings and drawings used for that canvas and others. There is Johns in 1964, finishing a “Map” while holding an open atlas behind his back like a schoolchild being quizzed in geography. Three years later, in a moodily lit studio, he is painting Harlem Light, or rather his animated shadow seems to do the work.he exhibition’s greatest fascination was generated by seven contact sheets, all printed on paper as generously sized as the individual enlargements. Some of the contacts function in a fairly direct narrative fashion. Fifteen shots of Newman, arms outstreched before an apparently blank canvas, bring to mind an avuncular conductor leading the Boston pops. In a fittingly comic-strip-like fashion, Lichtenstein and one of his painted ceramic mannequin heads enact an oblique romantic scenario before a backdrop that includes a painted sunrise and thought and speech bubbles. More striking, however, are the big contact sheets which combine several rolls of film in syncopated compositions. These register scores of negatives in regular strips surrounded and occasionally interrupted by the blackest black of exposed photosensitive paper. Changes of scene and clothing mark breaks in time, as the repetitions of the negative numbers, and even a change in film brand, remind us that the photographer paused to reload. The out-of-frame circumstances of one shot are disclosed by the information supplied in a nearby frame. For example, one negative in a sequence reveals the watchful presence of Annalee Newman, who is just out of view in the images that center on her famous husband. You can hunt down the negatives which served for the enlargements on display – one is even roll with two shots of an earlier photo, hanging on the wall, that shows the youthful Castelli in a fedora.

Mulas did not simply decide to show his working contact sheets, as if to unveil the photographer’s equivalent of the painter’s sketchbook, or to elicit admiration for the wisdom of his selections. He composed these contacts as autonomous art works, complex and provocative in their own right. They flatly reject the self-sufficiency and conclusiveness of the single, decisive image, offering instead profusion, indeterminacy and excess. For all this proliferation of visual data, the contacts nevertheless acknowledge the (arbitrary) industry standards for the 35mm negative size, and they display modular lengths of the 36-frame roll, a format as fixed as the dimensions of Flavin’s fluorescent tubes. In this givenness of the materials, there is suppression of the artist’s temperament and a conception of the photograph as first cousin to the Duchampian readymade, an idea Mulas would explore in his final series of works, Le Verifiche (Verifications) [see A.i.A., Jan.’00].
A number of New York experiences likely played a part in shaping Mulas’s experimental leanings. He wrote about first planning to stage a narrative sequence of photos with Lichtenstein and than deciding to use an uninterrupted strip of negatives for the minidrama. Mulas was familiar with Warhol’s use of photo-silk screening to generate repeated images within a single piece; indeed, his portrait of the collector and publisher Harry Abrams includes a 1963 Warhol composition with a multiplied image of Rauschemberg. More conceptually pertinent is a spread in New York: The New Art Scene that reproduces, in 10 strips of three frames each, 30 shots taken during a projection of Warhol’s film of curator Henry Geldzahler. Warhol had already opened convention by filming a perfectly motionless Geldzahler. Mulas responded in the same spirit, appropriating 30 second hand and somewhat distorted likenesses, and forcing the motion picture to “regress” back to a sequence of individual stills. Mulas’s photographs, in part, tell the story of what Solomon circumspectly called “a certain New York”. They are also about a passage in the history of photography, when the medium outgrew its early positivism and undertook the more self-critical (and self-absorbed) practices of the late 20th century. And the photos are, of course, about Mulas. The last five years of his life concided with that seismic shift in the landscape of photography. During a final interview, Mulas disclosed that it was precisely the hours he spent as an observer in the studios of other artists that precipitated his own desire to more deeply penetrate the nature of photography. In this light, the New York portraits and contact sheets represent, respectively, the origin of that desire and the instrument of its first fulfillment.

“Ugo Mulas: Sequences 1964-1965” was on view at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York (Oct. 17-Dec. 16, 2000). The gallery also had on hand a portfolio of Mulas’s photographs of Marcel Duchamp.