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Portrait of an Enigma

Not on view

Portrait of an Enigma

Artist: Attilio Salemmeattilio (American, 1911 - 1955)

Date: 1944
Medium: Pen and black ink on green-gray laid paper
Overall: 9 3/16 x 12 1/8in. (23.3 x 30.8cm)
Inscribed: Recto, lower right (black ink): "Attilio Salemme"
Credit Line: Edward W. Root Bequest
Object number: 57.221
Text Entries

Although Salemme enjoyed the friendship and support of such art world figures as James Johnson Sweeney and Marcel Duchamp, his correspondence discloses a troubled person: he had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for five to six months in the early 1940s. During the mid- 1940s, Salemme’s painting titles reveal a preoccupation with the inexplicable in human communication and relationships. In a 1946 letter he confessed to a friend, “The enigma of life is too big for me to solve. No matter what one does or takes the enigma always has a form to suit the occasion. All my life I have been possessed by enigmas.”(1)

Salemme was a self—taught artist who arrived at his individual expression of elongated, stylized figures by 1943. On a 1946 Guggenheim Foundation application he wrote, “[In 1942-43] I began a study of controlled lines. For six months I limited myself entirely to pen and ink; then I painted in oil.”(2) Salemme described the forms in his works as people, while Sweeney characterized them as “constantly shifting from suggestions of human shapes to suggestions of architectural forms and back again.”(3) In addition, Salemme described his mural commission in 1947 for the USS Argentina, Enigma of Joy, this way: “It is but one painting in an evolution of a series of black and white drawings begun in 1942. My task was the representation of human beings in symbolic extension. . . . From this beginning I developed a personal statement of form whose core is the symbolic personage.(4)

The MWPI drawing dates from this early phase of Salemme’s oeuvre. It is composed of five “figures” that stand symmetrically, and its emotional energy is concentrated toward the center. The outermost two figures are upright, like sentinels. The second from the left seems to float inward, while the second from the right has a level base but also leans inward at its top. The center form is the most dynamic. It pivots on two lines as if it were in a state of great movement or undergoing a metamorphosis. That this collection of figures hovers in an undefined atmosphere is somewhat unusual for Salemme, who often heightened the absurdist tension of his “narratives” by placing the forms in oppressive, if ill-defined, labyrinthine cubicles. However, the precision of the ink drawing reminds one of scientific illustrations; here Salemme united the quality of floating organic cells with geometric, technological shapes.

In January 1945, Salemme had his first one—artist exhibition in New York City at Howard Putzel’s 67 Gallery. Portrait of an Enigma was among the thirty-four paintings and drawings included.(5) Edward Root attended the exhibition and purchased two watercolors and the MWPI drawing.(6) With hopes of cultivating a patron, Salemme wrote to Root the following January to invite him for a studio visit. Root responded favorably within a week.(7) However, the following year, the association between the two was irrevocably breached. Root sent a card, dated January 18, 1947, to Salemme in which the collector described the artist’s pictures as “macabre.”(8) Salemme responded with a bizarre letter objecting to Root’s characterization.(9) In a subsequent letter, dated February 6, 1947, Root corrected Salemme’s misinterpretation by stating that he, Root, was impressed with the artist’s work. However, Root wrote in conclusion, “I am returning your letter. It makes very clear your opinion of me, but I am too old a man to be provoked by other people’s opinions, and I hope that for your own sake you will grow equally independent.”(10)


1. Attilio Salemme Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., microfilm D228, frame 187.

2. Ibid., frame 115.

3. Ibid., frames 818 and 811.

4. Ibid., frame 819.

5. Ibid., frames 116-17. Salemme had been included in a 1944 group show at Peggy

Guggenheim’s gallery/ museum Art of This Century in New York.

6. The watercolors are Root catalog numbers W-48, The Pathos of a Common Affinity, and W-49, In the Realm afFanty (both MWPI). Putzel’s correspondence to Salemme in the wake of the exhibition does not name the purchase but includes a January 13, 1945, telegram with the message, “just sold two watercolors and a drawing" (Salemme Papers, microfilm D228, frame 133). In addition, the April 14, 1945 letter to Putzel from Salemme listing the inventory being returned to the artist does not include these three works (Salemme Papers, microfilm D228, frame 149). Finally, in a 1965 note to the file, Lucia Salemme, the artist’s widow, noted that Root “already owned 3 drawings which he bought from the one-man show at Howard Putzel’s 63 [sic] Gallery in 1945."

7. Salemme Papers, microfilm D228, frames 165-67. In the letter, Salemme reveals that Root had discussed the artist’s Work with Putzel, but Root and Salemme do not seem to have had much contact until this letter.

8. Salemme Papers, microfilm D228, frame 194.

9. Salemme Papers, microfilm D228, frame 747. The letter is undated and is preceded by Lucia Salemme’s qualification that their friend, Penrod Centurion, wrote most of it.

10. Salemme Papers, microfilm D228, frame 195.


Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s).