The Italian painter Afro Basaldella, known simply as Afro, is best known for his calligraphic, abstract work from the 1950s. As a wave of painting called Art Informel (“formless” art, named for loose shapes and compositions lacking a central focal point) swept Europe and regional circles of modern artists proliferated, Afro joined the short-lived painters circle Gruppo degli otto (“group of eight”). Over the course of this decade, he exhibited in New York, struck up a friendship with Willem de Kooning, and drew influence from the bold style and energetic brushwork of other Abstract Expressionists. Afro’s late works are characterized by flattened geometric forms, a stark contrast to his earlier gestural paintings. Early in his career he was affiliated with the “Scuola Romano” (“school of Rome”), a group of Italian Expressionist artists active in Rome before World War II.
In 1950, he travelled to New York City, and began a twenty-year collaboration with the Catherine Viviano Gallery. Dore Ashton wrote about Afro in 1955 in Art Digest: “Like most Italians, Afro knows how to celebrate. The fanciful, ebullient side of his nature emerges in the high-keyed recent paintings—those in which he allowed himself the most freedom and spontaneity to date. In these, he celebrates the delights of senses”.
Afro was shown in an exhibition called The New Decade: 22 European Painters and Sculptors, which toured the United States. His work was included at documenta 1 in Kassel, Germany. Afro aligns with Moreni, Corpora, Morlotti, Birolli, Santomaso, Turcato and Vedova, previous members of the “Fronte nuovo delle Arti”, together they form the “Gruppo degli Otto” (Group of Eight).
By the mid-1950s Afro’s art was obtaining worldwide reputation, and he received the honor of Best Italian Artist at the 1956 Venice Biennale. In 1957, he was recruited to teach for eight months at Mills College in Oakland, California. While artist-in-residence at the school he made a mural for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. It was titled The Garden of Hope and was included amongst works by Appel, Arp, Calder, Matta, Miró, Picasso and Tamayo at UNESCO.
Afro continued to show his work internationally. He was invited to the second documenta, and held exhibitions at MIT and numerous European museums. He won first prize at the Carnegie Triennial in Pittsburgh and the Italian prize at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The Guggenheim bought his 1957 painting Night Flight. In 1961, Guggenheim curator James Johnson Sweeney published a monograph on his work, where he wrote: “His color is sensuous, warm—never cold; fluid, not structural; free-edged, never sharply contoured. Light and color, shadow and shape achieve a suggested space effect through their ordering and flood it with the glories of his great predecessors: this festive spirit, this celebration of light and life—of life through light”.
In 1968, he is appointed professor at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, he has to leave the post in 1971 for health reasons. Afro died in 1976 in Zürich. The following year, a monograph by Cesare Brandi was published. In 1978 the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome paid him homage in the form of a major retrospective. In 1992 a complete exhibition was held in Milan at Palazzo Reale. The Catalogue Raisonné of Afro was presented in November 1997 at the American Academy in Rome, and in 1998 at the Guggenheim Foundation in Venice.