Milton Gendel, 99, Dies; Art Critic and Photographer Who Took Root in Rome
Posted November 2, 2018 11:09 p.m. EDT
Milton Gendel, an art critic who left Manhattan nearly 70 years ago for Rome, where he became an advocate for postwar Italian artists and a photographer of subjects as diverse as Sicilian peasants and British royalty, died on Oct. 11 at his home there. He was 99.
His daughter Anna Mathias confirmed his death.
A charming expatriate and tireless networker, Gendel became a significant part of Rome’s artistic world from the 1950s nearly until his death. In a series of spectacular apartments he rented over the decades, he hosted salons that brought together artists and other cultural personalities.
And, as the Rome correspondent for ARTnews magazine, he became an indispensable voice who told the world about artists like Alberto Burri, Tancredi and Toti Scialoja.
“His criticism was very prescient,” Peter Benson Miller, the Andrew Heiskell arts director of the American Academy in Rome, said in a telephone interview. “He explained what Italian art was all about for an American audience with a nondogmatic, international approach that set him apart.”
As Burri was becoming known in the United States for his abstract expressionist paintings that made adventurous use of burlap, plastic and wood, Gendel wrote about his artmaking in ARTnews in 1954.
“He rejects the usual formal relationship between painter and painting, where the canvas remains fixed and the painter moves forward,” he wrote. “With Burri, both he and the canvas are in movement. The canvas is laid on the floor, dragged across the room, propped up in a corner or hung on the wall. It is attacked from the front or from the rear.”
Even as Gendel embedded himself in Rome’s artistic and social scenes, he was also creating a photographic oeuvre of la dolce vita Italy, of Italian street scenes, reflecting the influence of Henri Cartier-Bresson, of poor Sicilians in the countryside after World War II, and of artists, aristocrats and celebrities.
Barbara Drudi, a professor of art history at the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence, said Gendel’s neorealist photographs of Sicily “were more poetic” than those taken by Italian neorealists.
“He didn’t show the poverty, the sad part,” Drudi, who has written about him, said during a panel discussion about Gendel’s photography at New York University in 2014. “He could catch the poetry of Palermo, and you see something of the Old World of south Italy that is gone now.”
Gendel was well known for his photographs of the British royal family, to whom he was introduced by his second wife, Judy Montagu, a close friend of Princess Margaret. The princess spent many summers with the Gendels and was godmother to Mathias.
Gendel used his privileged access to produce photographs that showed a domesticated side to the royals. In 1976, while at Balmoral, the family’s Scottish estate, he captured Queen Elizabeth II, wearing a kerchief and tartan kilt, feeding hamburger to her corgis.
He also photographed Prince Philip, her husband, dozing at the foot of a tree after a hunting party. During that trip, Gendel once told Vanity Fair, Princess Margaret confided in him that she and her husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones, the Earl of Snowdon, were having marital problems, and she pushed him to inform the queen, who was in a room nearby.
When he reluctantly told the queen, she chuckled and said, “That might explain a few things.” The couple divorced in 1976.
In one of his memorable photographs that had no royals in sight, a 1950 self-portrait in Italy, Gendel took a picture of his extended shadow stretching to the Appian Way, with ruins in the background.
In another, on a trip to the hospital in France where Vincent Van Gogh was treated after severing his ear, he photographed his wife, Judy, perfectly composed in open doorways, with a scarf around her head, mimicking the self-portrait of the bandaged artist.
Gendel was born on Dec. 16, 1918, in New York City to immigrants from Russia. His father, Meyer, owned a garment business; his mother Anna (Alpert) Gendel, had been a seamstress on the Lower East Side of Manhattan before her marriage. While single, she was arrested for hitting a nonunion worker with an umbrella during a long strike at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory before the fire there that killed 146 workers in 1911.
At Columbia University, Gendel earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history and was an assistant to Meyer Schapiro, the noted art historian there.
Gendel and painter Robert Motherwell, a friend, became part of a group of writers and artists, including André Breton and Max Ernst, who had fled Europe early in World War II and settled in Greenwich Village. There, Gendel and Evelyn Wechsler — they married in 1944 — regularly hosted them at his home on Washington Square, prefiguring his Roman salons.
“Evelyn and Milton Gendel are youthful and breezy,” novelist Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary. “They keep open-house for all the artists, tirelessly hospitable. Almost every week we meet there: Lipchitz and his wife; Paul Goodman, Matta, Pajarita, Noguchi, Kay and Yves Tanguy, Moira, André Breton. It is informal and casual. They call up. We come.”
Gendel began taking photographs with a borrowed Leica while serving in the Army in China, Shanghai and Formosa in 1945 and 1946.
He wanted to return to China on a Fulbright scholarship in 1949, but the communist takeover there made him choose Italy instead. It was an auspicious choice: It allowed him to study in Italy and begin his personal dolce vita.
Gendel lived well on his Fulbright money, buying a 1935 Fiat roadster, and met important patrons and artists. After his scholarship ended, he went to work in public relations and speechwriting for industrialist Adriano Olivetti.
An affair with Vittoria Olivetti, his boss’s daughter-in-law, produced twins Sebastiano and Natalia. He subsequently divorced his wife, Evelyn, and married Montagu in 1962.
His affair with Olivetti and its overlap with the start of his romance with Montagu were turned into a novel, “His Own Man” (1961), by Martha Gellhorn, the celebrated war correspondent. Milton and Judy Gendel were married for 10 years, until her death in 1972. Gendel’s work for ARTnews (and another publication, Art in America) continued for many more years, as did the gatherings at his apartments that he rented in palazzos from various aristocrats. He landed his most recent apartment, in the 17th-century Palazzo Primoli, in exchange for donating his photographic archive to the Primoli Foundation.
“He was incredibly knowledgeable and wore his erudition lightly,” Miller, the American Academy official, said in the interview. “He was full of interesting stories.”
In addition to his daughter Mathias, he is survived by his third wife, Monica Incisa della Rocchetta; his son, Sebastiano Grendel Berla; and five grandchildren. Another daughter, Natalia, died in the 1980s. Although Gendel had become a de facto Italian, he never gave up his American citizenship.
“People would say, ‘Oh, you’ve been here since 1949, admit you’re a Roman,'” Mathias said in a telephone interview. “And he would say, deadpan: `I am not. I am a New Yorker and a Jeffersonian democrat, just passing through.'”