Francesco Polenghi

(Milan, Italy, 1936-2020)

Francesco Polenghi, a painter whose unusual life course meant that his public career as an artist began only when he was in his late sixties, has died in his hometown of Milan, Italy, at the age of eighty-four, a victim of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Coming from a family that had found success in the dairy industry, Polenghi attended New York University, where despite his early interest in art he graduated with a degree in economics in 1961. He remained in New York until 1966, before returning to Italy, where he worked in advertising—painting all the while. Fascinated by the philosophy and religions of Asia, he travelled to India for the first time in 1977 and lived there in an ashram from 1981 through 1988.
It was on his return to Italy that Polenghi returned to painting in a more concerted way. Arturo Schwarz, the scholar, writer, and former art dealer best known as an expert on Marcel Duchamp, became an enthusiastic champion, curating Polenghi’s first major exhibition, at the Fondazione Mudima in Milan in 2003. Through Schwarz, curator-critic Demetrio Paparoni also got to know Polenghi and likewise became a passionate advocate. This was an artist who never gained a wide public or an active market but rather the devoted adherence of an ardent few.
Polenghi’s mature paintings were abstractions—usually on a square canvas—made up of multitudes of tiny tubular marks forming mercurially shifting allover patterns suggestive of great energy; they were sometimes likened to Leonardo’s late drawings of deluges. But in Polenghi’s paintings this sense of an overwhelming natural force is accompanied by a great psychic equilibrium, perhaps owing to his peculiar way of working: As he painted, he would constantly recite a mantra intended to quiet mental activity in order to achieve a kind of absolute emptiness. In other words, he approached the act of painting as a meditative ritual. But one hardly had to share the artist’s spiritual convictions to be moved by their hypnotic results. The critic David Carrier once described how, though areligious and not particularly concerned with spirituality, on a visit to Polenghi’s studio on Milan’s Naviglio Grande (Grand Canal), he suddenly found himself “exalted” as “a strange, almost uncanny calm descended upon me and I found that I was totally still . . . I thought: that spirituality is alive and well in Milan.”