Pamela Talese, on site Termini. Photo courtesy Pamela Talese
From the Brooklyn Navy Yard to the outskirts of Rome, Pamela Talese captures stories of cities in transition on canvas
By Alizah Salario
When Pamela Talese traveled to Rome with the intention of painting places where new and old architecture intersect, she didn’t anticipate seeing America’s possible future in Italy’s past. But Talese, who has long captured New York’s outer boroughs, hopped on her bike and found a fascinating visual landscape along the periphery of Rome that is defined, in part, by the history of Fascism. Her latest exhibition, “The Third Rome,” (the title takes its name from Giuseppe Mazzini’s dictum that “After the Rome of the emperors, after the Rome of the Popes, there will come the Rome of the people”) now on display at Robert Simon Fine Art, Inc., on the UES, explores themes of pseudo-populism and fallen heroes in a series of evocative, small-scale oil paintings.
Talese, a lifelong New Yorker, spoke to Straus News about the similarities between Benito Mussolini and Robert Moses, how her famous parents influenced her approach to the artist’s life, and the disappearing Upper East Side of her youth.Tell me about the inspiration behind “The Third Rome.” What drew you to the city?
I can’t really say why it was that Rome called. I had always loved Rome...Romans are very much like New Yorkers. They are funny, they’re a little abrupt, they can be rude, they’re moody, so it felt very familiar to me ... The more I was there, the more I stand in a place, the more I feel intuitively. Then I do some research and it’s like wow, there’s a really big story here.How so? What was the story?
I began to spend more time in the Foro Italico [a sports complex intended for the Olympic games] where there are several Carrara marble statues of athletes ... these amazing, oversized, muscular, sort of these perfect male bodies are all around the Foro Italico [formerly Foro Mussolini, built during his regime] ... I thought that they were really campy, so I never paid much attention to them. But somehow that summer in the heat, the first summer of Trump, whatever I was going through at the time, made me look at these sculptures differently, and I began to think ... all of these young men were sent off to war completely under-equipped. Half of the Italian army ended up being imprisoned or in work camps. It was all propaganda, and no strategy. So the story of Italy in the 20th century is a sad one, it’s a really tragic one, and I think it’s that tragedy that I began to feel that summer.That’s interesting to think of the parallels between the massive construction projects in our city today and these massive, early 20th century projects.
I was born and raised on the Upper East Side ... And I remember when there were three major companies. It was Turner, Tishman and Trump in the 70s, and they were tearing up the city that I knew, so I was acutely aware of urban development at a very young age. There’s a wonderful book by Nathan Silver, “Lost New York” ... maybe just seeing that book [as a young child] made me aware of preservation, and buildings, and the virtue of certain buildings ... another thing that I’ve said is that Benito Mussolini is the Robert Moses of Rome. They are very similar in sort of being master builders, they both were in love with the car and they both thought nothing of displacing thousands of residents for their big projects.You sound like a true New Yorker.
I’m such a New Yorker. It’s sort of sad. We’re very provincial in that way.So what do you miss about the Upper East Side you knew growing up?
I’m a little bit despairing about the amount of development that’s going on on the Upper East Side. I mean, you walk on a block, an early to mid-20th century block, and then all of a sudden ... it looks very surgical. To me, it looks like somebody pulled a tooth out. You’ll see a gap on the corner, especially everything that’s happened on Lexington and Third. That to me is a huge loss. I know that the world’s global population is expanding, and I understand why people want to live here. I mean, so do I. It’s a problem with scale, for me. We have some really beautiful, gracious streets ... there were these wonderful pastry shops — the Eclair — there were a couple of German or German-American pastry shops that made these kind of cookies that I have never seen again.Did you parents encourage a career in the arts?
I should say I did everything I could not to be a painter. I’m no fool. My original plan was to be a magazine designer, and on and off for about eight years I was an interior designer. And I worked briefly for Parish-Hadley, and I worked for David Kleinberg [Design Associates], a job I loved ... There was one day I went up to Coney Island just to do another drawing of this building that was not a building of note, but I liked the composition, and it was gone. And I thought okay, I have to move on this. It wasn’t so much that I thought that I had a big art career, because I didn’t at the time. I didn’t even know it was my calling. I felt the urgency of documenting these things in the way I saw them before they disappeared. And that’s where it started.
I quit my job in 2000 ... my father [author Gay Talese] was not thrilled. He was not delighted. My mother [publisher Nan Talese] was much more encouraging. She had always thought that I was an artist, and I had been resisting it. And they are still kind of puzzled. Really, they’re wonderful, they’re nice, they’re concerned...I’m concerned, but it’s too late for me to become a paralegal.I’ve always felt that way about writing. Did your parents give you any advice? I mean, you’re a storyteller in many ways.
I think that there’s a storytelling aspect in my family, and I guess while there wasn’t direct advice, they led by example. Both of my parents, who are in their 80s, are still working. I have a sister as well, and the four of us, we work all the time. That’s just the way we are oriented ... you know, my mother publishes amazing literary authors that are occasionally commercially successful, like Margaret Atwood or Ian McEwan or Pat Conroy, but she doesn’t do it because she can tell that they’re going to be a big seller. She does it because she believes in the work.
And my father very much goes off on his direction, sometimes against some persuasive advice. He is called in a certain way, and that’s the work he does, and certainly the work he does is not on trend. I’m a realist who paints mostly on location, and what’s been fascinating about this show is ... this work is transitional not only in my own career, but also in the ways people see Rome. I guess from my parents, I learned to just forge ahead.