Subscribe Today
Give a Gift
Customer Service

Phoenix Home and Garden
Subscribe Today!
For the HomeFor the GardenFood & EntertainingResourcesArticle Archive

In Praise of the Figure

Author: Rebecca L. Rhoades
Issue: March, 2018, Page 114
Photos by Michael Woodall

Artist Agnese Udinotti does most of her painting in her spacious studio that she built on the grounds of her home in Paradise Valley. It is designed to fit her overscaled works, such as the two from her “Moving Beyond Captivity” series displayed here; the piece on the wall measures 124"H by 63"W, while the one on the floor is 115"H by 60"W. The boxlike structure is “Sarcophagus: Monument to my Father,” mixed media, 29"H by 84"L by 24"D. On top is a painting of a young child with a red heart. It is an homage to her father, who was executed during World War II, when Udinotti was 4 years old.
Remaining True to Her Artistic Vision, Agnese Udinotti Creates a Realm Devoted to the Human Form

Agnese Udinotti settles into the plush green leather sofa in her living room. Her rescued Coton de Tulear, Peanut, curls up beside her. Dressed in all black, with her long jet-black hair tied in a low ponytail, she commands attention. When she speaks, her words are frank; her gaze is intense. She has seen a lot of changes in Scottsdale’s art scene.

Collections of artwork and mementos cover just about every surface in Udinotti’s home. In the front entrance, an antique cobbler’s table displays ceramic pieces and a wax head form by Udinotti as well as pieces from her personal collection, including a ritual headdress from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria. An etching by Leonard Baskin hangs on the wall. “I am very much inspired by and have an affinity for Baskin’s work because of the emotional content,” the artist says. This piece, “Merian,” measures 18"H by 14"W.
When Udinotti opened her eponymous gallery in 1964, the Valley was a wellspring of experimental art and architecture, due in large part to the work of such authorities as Frank Lloyd Wright and Paolo Soleri. Over the years, that focus shifted. 1965 saw the advent of the Cowboy Artists of America sale at Phoenix Art Museum; the annual event was a huge success for Western artists and increased the visibility and demand for the genre. By the 1980s, collectors’ tastes had turned to abstract art. Many galleries shuttered during the ’90s, their empty buildings replaced by eateries and nightclubs.

Through it all, Udinotti remained steadfast. Bit by bit, she increased the size of her gallery, exhibiting some of the best artists in the state while also growing her own reputation as a distinguished sculptor and painter. Today, the gallery is a bastion of the Old Town art community’s innovative spirit. The reason? Udinotti’s unwavering passion for the human figure.

“I’ve always had a fascination with the human form. It’s where the emotions are created,” she says. “When you look at a piece of figurative art, it’s almost like looking into a mirror. What do you see in there? When you start dealing with figurative art, sooner or later you get to the point where you have to identify the things within you.”

In the living room, a series of monoprints by Edgar Degas hangs above a pew that holds photos, magazines and other personal items. A grouping of black-and-white portraits depict the artist in earlier years. A whimsical sign hints at her personality. “She’s very driven, and she’s never had a sense of self-doubt,” says friend and sculptor, Carl Dahl.
Her home, a historic 1920s adobe villa built by architect Robert Evans, is a treasury of her life’s work. Paintings and sculpture by such celebrated artists as Leonard Baskin, Edgar Degas, Stephen De Staebler and Nobuhito Nishigawara, as well as groupings of centuries-old Byzantine icons, African carvings, Latin American folk art and works by Udinotti herself, are displayed throughout the rooms and outdoor spaces. Flat surfaces are adorned with collections. Vintage tools, metal monograms and tiles embellished with the letter “U” share space on the kitchen table with bronze heads, wood crosses and bowls filled with dried roses; in the living room, more crosses and roses rest next to vintage trinket boxes, miniscule porcelain statuettes and stacks of art books.

Hands are ubiquitous, appearing in clay, wood and even metal. Udinotti points to a small metal knocker, its fingers outstretched. “It comes from Egypt,” she says. “I collect hands on purpose. I love them.

“Everything around me is important,” she adds. “If it doesn’t speak to me, it doesn’t stay.”

“I’ve been here for more than 20 years, and I feel very happy here,” says Udinotti of her adobe home, designed by architect Robert Evans, which she purchased in 1994. Her distinctive signature, in metal letters, welcomes guests. The welded-steel sculpture is by Udinotti.
More art overflows from Udinotti’s studio, a 2,500-square-foot U-shaped structure on the north side of the expansive property. Built in 1999, the cavernous space features a soaring two-story-high ceiling, a sitting room and hall for displaying large pieces, and an upstairs guestroom. The artist designed the structure after being unable to fit a stretcher for a large-scale commission through the doors of her guesthouse, in which she previously painted. Elongated skylights flood the grand, white workspace with natural light. An oversized painting, still wet, lies taped to the ground; a pair of ghostly figures in red and yellow materialize from its dark blue background like two sinuous flames lighting the dark.  

Rudy Turk, former director of the ASU Art Museum, once wrote that the darkness in Udinotti’s work represents the past, a kind of dark subconscious. “I like what he says about emergence of the figures, because I never add to the surface. I always take out,” says the artist, describing her painting style. Udinotti begins each piece by covering the canvas in the light shades seen in her human forms. “Once the color is dry, the image is already there, so I bring it out. I do that by covering the whole area with a dark color,” she says. “Then I wipe away, or dig out, the figures. I never sit there and start painting a shape.”  

Udinotti shares a special moment with her dog, Peanut, in the entryway of her residence. The home’s traditional design features, such as thick adobe walls, Saltillo tile floors and archways, are a perfect foil for her contemporary art. In the forefront is “Crouching Angel,” oil on canvas, 69”H by 25”W.
Nancy Serwint, associate professor of art at Arizona State University, has known Udinotti for almost a decade. “I’ve always associated her figures, which I would call haunting or shadowy, as emerging from the darkness or perhaps receding into it. I think of something very transcendent when I see them.” She explains, “The human figure is often regarded as rather spiritual because it houses the essence of what we are. Our humanness houses our soul. I can’t imagine Agnese expressing art without a reference to the human form.”

After building her studio, Udinotti, frustrated by the lack of figurative art found in local museums, decided to create a place that showcases important works in the genre. “I said if these people do not want to show figurative art, I will do it.”

Opened in 2007, the Udinotti Museum of Figurative Art, a nonprofit 501(c)3 institution, is a subterranean chamber of concrete and steel. It sits on the artist’s property, just a few steps from the entrance to her studio. Architect Andy Byrnes, a collector of Udinotti’s steel sculptures, designed the industrial space in a such a way that it neither blocks the awe-inspiring views of Camelback Mountain nor competes with the art and artifacts installed within.  

“I love this painting.
I have never taken it to the gallery because I’m afraid it will sell and I will be heartbroken,” Udinotti says of her work “Angel of Protection,” oil on canvas, 68”H by 56”W. “There is a light quality to it that I was not consciously trying to create. It’s something I don’t think I can paint again.” The dining chairs are by Max Gottschalk.
“We both wanted the building to express its construction without adornment. The raw materials are the architecture, much like Agnese’s sculpture,” says Byrnes. “The structure does not rival the existing buildings on the property; instead, it acts as a backdrop for her work and the environment.”

The museum’s collection includes an array of figurative art from various cultures and historical periods around the world. “The museum is not about me. It’s about history,” says Udinotti. Ancient Egyptian shabti statues share the spotlight with African masks and fetishes; an impressive collection of Japanese woodcuts from the 1700s; and works from such contemporary artists as Canadian painter Michael John Basil Stevenson, Colombia-born master Leonel Góngora, and sculptor Carl Dahl and printmaker David Manje, both of Arizona.

In her signature furry Ugg boots, Udinotti strolls through her Old Town Scottsdale gallery, which has existed in this space since 1971. The building features multiple rooms, which have been added on over the years.
Selected by Udinotti and a board of directors, the works are diverse, their images ranging from soothing to thought-provoking, even startling. They’re chosen not for their monetary value but for their place in history and the emotions they elicit. “What intrigues me in art is emotion. In order to be a good piece of art, it has to be emotional,” says Udinotti. “The whole reason for art is to make people look at themselves in a different way.”

Contrasting with the artist’s adobe home, the Udinotti Museum of Figurative Arts, designed by architect Andy Byrnes, is a stark, contemporary structure of rusted steel and concrete. Its main exhibition hall was built below ground so as not to block views of nearby Camelback Mountain.
After more than 50 years in the industry, and with more 3,000 pieces of her own work in collections across the globe, Udinotti holds strong to her belief in the transforming quality of art. It has shaped her past, holds sway over her present and guides her future.  

“Truth is stating your beliefs and not apologizing for them. And in a lot of ways, Agnese personifies just that,” says Serwint. “Her art and artistic conceptions are what they are, and whether they are in fashion or not, she holds true to them. I think that’s a marvelous self-confidence.”

Agnese Udinotti
2018 Masters of the Southwest Award Winner

When Agnese Udinotti laughs, it is genuine and whole-hearted. On a recent afternoon in her gallery, she was chuckling about a patron’s comment. “She’s a world-famous artist!” the man had whispered excitedly to his friend. While she may not be one to boast about her accomplishments, there is one thing she is dead serious about: art, especially as it relates to the human figure.

Born and raised in Greece, Agnese is a pioneer of the Valley’s contemporary art scene. Her gallery on North Marshall Way in Scottsdale is one of the most established in the region, and her nonprofit museum on her property in Paradise Valley is a hidden gem filled with world-class collections. Over the years, she’s received numerous honors, including the Prize of Liberty from Greece and a Distinguished Achievement Award from Arizona State University.

“I’ve been very lucky in my life,” the artist says. “I moved where my passion took me, and the results worked out.” We think we’re the lucky ones. Nancy Serwint, associate professor of art at ASU, sums it up: “It’s lovely that there is this very accomplished artist here who is so passionate that she’s established a museum. Her gallery is well-known; her work is well-known. What she produces is lasting.”

We at Phoenix Home & Garden cherish the role art plays in our everyday lives. That’s why we’re thrilled to name Agnese a 2018 Masters of the Southwest award winner. Congratulations!
-The Editors
Subscribe Today!