Achille Bonito Oliva
Italian Ways in Contemporary Art

From the historical avant-garde to the neo-avant-garde movements, from Futurism to the Transavanguardia, in its representations of modernity Italian art has embodied a uniquely Mediterranean and cosmopolitan character distinct from its northern European and American counterparts. This innate cultural identity rests on a design-oriented process that has played a determining role in the linguistic strategy of Italian art from the fifteenth through the twentieth century.
The Renaissance perspective on the world gave symbolic form to an anthropocentric and logocentric ideology via spatial representations based on Euclidean geometry. The use of this geometry naturally meant that a sense of proportion was part and parcel of the iconographic essentiality of the images produced. As exemplified in Paolo Uccello's Battle of San Romano, whether abstract or figurative, the pictorial motif was filtered by an increasingly analytical eye, leading Leonardo da Vinci to affirm: "painting is a mental thing."
This "mentalism" would sustain the development of Italian art, marked by an expansion and refinement of form, through the spatial acceleration of the Baroque and the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, and into the early decades of Futurism and Metaphysical painting. The sculptural work of Medardo Rosso, which predated these avant-garde movements, represents the manifestation of a desire for dematerialization, an attempt to bring a refinement to sculpture almost akin to that achieved in painting. The Metaphysics of De Chirico, Carra and Morandi informs its iconography through deliberate attempts to disrupt the viewer's normal modes of perception within a well-defined perspective grid. And here again it is the sense of proportion that gives the image its simplicity and epiphanic clarity.
A uniquely Italian approach to the creative process informs twentieth-century Italian art. It is reflected in an interpretation of modularity imbued with an esprit de geometrie, a wide-ranging inspiration that influences both conventional and non-conventional works. The module becomes the structural element that makes form possible, a form that always embodies complexity and reproduces the surprises of geometry potentially ad infinitum. Convention has it that geometry is the field of pure evidence and cold demonstration, the locus of mechanical and wholly functional rationality. In this sense the module appears to favour the premise, and thus the conclusion is the inevitable outcome of a simple logical and deductive process.
The Italian artist on the other hand inaugurates a new use of geometry as fertile ground for getting "outside of the box," developing its principles on the basis of surprise and emotional impact. But these two elements are not in conflict with the principle of the design process; if anything they strengthen it through a pragmatic and non-confining use of descriptive geometry. The artist continually shifts from the two-dimensional realm of the design to the three-dimensional realm of the created form, from the black-and-white of the idea to its multicoloured expression, proving that the idea generates a creative process that is not purely demonstrative but also fruitful. The final form, whether two- or three-dimensional, offers concrete, non-abstract visual matter.
The principles of non-congruence sustain work that formalizes irregularity as a creative principle. In this sense form is not completely made clear in the idea; there is no absolute mirror image relationship between a design and its execution. The work embodies in its very design the possibility of non-congruence, because the design is informed by the mentality of modern art and the conception of the world that surrounds it, a world full of surprises and sudden turns.
The concept of design is thus imbued with a new meaning. It no longer refers to a process marked by superb precision, but rather to an open-ended exploration, albeit one piloted by a method derived from practice, from the execution. The method naturally relates to a need for consistent and progressive features grounded in a historical awareness of a context dominated by technology.
Technology forces production processes founded on standardization, objectivity and neutrality. These are the
founding principles of a fecundity that differs from the one built on the traditional and hyper-subjective idea of difference. In this, the Italian artist is classically modern, a producer of differences via the creation of forms that use standardization, objectivity and neutrality in a fertile way, capable of penetrating the imagery of a mass society subject to the primacy of technology, which has emptied it of all subjectivity. Hence the strong relationship between art and architecture that would later triangulate with design.
For the Futurists (Balla, Marinetti, Boccioni), the city is the realm of random encounters, the place where the unforeseen is rendered dynamic by the ability of technology to reproduce it endlessly. Art is the instrument for formalizing this hallucination by creating a visual field for it. The Futurist movement, in retrospect, was more balanced than it seemed at first glance or from readings of period documents. The works and the theoretical manifestos present the identity of a group of artists who combine the internationalist apologia for the machine with the rediscovery of their Mediterranean roots. The salient feature of even the first generation of Futurists is their adherence to the principle of art as a quest capable of embracing an "objectivity" of scientific scope. Balla works with an interdisciplinary impetus that sends him into linguistic solutions adhering faithfully to a philosophy of creative experience. A sort of phenomenological outlook guides the artist's hand; he does not project himself into or identify emotionally with the recovered materials. The characteristics of objectivity and concrete presence are reaffirmed through another assumed characteristic, one belonging not to the figurative arts but to theatre, to the event. The painted frame outlines a stage that circumscribes the happening. The image is fulfilled in its objective extraneousness to matter and form when the audience contemplates it. The audience is in some way incited to gauge its temporal dynamism, its plastic rearing of form. This dimension presupposes both the concrete weight of the material and its mental abstraction, the essence of the number and the biological evolution of the material, growth and stasis, volume and pure colour. One of Balla's works is titled I numeri innamorati [Enamoured Numbers].
In the architectural designs of Sant'Elia, everything moves in a circle along lines of flow that envelope the composition. The composition thus
becomes a field for a system of mobile relations governed by the rules of an eternal engine that seems to lose the machine-oriented ardour typical of Futurist sermons and take on the peaceful lilt of a wise vision that goes even beyond modernity. Sant'Elia's architectural virtuality-pure non-built design-is successfully overturned in the built architecture of Albini, Baldessari and Terragni, which is opposed in painting by the Novecento movement of Sironi, Terrazzi and Donghi, and by the work of Muzio and Gio Ponti in architecture and design.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, artists in Italy had to come to terms with the results of three different but parallel artistic lines, represented by Burri, Fontana and Capogrossi respectively, who took as their point of departure the concept of art (material, gesture and sign) as a total act of convergence between artwork and life. The work of art is where the artist takes refuge from the precarious nature of life.
The problem for Burri was to synthesize the space within a painting, the obscure fulcrum of existence, the traumatic flow of time, and the innate power of matter (jute, iron, wood, plastic). Capogrossi traced out an archaic and unvarying sign on the surface of the painting, the glaring alphabet of a language capable of articulating a stratified temporality within the instant of the image: symbol and decoration, substance and form. The problem for Fontana on the other hand was to throw himself upon the dimensions of space and time and reduce them to a single sign. The canvas is left with a scar, the symbolic trace of the artist's actions as an immediate experience of real space, which then opens up into architecture, for the observer a habitable place.
A generation later, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, other artists asserted the concept of art as a specific and autonomous activity. For Castellani, Manzoni, Agnetti, Lo Savio and Paolini, creative experience had to be expressed via specific techniques and with a clarity of action so as to render maximally explicit the "making" of the work, now seen as a reality unto itself, relieved of any subjective purpose. These artists opposed the "heteronomy" of art in favour of its autonomy; in opposition to the concept of art as a liberating and uncontrolled adventure, they imposed a kind of political awareness of their role, which led them to live their creative quest professionally.
These artists ceased to identify with the work and adopted an active detachment that allowed them to control the work via the analysis of language. They no longer believed in the absolute value of art, but only in its relative value arising from a "metalinguistic" awareness of it. This new attitude would inevitably lead to a reduction of art to zero, to the fundamental rules, to pure creative exploration, to the affirmation of a linguistic tautology. Art had to stop being generated by its own indeterminateness; it had to move into a controlled and verifiable cognitive field.
This new analytical protocol (which found more than inspiration in the gesture in Fontana's art as a measure of itself and of space) brought about a qualitative shift with an intentionally political emphasis. The artist no longer sought to conflate art and life, to resolve the antinomies of history through art, but only to probe more deeply and forge ahead in the artistic quest. The artist of the 1960s responded to the partial reality of the everyday with the relative totality of the work that now lost all its imitative allusions to the theatricality of life and instead acquired its own resplendent superficiality. Superficiality here is the awareness of the intrinsic ambiguity of the two-dimensional nature of the
language, of its being both created work and creative vehicle.
The work of art no longer expressed the urge to push towards life, but now sought to analyze the distance between itself and life and the peculiarity of artistic language with respect to the language of communication. The artist became dedicated to the exercise of a profession specialized in a well-identified object: language. Language exists prior to the work, and its realm is in the history of art. But the artist, embedded in history and subject to its repercussions, is lucidly aware that our precarious existence cannot be redeemed through imagery. Imagery is generated by language, it is always grounded in reality, but in order for it to be formulated in a work of art, a rigorously analytical procedure is required that can separate the disorder of life from the order of art.
The analytical processes of Castellani. Colombo, Dadamaino, Mauri, Nigro, Uncini, Manzoni, Agnetti, and in a certain sense Schifano, Lo Savio and Paolini, do not rely on previous conventions, but seek to establish their own method of verification simultaneous with the creation of the work, so that nothing exists before or after it. The metaphysical margin persisting in informal art is thus eclipsed, so that the work becomes the continuation of life, and life is the before and after of the work.
Castellani works within the sphere of modular experimentation to investigate the notion of space. The work is configured as a colourless surface, plotting out the spatial element as a two-dimensional expanse and the temporal element as a rhythmic depth-wise modification of the surface itself. Surface and rhythm are the two polarities that conjugate the work and define it in terms of proportion and experience, as also occurs in Mauri's Schermi [Screens], whose naked object-ness highlights their tautological substance.
Manzoni's Achromes (cat. 177) are predominantly white surfaces, created out of various materials that organize a portion of space that has relevance only to itself. A metonymic conception dominates the work, replacing the metaphorical vision that underpinned the art of the 1950s. Yet the material and the cut were always metaphors for dynamic energy and traces of a possessed real space. The Achromes are only what is seen, a particular phenomenology of space reduced to a visual and concrete event. The painting is the result of a procedure in which all the elements are under the emotional control of the artist, who gives the work a separate and autonomous identity of its own. The works are concrete events that present diversified images of the intentionally colourless pictorial space containing no hint of subjectivity.
With these works and his subsequent identity cards, Manzoni anticipated themes regarding painting and the art of behaviour. While the Achromes consist in the annulment of painting as expression, his non-painted works sought to develop a comparison between art and life in order to create a fun experience, one that is not metaphorical and formal but authentic and real. The ninety tins of Merda d'artista [Artist's Shit (cat. 176)] are sealed specimens of organic waste of a body, the artist's, that have been preserved for future memory.
Agnetti worked against the specificity of languages by using them interchangeably: the mathematical code, with its succession of numbers, replaces literary language. The result was an initial annulment and a subsequent amplification, which derived its meaning from the universal character of the new language as a means of communication. Naturally, communication is accomplished through the objectivity of a
language seeking its referents in science and philosophy, astronomy and algebra.
Lo Savio anticipated the primary creative pursuits of Minimal art with an analysis of the structural elements upon which the notion of painting and sculpture rests: light and space. His Filtri [Filters] and Metalli [Metals] highlight this analysis through an essential and phenomenal representation of light and space as concrete events. Light is not represented in geometrical rhythms as Balla did, rather it is underlined and rendered volumetric by a formal arrangement that concretely frames and encapsulates it.
Paolini pursued an analysis of art as an autonomous and self-referential system. His creative investigations followed a winding path through the labyrinths of the language and history of art. Artifice and mirror-image relations are the qualities he uses in representation: the former represents distinctions while the latter are the interlocutory action of language within the code of art. His analysis does not find its outlet in formal simplification, but rather brings out the ambiguous substance of the cognitive process through allusions to the double and to the labyrinth.
While these artists introduced the need for analytical process into the art of the 1960s, Ceroli, Schifano, Festa, Pascali and Kounellis worked via a synthetic process. Ceroli made wide use of wood as a compositional material for his abstract and figurative works. With formal rigour he constructed spaces and masses out of a material strongly associated with nature. In the age of the mechanical reproduction of images, he created a landscape of shapes, a metaphysical figurative standard, via a precise and balanced interweaving of the coldness of the concept and the warmth of memory: "nature-nature-generated" sequences in the forms of art.
With his Monocromi Schifano negated the pictorial space, underlining its "superficialist" significance with bright and aggressive colours in a revival of urban iconography, a relic of the Futurist archives and the mass media. He subsequently inscribed on the surface details of natural and urban landscapes such as Incidenti d'auto [Car Accidents], an evident reference to the rhythmic figurativeness of Balla. Here too colour is accentuated in bright, artificial tones. The image is the product of a swift execution that elicits a Futurist idea of temporality in which the acceleration of processes and the deceleration of form incessantly feed into one another.
Tano Festa operated in the direction of neo-metaphysics, the dream of a cultured world that retains its roots even though shaken by the impact of voracious consumerism, which has transformed its myths into infinitely reproducible images. His painting conserves a literary aura and a humanistic memory of the regality of art. This produces a calibrated immobility in his images and singularly present figures growing out of a "universal" culture, over which there seems to loom the protective but absolutely non-metaphysical shadow
of De Chirico with his disquieting sense of classical proportion.
Pascali progressively developed an oeuvre that falls somewhere between painting and sculpture, a kind of final objectivism in which an equilibrium is established between the transparency of form and the depth of elements: 32 mq. di mare [32 sqm of Sea] and Confluenze [Confluences] represent the successful products of a Mediterranean current that unites a repetition of the supporting structure with the fluid movements of water. In this case the "aura" of the work manages to protect the complex depth of the subject precisely through the use of modular elements (water or shaped stone) and the absolutely non-phenomenological use of materials. At the same time the simulation of a real object-be it machine gun or cannon-is the result of a combinatory system that both assembles and transfigures industrially produced elements.
Analytical and synthetic processes underpinned the artistic pursuits of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the conceptual and behavioural modes of art, architecture, and design. The conceptual mode arose from the need to shift the aims of art away from its traditional objects and materials. Whether focusing
on the process, the concept, or behaviour, Italian art of the 1960s stayed clear of the notion of poetics, understood as an obsessive faith in the same material or in a fixed image.
Poetics is a sort of symbol functioning as an autograph, a distinctive mark, the datum that attributes paternity of the work to its creator. It always arises from the need of artists to be consistent and true to themselves. Artists in those years eschewed paralyzing attributions, adhering instead to a programmatic unfaithfulness that enabled them to create apparently contradictory works. They thus placed themselves in synchrony with the closely woven web of real events that take form and evolve under the sign of uncertainty. They rather systematically incorporated this uncertainty into their own work, challenging consumer society and transgressing the limits of linguistic orthodoxy. The radical thought of the 1960s also swept through architecture and design, bringing with it a comprehensive analysis of their language and functions. The result was an analytical work whose outcomes were not only critically valid but also a creative success. A network of young architects and groups of architects developed in Britain who expressed their analyses via an initial materialization of the product. The British Archigram group was answered in Italy by the radical architecture groups concentrated around Milan and Florence: Memphis, led by Ettore Sottsass; Alchimia, headed by Alessandro Mendini; Superstudio; Archizoom; and UFO.
Each of these individuals or collectives produced conceptual works that often took the form of drawing boards, photos, maps, or objects stripped of their function. As a whole, these works opened up new horizons for architecture and design. Some groups were prevalently serious and composed in their works,
while others ventured into an ironic and mocking approach fuelled by a healthy nihilism, through which they highlighted the reduction of architecture, design and programmatic art to pure gadgetry.
Pistoletto intentionally went through various phases, with works that upended and displaced his entire early oeuvre with mirrors. With these mirrors he has portrayed the art-life enigma as a trompe I'oeil. His Lamiere specolari [Reflective Steel Surfaces] contain superimposed images of everyday objects or figures of people, fixed in some random instant. Standing before the work, the observer is reflected and thus assumes a dual position: reflected object and beholding subject. Time is the element that attributes a historical quality to the work; its form belongs to the interactive present time of the spectator.
With a sidestep worthy of the deftest torero, and as theorized in his 1967 booklet Le ultime parole famose [Famous Last Words], Pistoletto abruptly abandoned his work with reflective surfaces and set out to consolidate a linguistic system in which the concept prevails over the object. Participants in this overall process included artists such as Anselmo, Fabro and Boetti.
Anselmo intended to ensnare the spatial and temporal relationships contained within abstract categories of thought, exemplified for instance in the terms "whole," "detail" and "infinite." Detail is represented by an area on the wall or the floor of the gallery illuminated by a projector. The area is rendered as a self-fulfilling space. Thus the linguistic term is identified with its physical manifestation, in its spatial and temporal presence.
Fabro's work sought to be an exercise of discovery in which the material exhibition of the object became an incitement to new formulations of thought. The use of incongruous materials in startling juxtapositions generated unprecedented schemes that do not admit a straightforward, passive reading. The apparent linguistic tautology is counterposed with a true mental contradiction, a displacement of the image that packages art as an ideological practice.
Boetti proposed a different focus and a system of ambivalent relationships within the sphere of given experiences that existed prior to his work. Art became a language imbued with virtuality as compared to the slumbering rigidity of other languages. It took on the attitude of an intelligence capable of revealing hidden currents, the intrinsic qualities perceivable in the creative act. The combinatory system becomes the medium between the artist-client and the executors. The work (map or tapestry) is nevertheless the result of a design process dictated by the artist and enriched by the manual work of those who bring it into form.
Also working in the conceptual circle were Lombardo and artists such as Prini, Isgro and Mulas. Kounellis worked on the poetic recovery of myth, on the use of primary elements such as fire, and original languages such as dance and music. He shifted the processes of painting to the physicality of real space, which took on the composed fixity proper to a square. His performance art and installations tended to highlight sensitivity as the capacity to perceive the world at the point of intersection between nature and culture. This complexity finds its representation in an image inspired by a powerful and intense classicality, one that is not neutral but severely objective. Art becomes the visible phenomenon that gives form to the conflicts of history in an exemplary manner, and resolves them via the catharsis of the creative event.
Operating in the decidedly post-conceptual sphere were Mochetti, Spalletti, Bagnoli, Salvadori and Piacentino.
Piacentino accepted the idea of art as the rigorous redesigning of forms, creating three-dimensional objects presented in a manner far removed aesthetically from the traditional colours of painting and sculpture. He obtained the chromatic splendour of his objectivism from the mechanical register of the technological universe, emphasizing its metaphysical geometry.
The work of Bagnoli was an investigation into the physical and mental quality of space and time, in their virtuality and the open-ended dialectics of their multiplicative product. It is an analysis of the concept of limit, of the interstice as a location for the germination of differences and oppositions. The principle of centrality is violated in favour of oblique and mobile relationships.
Salvadori conducted an investigation mainly into the theme of the doubling of unity and the simultaneous presence of two opposing polarities, such as male versus female, top versus bottom. The line is the diaphragm separating and differentiating identity and similarity, which can be placed at the median to generate the two faces of symmetry on two opposite and irreconcilable planes.
In the mid-1970s, a more disabused and cultured art overturned the purely grammatical presentation of elementary materials. The prevailing tendency became that of representation, reintroducing references to nature. This act of recovery was filtered through the historical memory of the languages of art and became part of the culture. It was an act of revival arising from the need to go beyond the threshold of the pure presentation of materials, in favour of a representation capable of greater autonomy with respect to the strong words of the political that conditioned artists in the 1960s to the point where they abandoned complexity in their work. Artists thus launched a healthy process of de-ideologization. They transcended the euphoric idea of the creative experience as an eternally experimental movement and compulsion for the new through a more meditated manner, as in Spalletti.
The energy crisis and its political and cultural counterparts in the first half of the 1970s had the beneficial effect of smoothing out the fabric of art, worn out by overwrought experimentalism driven by the productive optimism of the economic system of the decade.
Experimentalism had taken on an impersonal, objective character focusing not only on communication, but also on the information contained in the linguistic structure of the work. An analytical tension unquestionably pervaded the artistic pursuits of the 1960s and 1970s, a kind of antagonism towards reflective scientific thought yet also imitative of it. The abstract and dematerializing work of the experimental testing ground coincided with the destructuring and dematerialized work of art, as in the case of Mochetti.
The Transavanguardia movement responded immediately to the general crisis of history and culture, embracing a deviation from outdated pure experimentalism. Instead it reversed the outdatedness of painting in order to imbue the creative process with new vitality and images that did not shy away from the pleasures of knowledge and cultural memory. In architecture and design, the response arose from the anti-dogmatic Postmodern attitude that questioned the value of the design-oriented approach and the continuity of the Modern movement. The Memphis group under Sottsass produced a series of objects exalting characteristics that went beyond function. The architecture of Aldo Rossi re-established a continuity with fifteenth-century linguistic values and a neo-metaphysical idea of history.
The art of the 1980s responded to the linguistic standardization of the 1960s and 1970s with the revival of citation, using the history of art as a "ready-made" and the styles of the past as objets trouvés. It thus represented a synthesis of the mindset of Picasso and Duchamp, with a conceptual implication that accepted Leonardo's statement that "painting is a mental thing," especially as seen in Clemente and Paladino with their adoption of the combinatory system, and in De Maria in his assumption of the relational notion of "field."
Clemente's works drove a progressive shift of style, the undifferentiated use of a variety of techniques. His work was characterized and sustained by a completely non-dramatic idea of art, a nomadic lightness fostering an image where repetition and difference merge together. Repetition arose from the deliberate use of stereotypes, references and stylizations that also reintroduced conventional elements into works. But it is this conventionality that opened the way for subtle and unpredictable variations that created in the reproduced image a shift within the Oriental idea of circular space. The realm of the "portrayable" was attenuated by the conceptual presence of ornamentation.
De Maria's work sought to transgress the picture frame and move out into the surrounding space. A visual field is thereby created where a host of references can intersect. His painting was the instrument of representation for a progressive shift towards dematerialization. Mental and psychological state merge into an image based on the fragmentation of visual data. The result is a kind of internal architecture that contains within it all the vibrations inherent in the designs for the work. Each fragment is caught up in a system of mobile relations; there are no centres or favoured points. De Maria replaced the notion of space with that of a field, a dynamic and potential network of relationships that find their visual constant in abstraction and in the idea of total art.
Paladino created a painting and sculpture of surfaces. He practised an idea of surface as the only possible depth. Thus all the data of cultural memory and personal sensitivity emerge visually, held together in the perimeter of a painting that approaches sculpture and a formal system recalling the spiritual order of Malevich. The work becomes the place where subtle, impalpable motifs are translated into images. Elements from the abstract tradition and the more evident figurative elements accept geometrical coexistence in the built work.
In short, the Italian art of recent decades has progressively accepted an idea of art as a reality independent of its creator, oscillating back and forth between the neutrality of analytical procedure and the partiality of synthetic
procedure. In any case, the artists stoically accept the awareness of their somewhat marginal role, stepping back from the directness of a positive head-on approach that now seems to have become the purview of politics and no longer that of the creative process. Art is now relegated to a position on the sidelines, a reflective and critical position that takes refuge in language and its metaphors from an unacceptable world. From this arises the awareness of a role that, albeit exercised, cannot resolve problems outside of art. In its production of visual, architectural or object forms, it seems to have revived an idea of "soft project" that avoids the design-oriented arrogance of the past avant-garde elements of the Modern movement, and finds a meeting of the ways between the unpredictability of the present and the possibility of containing it in a form that may not be definitive, but that nevertheless ensures its stability for future memory.