Entitled ‘Quasi Tutto’ (Almost Everything), Giorgio Griffa’s comprehensive retrospective occupies the spaces of the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art with grace. (Curated by Andrea Bellini and Suzanne Cotter, the show has come to Porto after previous stints at Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva, Bergen Kunsthall and the Giuliani Foundation in Rome.) Griffa describes his practice as being ‘in service of the intelligence of material and light’ and, indeed, the simplicity of this Italian painter’s abstract lines and fluid colours immediately strikes up a conversation with the rarefied architecture of Alvaro Siza, as the greenery of the surrounding park fills the large windows while natural light plays on the works’ surfaces.
Like Siza’s building, Griffa’s work is infused with a seductive frugality: his materials are simple, his gestures elementary, his colours pure. Born in 1936 in Turin (where he had his first solo show at Galleria Martano in 1968, before exhibiting at Sonnabend in Paris and New York in 1970), Griffa paints on unprimed canvases of linen, cotton, hemp and jute, which are laid out on the floor of his studio. The works are left unstretched, with loose threads hanging from their irregular margins, and can be folded like bed linen, resulting in a grid of creases that structures the picture plane.
Impeccably hung, this exhibition pivots on the contrast between its two main sections. The first room hosts a selection of works from the 1960s and early ’70s, where parallel lines in different colours tiptoe into vast white backgrounds (Linee oblique, Oblique Lines, 1970; Linee orizzontali, Horizontal Lines, 1973). In the second room, with works from the 1980s onwards, the use of darker fabrics, wiggly lines and bolder shades (Campo giallo con arabesco, Yellow Field with Arabesque, 1987) indicates a loosening up of rules, resulting in a symphony of pinks, light greens, orange, red and turquoise.
Griffa lets the physical quality of his materials define his rhythm – something he often describes using terms from music and prosody, such as tempo and caesurae. For example, one self-imposed rule is that a painting is finished as soon as its colours dry – much like in fresco painting where a specific area, the giornata (a day’s work), is predefined as there is only a certain time before the wet lime plaster that bonds the colour starts to harden. Even if he has spent half a century refining what he describes as ‘signs that could belong to anybody’s hand’, Griffa’s palette does, in fact, reveal the study of Italian old masters of fresco such as Piero della Francesca and Tintoretto, but also of Henri Matisse, Yves Klein, Mario Merz and several others, who are mentioned in the ‘Alter-Ego’ series (for instance, Green (Brice Marden), 2008). An outstanding work here is Canone aureo 436 (Agnes Martin) (Golden Cannon 436 [Agnes Martin], 2015), whose subject, spelled out in lines of blush-pink capital letters, is a quotation from Martin’s essay ‘Beauty Is the Mystery of Life’ (1989): ‘When a beautiful rose dies, beauty does not die because it is not really in the rose. Beauty is an awareness of the mind.’ A prolific writer, in his essay Approdo a Gilania (Landing in Gilania, 1998), Griffa reveals his inner model as being based on non-hierarchical thinking, in reference to what the Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas described (in her work on life in the Neolithic period) as ‘gylanic culture’, in which genders were assigned equal importance, before the advent of patriarchy imposed separateness, domination and the cult of the male hero.
After decades of Griffa appearing almost exclusively in exhibitions within Italy, he now has something of an international ‘cult’ following, having returned to the international spotlight with the success of his 2012 solo exhibition at Casey Kaplan in New York. To retrieve forgotten masters and exiled outcasts is demonstrably a current trend, reflecting the art market’s need to expand its domains as much as the desire of curators and scholars to redefine the normative construction of art history in more polyphonic terms. In Griffa’s case, the polyphony directly resonates with the work – with the artist’s willingness to let the ‘intelligence of material and light’ define his rhythm.