BY Luca Cerizza in Features | 01 MAR 10
Featured in
Issue 129

When Italy was Modern

The resurgence of interest in Italian Modernists demonstrates the European avant-garde’s influence on a new generation of artists

BY Luca Cerizza in Features | 01 MAR 10

Francesco Lo Savio, Untitled, 1959. 47 x 66cm. Courtesy: Galeria Christian Stein.

Towards the end of the 1950s, economic growth and rapid developments in technology, transport and telecommunications began to improve the general standard of living in Western Europe, and, following the horror and devastation of the war, nurtured a greater belief in the future. There was also a return to the teachings of the historical avant-gardes – which had been interrupted by World War II. Consequently, the art discourse started to shift away from the existential approach typical of Art Informel and of Abstract Expressionism that had dominated the postwar years, towards a more impersonal methodology. This aimed to reclaim the progressive, political values of science and technology through an abstract geometric language, and through the adoption of mechanical processes in the composition and creation of the art work. No longer an exploration of the liberation of the self or the mystery of existence, the art work had become an independent, autonomous form – an object. At the same time, it had developed into a relational space between the individual (the artist) and the other (the viewer). Art had become the expression of a new democratic belief and a new societal model across the range of avant-garde movements – whether European, North American or South American.

During this period, Italy, with its so-called economic miracle, was amongst the countries that had experienced such a surge of optimism. It had followed an analogous trajectory in terms of artistic development, however its cultivation of a unique concept of a kind of ‘discontinuous’ modernity was characterized by a greater awareness of the specificity of the individual and the broad spectrum of differences it represented than that found, for instance, in the puritanical Minimalism of the American avant-garde. Milan had emerged as a hub for a renewed interest in the Modernist project – also developed through the work of a new generation of architects and designers. It was here that Lucio Fontana found his impetus, within certain elements of the Baroque sensibility, to break away from the traditional format of painting on canvas and creating, instead, perceptually all-encompassing environments, such as Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (Spatial Environment in Black Light, 1949). The monochromatic canvases of Enrico Castellani and Piero Manzoni eradicated all forms of expression, every remnant of the mysticism and pantheism that had radiated from the blue surfaces of the paintings of Yves Klein, while the magazine they co-founded, Azimuth, became a platform for the ideas of the new European avant-gardes, including the first developments in Kinetic and Op art by the German collective Zero and by Gruppo T in Italy, and their search for unity between space and time.

Recent exhibitions dedicated to two leading figures of this trend in Italian art, Gianni Colombo (at Castello di Rivoli, Turin, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Marco Scotini) and Francesco Lo Savio (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, curated by Daniel Soutif), provide us with the opportunity to revisit the artists’ ground-breaking, experimental works and, more broadly, to consider the impact of that particular moment on art in the mid-1990s, the effects of which we are still experiencing. Even taking into account the differing durations of their creative journeys, both Lo Savio and Colombo epitomized the contemporary preoccupation with the spectator’s relationship to the art work (and the interaction between the two), as well as with the nascent interest in technology and the Modernist project. The responses they offered, however, were diverse.

Despite the fact that the texts Lo Savio wrote about his work often invoked the social responsibility of the artist, his art demonstrates the ‘dark’ side of this democratic and libertarian Utopia. The fascinating yet tragic tension between the use of industrial means in the creation of a work, the concern for the relationship between individual and space, and spiritual aspirations, locates the artist on the brink of an abyss – the mystery of light and void – that constitutes the essential component of his work. Lo Savio’s career, which was as brief as it was intense and coherent, represents precisely this voyage (which was dramatically interrupted by his suicide in 1963) from darkness into light, from the primordial obscurity that seems to diminish the luminosity of his paintings (Spazio–Luce, Space–Light, 1959–60) to an emergence in the realm of human relations. This began with the dense black of his wall sculptures, in which sheets of industrially fabricated metal were worked into diverse forms and angulations in order to capture the light (Metalli, Metals, 1960–3), progressed to cubic forms containing sheets of folded metal that constructed autonomous spaces (‘Articolazioni Totali’, Total Articulations, 1962), and concluded with his architectural projects for a residence (Maison au Soleil, Sun House, 1962) and for urban plans (1962–3), which were based on an ideal relationship between man and architecture attained through the deployment of light.

By contrast, Colombo’s works are devices that uncover the structures underpinning our experience of the world, the articulation of space and the way we live in it. In a number of works dating from as early as 1959, while he was still showing as part of Gruppo T, Colombo included movement and the interaction between spectator and art work as fundamental elements of his practice – as seen in wall pieces such as Rilievi intermutabili (Interchangeable Reliefs) and Superfici in variazione (Surfaces in Variation), which demanded the physical intervention of the audience, and his series of ‘Strutture pulsanti’ (Pulsating Structures). His later works developed these perceptual and interactive components, using a more sophisticated application of technology to create environments in which the architecture presented a fluid and dynamic space as a means of questioning its relationship to the individual (Spazio Elastico, Elastic Space, 1967). From the 1970s onwards, Colombo reduced the technological element of his works to create purely architectural environments that destabilized basic human functions such as walking and orienting oneself. Ultimately, whereas Colombo’s work, as Scotini has noted, bears traces of Buster Keaton and a notion of burlesque physicality – of ‘theatricality’ as a means of liberating the individual – sustaining Lo Savio’s practice is a tension of ideals between control and freedom, analysis and mystery, dialogue and silence.

This interpretation of modernity – somewhat different in nature to the impersonal, ‘Fordist’ American version – has long been marginalized in Italian critical discourse. While the more widespread international critical reception of Arte Povera has resulted in the promotion of a poetic, artisanal impression of Italian art and culture, it was the artistic developments of the early 1990s and the new perceptions of entertainment, consumerism and media technology that brought back into play the phenomenological and relational importance of these earlier practices; this was particularly the case in those regions – Germany, Northern Europe and South America – which had experienced similar artistic movements.

While the modular reduction and the use of industrial machinery in the creation of Lo Savio’s works is fairly commonplace, the elements of light and void, the dialogue between body and nature, and the design of architectonic spaces seem clearly to anticipate the Californian lineage of James Turrell and Robert Irwin, which has filtered down, in more recent times, through wall pieces and installations such as Testa (Head, 1996) by Massimo Bartolini, to the sculptures of Luca Trevisani. Descendents of Colombo’s more analytical approach – in conjunction, of course, with the contemporaneous movements of Kinetic and Op art – range, on the other hand, from Carsten Höller’s ‘laboratories of doubt’ through the ‘mediated’ spaces of Olafur Eliasson to the works of younger artists such as Jeppe Hein and Tomas Saraceno, with their emphasis on movement, indeterminacy and participation. Ultimately, the art of Lo Savio and Colombo is a Modernism aware of its own eradications (Lo Savio) and of its own mechanisms (Colombo); it is a Modernism that aspires to overcome its own limitations by liberating the mind and body of the participating spectator.

Luca Cerizza is a curator, writer and art 
historian based in Berlin.