A Poetic Manifesto

Adachiara zevi

Enrico Castellani’s Superficie bianca (White Surface) of 1965 is a poetic manifesto: monochrome, with pinpricks uniformly distributed on its surface “all-over.” The first Superficie a rilievo (Surface with relief) was made six years earlier when the artist, born in Rovigo (Veneto) in 1930, who then moved to Brussels to study art at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts and architecture at the École nationale supérieure de la Cambre, reached Milan. He worked in the studio of the architect Franco Buzzi to support himself and he actively took part in the intense and lively artistic life of Milan. Impatient with the tired repetitions of Surrealist, Expressionist, or informal models, he finds a stimulating point of reference in the volcanic Piero Manzoni; their collaboration, which will last up to the death of Manzoni in 1963, finds expression in the publication, between 1959 and following year, of two special issues of the review, Azimuth which was open to new ferments, intent on starting a new page. The first number carried out reconnaissance: while Lucio Fontana, Castellani, Manzoni, Yves Klein, the German Zero Group were all preaching subtraction, there moved alongside the inclusive Neo-Dada and Pop Art of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Mimmo Rotella, acknowledging paternity to Kurt Schwitters and Francis Picabia. Significantly, the editorial, “Beyond painting,” was dedicated to Fontana: “He was an innovator, this we all understood, and not just in Milan. We were fascinated by his conception of space, we sensed that his thoughts opened onto untrammeled territory, never before explored.”1 After having probed all the languages, from figurative to abstract, from rationalism to informal, Fontana preached and practiced leaving behind the canonical dimensions “of painting, of sculpture, of poetry and of music,” in favor of “a greater art in accordance with the needs of a new spirit […]; breaking with the art that came before to bring about new conceptions […]; the passage from abstractivism to dynamism.” He pierced and slashed canvas preventing its function as representative screen in Concetto spaziale; he canceled architectural space in darkness, denying its containing function in Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (Spatial environment with black light): he reduced sculpture to a string hanging in space canceling its mass. 

In the second issue of the review, of 1960, the subtractive tendency wins, the inclusive one is routed: dictating the terms of the “new artistic conception” are Castellani, Manzoni, and Otto Piene in texts in Italian, English, and French. In the opening text, “Continuità e nuovo” (Continuity and new) Castellani revealed his unsuspected historical points of reference: Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock. Whereas the former, by reducing his artistic vocabulary to lines, surfaces, and fundamental colors, reaches “a form of art reduced to the semantics of its language… the only possible form of art,” Pollock, freeing Surrealist automatism from all psychic ponderings, affirms as “the last resort, the automatic physical gesture” and, excluding any return “to an art of representation or of interpretation of subjective phenomena, reaches the ideal of concrete painting.” 3 How then to update the lessons of Mondrian and Pollock “beyond painting,” in light of Fontana’s revolution? This is the dilemma which tormented Castellani in 1959 when he concluded his brief informal stint, undergone without great conviction, displaying contained gestures and material consistencies, and a tendency to saturate a surface with a prevalently white paint, alive to Mark Tobey’s white writing. Emptying and saturating surfaces, after all, though apparently an oxymoron, were part of the heritage of Mondrian and Pollock and they appeared to Castellani to be the only alternatives to composition. In Libera dimensione (Free dimension), in the same issue of Azimuth, Manzoni concurred: “unique, unlimited, absolutely dynamic: infiniteness is rigorously monochromatic or better yet without any color …a surface entirely white removed from any pictorial phenomenon, from any intervention aside from valuing the surface.” Fontana’s holes and cuts remain for Castellani unique gestures, individually and heroically tied to the demiurgic figure of their author. Analytic and methodical by nature, educated in the school of Henry Van de Velde, inspired by the Bauhaus, careful to technical and social aspects of any project, Castellani needed a method that would allow him to intervene on a surface without “getting his hands dirty.” Even his brief stint of the Untitled series in which the surface, now monochrome, is ruffled with folds, does not satisfy him as a landing place. This is the source of his invention. 

Going back from line to point, from geometry to arithmetic, from composition to rhythm, from space to time, Castellani virtualizes Mondrian’s tracings and entrusts them to light, transgressing all symmetry. “The only possible compositional criterion is that of possessing an elementary entity, a line, an indefinitely repeatable rhythm, a monochrome surface which is necessary to give the work itself the concreteness of the infinite and which can undergo the conjugation of time, the only conceivable dimension.” As regards Pollock, in adopting the principle of covering the surface “all-over”, Castellani substitutes construction for painting and inverts the path of the abstract expressionist master. For, where the former proceeds centrifugally, establishing the dimensions of the painting only at the completion of the dripping process, Castellani establishes preliminarily both the measure and the system that will govern its realization. “I always start from the perimeter in which I build the arithmetical subdivisions which are the starting point […], what happens within the surface is random[…] a randomness controlled by what I have predisposed on the perimeter[…], causality is generated by arithmetical progression.” Hence in the two key works of 1959; while Superficie nera a rilievo (Black surface with relief) is monochrome and already entrusts the light-shadow dialectic to the dialogue between points in relief and points receding, albeit distributed still randomly across the surface, in the contemporary Superficie a rilievo (Surface with relief) the system has been perfected and rationalized to acquire the valence of a method. Simple numerical proportions guide the distribution of reliefs and recessions across the surface generated by a double order of nails one on the front the other on the rear, of equal force. This invention, which will remain constant, is both technical and poetic at the same time: going beyond the illusion of Renaissance perspective, and beyond the genuine and dramatic chiaroscuro, though still episodic, generated by Fontana’s slashes, Castellani invents a system which, preserving the integrity of the canvas, translates three-dimensional representation in a three-dimensional reality of the canvas, placed under maximal tension. 

This process is conceptually reversible: removing the two equal and contrary forces, the canvas resumes its original calm. “Then, at a certain point, I noticed that the only possibility I had was for a completely white canvas and this I lacked the courage to reach. The account became terribly different: a white canvas as one buys it from a supplier[…]. Not even Manzoni had arrived that far: when he went far beyond, he put stitches in the middle,”  he explained to Carla Lonzi in 1969, in the pages of Autoritratto (Self-portrait). Working poles apart, thanks to the infinite possible rhythmic paths, the surface is inexhaustibly variable. “In the end, one always paints the same painting,” he declared proudly, in spite of results which were methodologically coherent but visually ever so varied. Consider his tele sagomate (shaped canvasses) produced between 1961 and 1967: canopies, angular frames, diptychs, triptychs; a colored phase, joyful and engaging, These are works which, in light of their difference with the Superfici (Surfaces) which he had made hitherto, lent themselves to misunderstanding and equivocation. The equivocation consisted in considering those works as “objects” rather than “surfaces” as Castellani continues to call them, dispensations rather than supplemental inquiries into the nature and potential of a surface. Fueled by Castellani’s training as an architect and his having lived in Milan—the capital of industrial design in those years of economic boom and of industrial and technological optimism, this equivocation lasted in time, up to the present even. 

The 1965 Superficie bianca, instead, deals with a further issue of great interest. We have mentioned that Castellani is so convinced that monochrome works and successions along the surface of virtual punctuated paths, at the mercy of light, constitute the most radical alternative to illusionism and to composition that he is not afraid to tackle these aspects. On the surface in question, indeed, the alternating of reliefs and recedings is uniformly but not regularly distributed. Proceeding from the center to the margins of the work, the rhythm tends to accelerate while the intervals among the traces shrink, creating an “illusionistic” effect of roundness. In other works in which the traces converge toward a focal point external to the work, the effect is even more accentuated. Castellani wishes to tell us that, if perspective is an artifice invented to represent three-dimensional reality on two-dimensional canvas, the binary system of nails, by stretching the canvas spasmodically, effectively three-dimensionalizes it, even when the pace of the traces winks ironically at that same artifice. 

I always start from the perimeter in which I build the arithmetical subdivisions which are the starting point [...], what happens wihtin the surface is random [...], a randomness controlled by what I have predisposed on the perimeter [...], causality is generated by arithmetical progression.

—Enrico Castellani