Giorgio Griffa never received a formal art education. While he took some painting classes as a child in Turin and later worked as an assistant to the painter Filippo Scroppo, Griffa was primarily a lawyer working with his father and brother. It was this freedom from having to support himself from his art that allowed him in part to pursue absolute freedom in his paintings, unhindered by the dominant discourses of his day. In Linee Orizzontali (Horizontal Lines), Griffa showcases a very personal style-—four and half lines, foregrounding the wobbly passage of the artist’s hand, amble along the upper edge of the large un-stretched sheet of linen. Gridded creases, an effect which the artist intentionally created, highlight the physicality of the work while also referencing the grids of Mondrian, whose work was the first avant-garde influence in Griffa’s life. No aspect of the work’s genesis is hidden—in fact there is no other subject to the works aside from the process by which they were created. Griffa made the event of painting the subject of painting at a time when many artists and critics abandoned the medium, considering it unable to speak to the complexities of the contemporary moment.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, when Griffa began painting in his signature style, the Italian avant-garde was dominated by Arte Povera, literally meaning “Poor Art” because its practitioners used every day materials as opposed to traditional media to create their art. Artists such as Michelangelo Pistoletto, Alighiero Boetti, Jannis Kounellis and others employed throw-away materials to critique the existing gallery system and break with the Modern constructs of painting and sculpture. While Arte Povera dominated the discourse of the age, and for many decades has been viewed as the major contribution of Italy to the visual arts at this time, a group of artists committed themselves to revitalizing the act of painting during the same period. Pino Pinelli, Carmengloria Morales, and Giorgio Griffa among others formed the Pittura Analitica (Analytical Painting) movement at a time when the Support/Surface group in Paris and American painters such as Brice Marden and Agnes Martin were reinvigorating the medium by foregrounding the process of creation and stressing the physicality of the painting as a sculptural object in space as opposed to a two dimensional support for illusory three dimensional space.
In an interview with scholar Marco Meneguzzo, Griffa explains his relationship with painting: “It became a challenge for me to verify whether painting was still able to see our contemporary world or if it was only an ‘old lady’ who spends her time remembering when she was young and attractive” (M. Meneguzzo, Giorgio Griffa Early Works 1968–1973, Luca Tommasi Arte Contemporanea, exhibition catalog, 2014, pg. 19). While Griffa’s work may have seemed traditional to some of his contemporaries, his process was a radical affront to traditional easel painting. As opposed to stretching canvas, he preferred to use loose fabrics and linens as his support, systematically folding them to create a grid, which emphasized the physical space occupied by the work. These were tacked to the wall for display and then could be folded along the creased grids for transportation and storage. By doing away with the canvas and unifying the support and the surface of the piece, Griffa’s work was a clear break from traditional painting. Furthermore, the creased grid is not simply a reflection of the artist’s gesture, but becomes a marker of the painting’s journey through time, as it intensifies from being repeatedly hung and re-folded. In this waythe creases speak of a long duration—the physical life of the work once it leaves the studio and enters in to a system of circulation.
Conversely, the four and a half lines speak of the short duration—the creation of the work. “What mattered was the spiritual adventure, the doing, the process” (Ibid., pg. 11).Griffa’s lines showcase the moment of creation—the time in which the artist and work interact, when the line that has already been created speaks back to the artist, informing him of where to place the next line. By following a basic set of “rules” or patterns, in which the first line would help to dictate the next, Griffa was able to create a practice that prized freedom over over-determination. “These same rules give me extraordinary freedom of work, because you no longer have formal problems and you realize that freedom is a margin, it is anything but an abstract factor, which is concretised only if you have a rule to deal with.” (Ibid., pg. 17) Unlike an artist like Agnes Martin who used lines to complete pre-planned compositions, Griffa finished the work the moment he felt that the event was over. “I contrived not to finish the painting so that it remained the sign of the event” (Ibid., pg. 15). Therefore, the fifth line of Linee Orizzontali stops suddenly. Ideas of duration-—of both the instantaneous and the teleological—play in to Griffa’s story outside of his formal practice. In the early 1970s, Griffa enjoyed a number of important exhibitions with Ileana Sonnabend and was included in shows organized by Germano Celant, who is credited with naming and launching Arte Povera. However, the works were not a commercial success and by the mid-1970s were shown infrequently, especially in the U.S. There was a brief spark of success, followed by relative anonymity for many decades. That is until 2012, when Casey Kaplan gallery gave Griffa his first show in the U.S. in over 40 years. The prominent New York Times critic Roberta Smith hailed the show as a major success, stating that “his art deserves a place in the global history of abstraction” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/08/arts/design/giorgio-griffa-fragments-1968-2012.html?_r=2& ). Today, Griffa’s analysis of painting feels fresh and linked to the work of many young artists who are exploring the potentials of painting by foregrounding materiality and process. The creases of Griffa’s fabrics promise to become more pronounced.