Interviews

Beatrice Buscaroli
Bologna, Vicenza, settembre-ottobre 2005


Ottantuno – Eighty-one. I think that such a curious title prompts us to discover what this number refers to.

This is the celestial number in Taoism; it corresponds to the sky and is the perfect fulfilment of the quality of Yang. The reason for this reference is linked to my long-term interest in the martial arts of the East and the numerous texts I have been able to read about them over the past thirty years.

An admiration for the East, then, though without being completely overwhelmed by it. I seem to remember that your own formation is deeply and intimately wedded to the West.

Without a doubt. But Ottantuno is also a ploy for directing attention to aspects of spirituality in art or, rather, for speaking of the work of art as the carrier of a message of a spiritual kind. In this sense I have discovered four cardinal references in Yves Klein, Mark Rothko, Hermann Nitsch, and Josef Albers who, from different points of view, have followed in this direction and whom I have inevitably come up against in my work

I think that by this you mean sharing a mutual sensibility with these artists.

I share a certain vitality with Yves Klein as well as a great sense of awareness during the planning stage, things which he originated from an ‘internal centrality’ linked to an immense experience of the martial arts practiced in Japan… For a strong relationship with the body, then, experienced as the emanation of artistic sensibility. It’s also there in Nitsch too: a frontal approach, strong physicality, as well as the physiological fascination for drips, something I use for the ‘grid’ of my works. In his work there is a pagan violence that increases the creational force, an overwhelming vital energy. He is a radical artist, one combining brutality and lightness, pure physicality and an absolute lyricism. Mark Rothko is the artist of thought, of hints, of sudden chromatic kindling, of the naturalness of the message, of impure colours, of totality, and of listening. At the heart of Josef Albers’ interests is the precision and organisation of his work, his systematic approach to the original idea, the attention he pays to removing any hint of chance from the final elaboration of his work.

These are all aspects that can easily be seen in your own work.

This is what I hope for every time I plan a new work. I would like it to slowly increase my familiarity with the successive stages, and favour my physical need to give my work a body, to make it grow consciously by following a path that I know but that the work also follows of its own accord. Often I am guided by the continual seduction of proportions, of measure, of adjusting space, colour, and relief. This path is directed from ‘within’ by my underlying aim and plan, and from ‘without’ by technique and my knowledge of painting, but always rigorously maintaining this order of priorities so as not to become repetitive and pedantic. I believe it is also very important to investigate the work of the great artists who preceded us: it is important to give a sense to history.

I think that this idea of continuity in painting that you are so convinced about is, basically, your starting point. In this sense I discern a kind of eulogy for slowness and for regularity almost as a ‘safeguard’, something that is indispensable for carrying out your painting investigations. All this leads us back to the great painting tradition, to the Renaissance, to the meticulous and precious mixing of impastos and paint, to the patient repetition of preparing canvases. And then there is also a valuable lesson of the Bauhaus, of Abstract Expressionism, of the experiences of historical abstraction.

A safeguard… in fact systematic work gives me a sense of security, it makes me feel well. It is as simple as that. Precision in preparing materials, the hundreds of hours used for masking, applying paint, creating the reliefs, testing my real state of ­concentration, the existence of my deep desire to respond completely to the work, my expressive force: in other words by increasing the level of my interior awareness, by undertaking in a natural manner the almost therapeutic role of cleansing. I am interested in the methods of the Bauhaus, in the material of Abstract Expressionism, the reasons for the various kinds of historical abstractionism. In the same way I keep a close eye on the project itself, and take fully into account various ways of applying paint. Perhaps this is also the reason that the people I believe most about the reasons for painting are not so much painters as… actors, writers, physicists, psychiatrists… I paint from dawn until halfway through the day, and then I run down through the rest of the day. But, talking about the idea of continuity, I do not think that philosophically there exists the possibility of real interruption, of a definite break with the past. Generally phases of intense artistic expression are followed by a slowing down, never by a complete interruption. In those moments when a break seams to have occurred, even during a period of ‘the end of art’, what happens in fact is the growth of another aspect of sensibility, one that reveals a different kind of sensibility with respect to the previous one. But the rest does not disappear. Quite the reverse. Even the claim that something has been annulled, that it has been completely removed, is in fact nothing more than a moment of oblivion, of suspension and silence. But thought, the original idea, remains. Because it has indicated time, history.

Has your relationship with silence been an important part of your artistic development?

Not quite. I have a relationship with silence because it is inherent in all forms of meditation and, therefore, in internal martial arts. Here you arrive at another way of feeling, one that overcomes the normal ways of experience and in which you try to discover an ‘elsewhere’… The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, ‘I listen to the relentless news that has the form of silence’. But I think that convivial moments are also important, even indispensable in order not to lose contact with the world and feelings. In this project too (Memoria, Galleria del Credito Valtallinese – Palazzo delle Stelline, Milan, 1999) or in Ritorno all’Angelo (Museo Rivoltella, Trieste, 2003) I wanted to introduce a lyrical component, in this case entrusted to the young poet Davide Brullo. I find that his verses are overwhelming, full of life, dizzying. And, when it comes down to it, they are nourished by the same things that nourish my work too.

But in this period of time, when the world seems to interest itself only in things of a quire different kind, the best known part of contemporary art is concerned with what is most immediately up-to-date, most ‘in the face’, is concerned with ­effect more than substance. Today’s art (though this has been the case for some twenty years at least by now) has lost its function of going against the current, of foreseeing events, as instead happened with the historical avant-gardes. Today it seems that genuine contemporaneity is in thrall to the artificial and forced desecrations more typical of the world of fashion, or else to the titillating entertainment of the violence and horror of a certain kind of cinema and the dumbing down of television. And we must also take into account that approval of current taste is encouraged by an impressive market system and by subservient criticism. And so the ‘transgression’ which they so firmly uphold in fact does not exist because it too is part of this system and, as a result, its artistic value disappears because it is based on a fundamental misapprehension. Many schemes are all too often a sponsored and manoeuvred lie.

There is no question that this is how things are, but we shouldn’t forget that what seems to us a definite trend - because it is so widely publicized by the media while excluding references to whatever else is happening - is in fact only a tiny and self-admiring minority activity in the world of art. So, artistically speaking, being ‘out-of-date’ is nothing to worry about too much… a large part of collecting, the less fashion-conscious part of it which is also the most important part of the market, in fact is interested in other things. But anyway, whatever the general trend at the moment, the whole twentieth century has taught us that the artist-who-thinks (in the field of art, literature, music, theatre…) is often ‘out-of-date’ and it has been this very peculiarity that has guaranteed the importance and durability of his message. It is conformism that makes an idea banal and, often, quite useless… and without the challenge of a different way of thinking the idea simply becomes communication. And most of what is most up-to-date is all too often just a matter of communications.

Topical painting and so… Damien Hirst’s inventor and father-godfather Charles Saatchi, has in programme an important series of thematic shows with the title “The Triumph of Painting”…

But Charles Saatchi who, not by chance, is a communications guru at a global level, has always been interested in painting. In 1997 he put together the first-class transaction/exhibition Sensation, happily mixing together the honoured Royal Academy of Arts and, not just Damien Hirst, the Chapman brothers, and the revered Sarah Lucas, but also a large number of abstract artists such as Simon Callery, Mark Francis, Jason Martin, Fiona Rae, such new first-rate figurative artists as Glenn Brown, James Rielly, Richard Patterson, the ethnic painting of Chris Ofili, who then went on to win the Turner prize, the post-Pop Art of Gary Hume, who was then seen in the Venice Biennale, the prince of the British pavilion… and the star Jenny Saville, the direct descendent of two such great artists as Bacon and Freud. In this show all painting was represented, in all its forms and aspects. The critics chose to sanctify Hirst or the Chapman brothers, and even the Bad Painting of Martin Maloney… I think my point is made.

You referred to Fiona Rae and Jason Martin, two artists who represent an international variant of your own interests. Today there is a lot of interest in abstract painting, influenced by American Neo-Geo from the early eighties but developed in various different ways. After Halley, Bleckner, Scully, Ellis there also come to mind John Millei, Fabian Marcaccio, Matthew Weinstein, Nathan Carter, Nina Bovasso as well as those who we also know in Italy such as David Lindberg and Alan Parker. So today it is both possible as well as urgently necessary to pinpoint a common international interest in such inquiries. An extension of the 1999 ‘Abstract Generation’ which, at various times over the years, has highlighted two main groups of Italian abstract artists and might well today bring to light another dozen. In the UK a third group is affirming itself in less than a decade. Today Saatchi himself is proposing such fresh talent as Simon Aldridge, but there are also such new international artists as Jane Callister and Sarah Morris. In Germany there are Frank Nitsche, Daniel Richter, Pia Reis, as well as such ‘intermediate’ situations as the magisterial Magnus von Plessen and Franz Ackermann; in Scandinavia there is Ulf Verner Carsson and in Switzerland Lori Harsberger. In the meantime, in the absence of a common international project such great nonconformists as Albert Oehlen, Juan Uslè, and Lawrence Carroll have become established. Today we could build a single, great international project devoted to these inquiries…. Are you aware of this mutual sensibility?

Perhaps it is not a genuine mutual sensibility, but the ‘temperature’ is certainly the same. Even as an individual it is certainly stimulating to be part of a group: there come to mind the great movements in which everyone feels he is a part and covers a role. The artist’s problem has always been that of his isolation in the studio.

Critics and collectors have often recognised that you are probably the most mature and convincing Italian abstractionist of your generation. Your output is defined by its great painterly sensibility, the originality of your interests, and the deep cultural humus lying behind the themes of our work. This was something that, in 1995 ,the American critic Jerry Saltz referred to in his account of the year’s shows in New York. He asked ‘Abstract painting: disinherited or superior to everything?’ and went on to say, ‘Abstraction is in no way finished; on the contrary it is still today sufficiently complex to be subdivided into various groups of artists’. He implicitly recognised in this tendency a great internal vitality as well as a dynamic independent of the rest of the market.<

In 1997 the MoMA decided on a surprise show devoted to new aspects of figuration and promoted - and in fact definitively consecrated - three young artists: Currin, Brown, and Tuymans, probably because the intuition and the market led to an important manifestation of this trend in painting. So this happened for figurative painting and, in fact, without any difficulties… for abstraction they have only to decide when. Its ‘substance’ is under the eyes of everybody…

Three international artists: an American, an Englishman, and a Belgian. Your particular interests certainly have a solid Italian background as well as a deep knowledge of archetypes and the use of intermediate colour values centred on the importance of material itself, like Sean Scully or Lawrence Carroll. In your painting now there is an original combination of certain aspects of the Italian pictorial tradition and a chromatic sensibility also to be found in international painting. I have in mind your recent use of bright colours such as turquoise, orange, and acid and synthetic hues, all of which show the interaction of various influences. Other abstractionists too show a deep spiritual influence. Sean Scully has said at various times that he is interested in the ‘soul’ in art, openly telling David Carrier that he believes that abstract art is the great spiritual art of the century. He further added that until the eighties he faced ferocious hostility from a section of the art world because this aspect was not fashionable.

I met Scully in 1996 during his solo show at the Villa delle Rose, Bologna, together with our mutual friend Danilo Eccher who had curated the show and was then to curate, together with you, my show at the Stelline three years later. Sean Scully revealed that he was a keen practitioner of Karate and that his pictures ‘spun in a circle’… so they were circular…

You are smiling because your work too is circular… the new works shown in this Ottantuno project seem to answer two different kinds of need, even though both are complementary. On the one hand are earthy surfaces characterised by excavations and incisions; on the other hand are the acrylics in which the white glazes allude to a more mental atmosphere. Is the former more sensual and the latter more ‘physical’?

Certainly there are two basically different basic emotional states which cause me to choose one technique or another. In the case of the earth pieces the time taken for creating them was longer as thinning with water lengthens the final outcome of the work and physically I am forced to take more time over it. This means concentrating on a single piece for days, at times even for weeks. The acrylics instead induce me to use glazes or veils of colour. The technique is more direct and the works dry almost at once. In this case the basic idea is more related to a precise idea than to a vague sensation. In the first case there is a genuine narrative, the diary of a journey; in the second there is the sudden, instantaneous, hint of a thought. But I could never paint following just one or other method. Both are part of me.

Your work derives from a complex mixture of physicality and meditation, of planning and painterly technique, of historical and lyrical culture. Is this rational or instinctive?

It is circular. It depends on the part of the circumference where I find myself, on the diameter of the circle I am following.