Antonio Scaccabarozzi: the Value of Painting
Antonio Scaccabarozzi’s work was the result of a rigorous practice based on an excellent mastery and a deeply-felt conception of artistic creation, the unceasing elaboration of which allowed continuous investigation of the nature and potential of art. Having decided to become a painter as a form of personal commitment with the clearly defined space of the canvas as the area of his intervention, Scaccabarozzi sought, first and foremost, to pose a series of questions regarding artistic experience: what value does painting have today?; what are its constituent elements?; what is the artist’s role and identity? In order to do this, he ventured beyond the mediation constituted by pictorial representation and conventions. As a reaction to Art Informel — which he regarded as spontaneous and subjective, thus arbitrary — and as an antidote to every other artistic style, he chose, in tune with the cultural climate of the time, to deprive the artwork of its traditional expressive, evocative and dramatic content and to conduct a methodical analysis of its basic elements: supports, dots, lines, colours, materials and their nature, and the surface and the ways in which this could be modified. Explicit and succinct, the titles of his works were themselves part of this reflection.
During the early part of Scaccabarozzi’s career, his works were the result of meticulous, uncompromising programmaticity. In particular, the artist was interested in the relationship between the quantity and quality of the materials used and their effect on the surface. Regarding method, measurement and rationally ordered systems, his analysis involved a verifiable modus operandi based on specific rules, starting from which, without further interference, the work was created — as if it were a phenomenon — within the spatial system that is the picture.
In his early series of works, the dot became the germinative nucleus of the picture’s structure. The Superfici modulate (Modulated Surfaces), the Fustellati (Punched Works) and then the Prevalenze (Prevalences), with their series of dots — firstly in relief, then painted — that punctuate rhythmically the space of a uniform surface, are among the first examples of this line of artistic inquiry. Even at this stage, however, the relationship between the artist’s plan and its result was not wholly predictable. The creative process of the works was open and, despite his avowed methodical approach, this programme was destined to be replaced by the contingencies and unforeseen events linked to the conditions of its execution and use.
Subsequently, from the end of the 1970s and increasingly in the 1980s, Scaccabarozzi experimented with the relationship between quantity and quality in a less rigorous manner, still referring to weights, volumes, limits and borders, but with more varied formal responses: excellent examples were works like Delimitazione di cm3 di acqua (Delimitation of a Cubic Centimetre of Water, 1980); series like the Iniezioni (Injections, 1980), with Iniezione-Delimitazione (Injection-Delimitation, 1980–81); or the Quantità (Quantities), which originated from questions linked to the relationship between the quantity and quantity of the physical substance of colour, or between the liquid volume of the paint and the area of the surface occupied. Not only did the formal responses vary, but they could also contain autobiographical references and a degree of light-heartedness, as was the case with Acquerello e acquerello (Watercolour and Watercolour, 1983).
Starting from these conceptual premises, Scaccabarozzi’s practice developed in the following years thanks to variations and additions. The need to measure and quantify was still of the essence even when he moved from the two-dimensional surface to a spatial approach. Even at this juncture, however, what interested the artist was not the illusory space in the representation of perspective, but the real one that he transformed by inverting and multiplying the picture; the picture space expanded to assume habitable dimensions and, vice versa, the environment became a picture. Thus in works such as Ambiguità dell’angolo (Ambiguity of the Corner, 1978), at the Galleria Lorenzelli in Milan, or Misurazione della Galleria Ferrari (Measurement of the Galleria Ferrari, Verona, 1978), what counted was the possibility of measuring space, starting from a specific point of view, which, in this case, was the artist himself, with Scaccabarozzi drawing a horizon line at his own height. Another example was 25 Riferimenti (25 References, Sala Civica, Merate, 1994) in which, using dense acrylic paint, he switched the horizontal plane to the vertical, thus reconstructing the floor on the wall.
In the following years, the artist made a series of works that were of paramount importance in his career: the Quantità (Quantities) or Quantità su polietilene (Quanitities on Polyethylene). The essential features of these paintings, executed with broad brushstrokes on a support of transparent polyethylene, were force, rhythm and inclination. At first the edges of the paintings were linear and closed, then they gradually dissolved in order to follow the flow of the brushstrokes on one side, then on two, then on three and, finally, on all four sides: little by little, Scaccabarozzi was seeking to go beyond the limits of geometry, relaxing the rules. While keeping within with a strongly design-based relationship with the work, he then sought to verify the permeability of these rules and of the limits that had been tested at length.
Moreover, paradoxically he had always recognized the limits and arbitrary nature of the alleged scientificity deployed in the process of quantification. For him, it was clear that, however rigorous the method might be, art was always created in the contrast between planning and chance. Indeed, it was from this relationship that his method found its raison d’être: thus, rather than producing a sense of rigidity or alienation, it resulted in great concentration.
Clearly, he regarded painting as a way of reflecting on reality. This is confirmed by the fact that in 1987, among the works the artist executed, were a number of paintings on sheets of newspaper: thus the brushstrokes were in direct contrast with the system of information, which by its very nature was not easy to measure and was characterized by topicality, speed and rapid obsolescence.
Shortly after this, at beginning of the 1990s, Scaccabarozzi created his first Essenziali (Essentials), in which the support disappeared and the only features of painting that remained were the colour, rhythm and inclination that were to be found in the Quantità. The work consisted of broad, oblique brushstrokes that were both precise and powerful: more than anything else, in these works there was the tension and dynamism of a gesture interrupted at the very moment it was being made. Image, material and energy were literally one and the same and painting thus became wholly self-sufficient. Once again the artist declared that it was realized in itself and that it could be both self-evident and absolute.
In this period, the logical and theoretical elements, which had always been present in his work, coincided, more than ever before, with the action of creating it. Some of the most radical works the artist produced during his entire career were those he entitled Polietileni (Polyethylenes): while, up to this time, what had particularly interested him about polyethylene was its transparency, which, by making it almost invisible, meant this material was the ideal support for giving prominence to painting as such. But now the artist’s gesture and the brushstroke had been eliminated and what remained was the material itself, which, stripped of everything else, acquired a value of its own.
Polyethylene is an ordinary, everyday material not usually associated with painting: of industrial origin, it is very obviously synthetic. With few expressive qualities, it is monochrome and neutral; and neutrality was a characteristic that Scaccabarozzi — in common with other artists producing work similar to his — sought right from the outset of his career. This material tended to be considered only in terms of its utility; indeed, the artist himself had previously used it as a support. But at the same time it was modern because it represented the evolving world and transforming lifestyles. Now the artist proposed it as a work in its own right, with a sense of immediacy, but without undue insistence, revealing, at the same time, its delicacy, diaphanous lightness and responsive character.
He displayed it in various common colours, easily available on the market: in simple square forms it was attached to the wall, using both the opaque and translucent versions, sometimes with punching or linear cuts. Two sheets of different colours were placed on top of each other, so one was hidden except when a movement caused them to flutter, as in the Ekleípseis (Eclipses); or else they were slightly detached from the wall so as to cast a shadow, as in the Banchise (Ice-Fields). Because of their absolute simplicity, these works were receptive to the countless opportunities offered by a world that was transitory and in a constant state of renewal. Responsive to all these chances, they reacted to the passage of light, movement and the slightest waft of air caused by visitors walking around. In this way, they met the challenge of contingency. Sensitive
In the Polietileni, moreover, Scaccabarozzi systematically allowed the lines made by the folds in the plastic sheets to remain visible, recalling the appearance of everyday objects made using this material. Thus, even when economizing to the greatest possible extent on materials, it was possible to stimulate new forms of perception. Furthermore, it cannot be excluded that this choice contained a reference to Renaissance art, in which the handling of drapery always played an important role: the creases in the tablecloths spread over the tables seen in the Renaissance Last Suppers are but one example. At the same time, they generated a series of volumes, albeit of minimal dimensions, including reliefs and hollows, over the surface. What began as a two-dimensional work, now acquired an element of plasticity that created wrinkles and light and shade. And this was not all: although eschewing, once again, any decorative effects, the grid that emerged resulted in a composition, recalling, on one hand, the quest for inner balance in the picture space and, on the other, the concept of the limit and the interior and the exterior that, as we have already seen, were constantly the focus of the artist’s attention.
While, in the Polietileni, Scaccabarozzi achieved synthesis and immediacy, with the material functioning as support, surface and source of colour, the concept of the border together with its character as a vibratory aerial screen that was sensitive to light and movement was even more evident in a number of works having environmental dimensions: the Trasparenze (Transparencies). The artist executed various versions of these, some of which were installed in his studio: for example, Corridoio (Corridor) (2001), in which a sheet of transparent or translucent polyethylene formed a curtain that allowed a smaller blue Polietilene — set back a little — to show through. This work was displayed in different exhibitions, from Bonn to Edinburgh, with the relationship between installation and the space varying on each occasion. Others were only at the planning stage, though the artist’s meticulous drawings have survived. All these works envisaged that, behind the first semi-transparent layer, one, two, or even three coloured Polietileni appeared.
Blue Quantity, blue ink on polyethylene, 1983 29x94 cm
In the Polietileni, meaning and presence were one and the same thing, and synthesis and precision were the dominant features. These installations, however, had a notable evocative power: ineffable works with a strongly poetic character, they created a sense of physical and temporal distance in which the reference points faded away and transparency, glazing, layering and sequence of planes drew attention to the tangible world and what is elusive or difficult to understand.
The artist had, indeed, come a long way from his Prevalenze of the 1970s. The concepts of the limit, the border, proximity, distance and crossing through were made very explicit in his Cancelletti (Gates), Barriere (Barriers) and works with such titles as Di qua e di là (On This Side and the Other): these were executed in the period when he was also working on the Trasparenze. Sometimes intended to be suspended between two walls, where they formed screens or boundary lines, they consisted of grids made of polyethylene that indicated separation, but, at the same time, established a link. What does being ‘on this side and the other’ mean? What gaps in perception may this produce? Among Scaccabarozzi’s notes, there are numerous references to the theme of the ‘filters’ that interfere with the gaze. In 1999 the artist wrote: ‘I’m looking out into the garden from a ground-floor window...’; the text, reproduced in this catalogue, could not be more precise or illuminating. His thought is clear and poetic.
For the artist, the whole of his life took place within the work of art: the locus of balances and tensions, it was linked to questions regarding the history of vision and painting that involved sight, perspective, distance, layering and glazing. Nevertheless, his work was a process that increasingly opened up to chance, in which nothing was predictable; indeed a decisive role was played by fluctuations and unforeseeable and improbable events. In fact, what counted was, first and foremost, the relationship — based on continuous experimentation — between the design of the work and its result, as well as between intention and reality. Thus Scaccabarozzi’s relationship with the work was not only very much focused on the planning stage, but was also active, critical and even lyrical.
The cycle of works that concluded the artist’s career stemmed from a desire to return to the technique of painting, enriching it, however, with the results of all his previous reflections. The outcome was the Velature (Glazes), with their numerous superimposed layers. Here we find total concentration: their visual impact is combined with the simplicity of the medium and the economic use of materials. There are biographical references — to the skies depicted by his painter grandfather — which are, however, implicit and are conceptual in nature: once again, his commitment to art allows for no compromise.
Scaccabarozzi’s reflection on the glazes and screens through which reality is, inevitably, perceived by the individual — which is at the centre of these final works, but which was also one of the constants of his career — is, however, linked to contemplation on the meaning of life: something that is still very relevant today.
The Exile of the Frame:
the Essential Nature of Painting
According to the American philosopher Ronald L. Hall, all pictures are abstract because of their frame. By isolating the work from historic time and phenomenal reality, the frame excludes everything outside it. This closure with regard to the surrounding environment presupposes a border intended to focus attention on the painting: one’s gaze is kept within it, avoiding any dispersion or distraction. The painters of antiquity generally decorated their paintings with a gilded frame that had a practical function rather than an ornamental one. The bronze powder offered gentle counterpoint to the colours used in the work, thus isolating the picture from the light of the objects surrounding it. In the words of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, the gilded frame inserted ‘a ribbon of pure splendour between the picture and the unreal world’1. It fell to the intransigent Impressionists to abolish the traditional borders, replacing them with white frames; this was a choice that was widely ridiculed by the public, while the French critic Felix Fénéon praised it emphatically. Indeed Fénéon — like the German philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel a few years later — disapproved of all those artists who decorated their frames in order to turn them into an extension of the work; at that time, however, no one imagined that before very long the frame would be totally eliminated. When the retrospective devoted to Claude Monet at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was being installed, the curator William C. Seitz decided to remove the frames from some of the pictures: ‘The undressed canvasses looked a bit like reproductions until you saw how they began to hold the wall. Though the hanging had its eccentric moments, it read the pictures’ relation to the wall correctly and, in a rare act of curatorial daring, followed up the implications’2. Opening in March 1960, the exhibition heralded a decade that was to be intolerant of the authorship of the frame that had preserved the integrity of the work for centuries, sanctioning the locus where the value of its contents was revealed: painting. Having worn away the threshold separating the work of art from the rest of the world, the picture-plane could finally break into the sphere of everyday life. However, the aim was not that of supplanting reality, but of coming closer to it — this was a self-referential, non-illusionistic version of reality, freed from subterfuges and superstructural pretexts.
Besides the manifest rejection of frames, in the 1970s there was an equally pressing desire to dismantle the picture’s stretcher. Indeed, such artists as Michel Parmentier, Claude Viallat, Patrick Saytour and Giorgio Griffa decided to eliminate the thickness of the painting. Thus, if the picture was really nothing but ‘colour spread on a support’, this support had to reveal its two-dimensional surface: attached directly to the wall, the canvas was finally freed from the constraints of the wooden stretcher. A member of the same generation of artists, Antonio Scaccabarozzi obtained the same results with his Quantità libere (Free Quantities) cycle.
Among the many axioms he left us, Henri Matisse maintained that ten cubic metres of blue were less blue that one cubic metre of the same colour. When looking at Scaccabarozzi’s Quantità one cannot help asking why a yellow surface should be the same size as a purple or green painting. However, he was not interested in formulating a theory of colour: keeping a safe distance from philosophy, he restricted his investigation to the physiological aspects of art. Focusing on the grammar and ambiguity of vision, he was particularly concerned with refining the way we observe things and perfecting his practice, a procedure — not to be confused with a technique, as the critic Flaminio Gualdoni rightly pointed out — that started with analysis and concluded with synthesis. Scaccabarozzi used painting as a tool of investigation that penetrated increasingly in depth, culminating in an objective inquiry rather than in a hypothetical truth or an artistic whim. Although his laconic titles express truisms that the work is required to demonstrate, their nominal value corresponds to a deductive practice: challenging the recognized and established artistic models, the artist’s works are never postulates, but are rather empirical propositions — in other words, experiences developed within pictorial syntax.
Scaccabarozzi often investigated the contrast between an observable phenomenon and our perception of this. The broad spectrum of his experiments, which to an inexpert eye might seem to be very diverse or even contradictory, inevitably regarded the relationship — and thus its validity — linking the maker to his or her artefact. As Oscar Wilde put it, ‘There is no fine art without self-consciousness, and self-consciousness and the critical spirit are one’3. Similarly, for Alexander Archipenko, ‘The mystery of the creativeness of an individual remains in his biological nucleus and is rarely grasped by his consciousness unless he is guided by an instinctual ability for self-analysis and by wisdom’4. Impatient with repetition that could easily result in feeble mannerism, Scaccabarozzi continued to diversify his output, aware of the fact that it was not always possible to reinforce an idea by simply repeating the concept underlying it; more often than not, there was the risk of trivializing or even debasing it. So it was that, in the 1990s, the artist was particularly concerned with understanding what the fundamental nature of painting was. From where did it originate and to what element could it be traced back or reduced? It was obvious that the essence of painting was both evolutionary and involutionary: the more it evolved with regard to its problems, the more it was destined to revert to elementary concepts, where the notions of ‘originary’ and ‘original’ tended to converge. Freed from the stereotyped categories of art history, painting had always had the courage to venture as far as its insurmountable climax beyond which everything disappeared, fading away as it lost its meaning. This extreme and irreversible limit sanctioned the very essence of painting. Tending towards exemplification rather than exhaustiveness, Scaccabarozzi’s works are formed — and informed — by this essence.
By compressing the trembling densities of the Quantità, Scaccabarozzi was able to create the Essenziali (Essentials), pictorial matrices that existed regardless of any support. By reducing painting to the syntactic unit of a vigorous and resolute brushstroke, the artist spread the acrylics with a painting knife, strengthening the colours with mastic, which helped to preserve their substance and structure. Applied with the painting knife, the colour was at the same time singular and plural, one and manifold, and constant and versatile, and could assume an elliptical shape, which was even allusive when placed horizontally almost as if it were underlining something, or, on other occasions, vertically in order to simulate columns, as in the exhibition held in 1993 at the Galerie Hoffmann in Friedberg. A year later, Scaccabarozzi focused on another architectural element: the large rhomboid shapes inserted in the floor of the Sala Civica of the Merate Town Hall, which were replicated and then placed on the walls in the installation 25 Riferimenti (25 References). Although some Essenziali were given the form of tilted mirrors, or shaped to fit the corners of the exhibition space, the pictorial debate did not finish in a merely geometrical manner: it endeavoured, where possible, to redefine the work’s internal coefficient. In particular, the Essenziali were a perceptive reappraisal of monochrome painting, capable of tackling tautology and pleonasm. Often Scaccabarozzi subverted rules and definitions when he decided to emphasize the edges of the works with ‘pictorial shadows’ or when he gave them generic titles: Questo non è nero (This Is Not Black) referred to a grey Essenziale; Questo non è giallo chiaro (This Is Not Light Yellow) was given to a red Essenziale. There is no doubt that, for Scaccabarozzi, painting was to all intents and purposes an intellectual workshop. It would, however, be an unforgivable mistake to describe his practice as conceptual rather than mental, or minimalist instead of minimal. Certainly, when observing his works, we have the impression that they are an expression of complex simplicity. We are fascinated by them, as when we discover something that seems, on the face of it, to be both straightforward and obvious, but that had not yet occurred to anyone else. ‘Simplicity is complexity itself,’ said Constantin Brancusi, ‘and one has to be nourished by its essence in order to understand its value’5. Scaccabarozzi managed to materialize and make perceptible the essential element that, in The Little Prince, Antoine Saint-Exupéry described as being ‘invisible to the eye’6. But in order to arrive at the heart of the matter, the essence, it was necessary to accept the contrary, absence, because every choice is linked to a sacrifice.
Essentials, red acrylic and reinforced mastic, 1993 235x35 cm
Thus the frame, stretcher and canvas were no longer necessary and only the fundamental element of painting remained: the touch of powerful and expressive colour that inevitably invoked late-Romantic dexterity, as if to resist the depersonalization of and disillusionment with painting that was typical of artists who trained in the 1960s. However, Scaccabarozzi’s task was not complete until he had radically changed his modus operandi: if, in fact, painting does not necessarily need its traditional support, can it exist without the gestural expressiveness of the brush? This consideration was fully confirmed in the cycle of the Polietileni (Polyethylenes), with the physical substance of colour that only needed a few elegant and intelligent artifices. At this time an inverse, almost antithetical relationship was initiated between the Essenziali and the Polietileni that countered solidity with insubstantiality, opacity with transparency, mass with vibration and stagnation with movement.
In the second half of the 2000s, the artist made another fundamental change to his practice thanks to a process of cancellation that extended the limits of his pictorial language. Abandoning such anti-pictorial expedients as injecting paint into the canvas or immersing it in paint, Scaccabarozzi felt a need to go back to a traditional technique: glazing. Thus the wheel had turned the full circle: the creative activity that had absorbed the artist’s energies throughout his career was nothing other than the rediscovery of painting.
In this continuous search for ‘something that was worth knowing’, the artist never lost sight of his subject (or tool), succeeding in the arduous feat of transforming himself into an emanation of pure painting, something most artists were unable to achieve. Although he had to deal with the same problems as his colleagues, Scaccabarozzi adopted original solutions that were innovative from a technical point of view. Although his practice could be said to reflect trends existing on the international art scene, it would be overly simplistic to compare him to exponents of Radical Painting in America, or even of the followers of the Italian Pittura analitica or the German Geplante Malerei. Despite evident similarities, Scaccabarozzi was never a member of any of these movements, preferring a solitary career that still today must be regarded as unique and unrepeatable.
1 J. Ortega y Gasset, ‘Meditations on the Frame’, trans. Andrea L. Bell, in The Art of the Edge: European Frames 1300-1900, ed. Richard Brettell and Steven Starling, Chicago Institute of Art, Chicago,1986, p. 22.
2 Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube. The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Lapis Press, San Francisco, 1986, p. 25.
3 Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist, Green Integer, Los Angeles, 1997, p. 42.
4 Alexander Archipenko and Fifty Art Historians, Archipenko: 50 Creative Years 1908- 1958, Tekhne, New York, 1960, p. 19.
5 Costantin Brancusi. The Essence of Things, ed. Carmen Gimenez and Matthew Gale, Tate Gallery Publishing, London, 2004, p. 129.
6 Antoine De Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, Pan Books, London, 1974, p. 70 (Eng. trans.Katherine Woods).
And what do you do with this quantity? What do you see? What do you feel? What can you add?
In a Greek temple there is an inner space that is closed and secret, where only a few people can enter: the naos. Only priests were permitted to stay there and it was where the image of the god was kept, waiting to be revealed in the communion between human beings and the deity.
The creative process, the hazardous and surprising practice of artists when they create their works, is a mysterious core concealed inside it that is only revealed to the few. It is its naos, its locus of origin, the generating idea that produces it and dwells within it.
There is something sacred, in the sense of ‘consecrated’, to be secreted little by little, in all of Antonio Scaccabarozzi’s work. This secrecy has, however, led to a certain degree of isolation. Today, when finally a new generation of critics are tackling it, what emerges forcefully is a complete, complex, multifaceted and consistent practice; neither eclectic nor pedantic, it is astonished by its own coming into being and ready to amaze us with its continuous transformation. Mysteriously occurring before our eyes, Scaccabarozzi’s works are the fulminating and meteoric manifestations of an investigation of painting that leaves us breathless and gives no respite.
And as soon as we think we have reached the threshold of the naos of each of his works, the majesty of his mystery— although never completely revealed — appears powerfully before us. From this derives the title of this courageous exhibition — ‘Vo(i)ler Couleur’ (literally ‘Stealing/Veiling Colour’, playing on the similarity to the Italian volere colore [wanting colour]) — where the play on words unites, distinguishes and resolves, as in Scaccabarozzi’s Quantità libere (Free Quantities), variations on colour and meaning aimed at a very precise and insistent analysis: the problem of the visual experience of the work, as a rediscovery and journey back into the process of its germination and formation. It is a title that describes in a very precise manner a really remarkable thirty-year period, from the beginning of the 1980s to the early years of the new millennium, when, after careful reflection, Scaccabarozzi’s artistic output assumed a disarmingly contemporary form.
This ranged from the above-mentioned Quantità libere, where the paint was applied with broad brushstrokes onto transparent polyethylene — and also onto paper and canvas — to the works dating from the second half of the 1990s, in which the polyethylene sheet was fully independent: it was the support and the visible surface, the locus of experience and of expression of colour in the environment. They comprised the Banchise (Ice-Fields), the Ekleípseis (Eclipses), works created by modelling the apparently simple plastic sheet, whether it be translucent or coloured.
In the middle, between the Quantità libere and the Polietileni (Polyethylenes), there are the Essenziali (Essentials): Alberto Zanchetta gives a detailed account of these in the present catalogue. All these different cycles in Scaccabarozzi’s output are indicative of the continuous development of the artist’s practice, which now involved both his own re-elaboration and awareness of what was meant by ‘seeing through’, as he himself wrote at the end of the 1990s. In a brief text — published in this catalogue — he condensed the entire history of the penetration of the surface that had been a much debated theme for artists and intellectuals alike in the second half of the twentieth century.
Thus Scaccabarozzi was the ferryman Charon of this question, which became the subject of his work at the beginning of the twenty-first century. And this was his double-edged sword: he had understood this up to his works of the 1970s, because it was easier to ascribe to an analytical and carefully planned period, for the works produced from the 1980s until the new millennium, the artist demanded not so much the effort, but rather the thrill of immersion and empathy on the part of the critics and the market, with the exception of a number of enlightened individuals who understood the value of his practice and its capacity to go beyond or even anticipate artistic styles. A meticulous construction of a path of meaning, this exhibition selects the works on sheets of polyethylene from Scaccabarozzi’s orderly oeuvre, investigating the various conceptual and creative transitions. For decades Natascia Rouchota — the artist’s partner and sole heir, who has directed the archive devoted to the him since 2010 — has had free access to the naos of his creativity. She was able to carefully observe this new period, starting from 1983, which, in the archive, is described as that of the Quantità libere: this was when the artist, after having methodically analysed all the possibilities of relationships between and dependence on the measurement and randomness of painting, decided that painting consisted in the spreading of a quantity of paint, freeing himself from calculations and any clearly-defined form of pre-arranged schema.
I give you a quantity of paint, he says, and you add the rest. I give you a certain quantity of green on a canvas or on a sheet of transparent plastic, or on paper, and what do you with this quantity? What do you see? What do you feel? What can you add?’
Now I cover the black with red and allow a little of the original colour to appear at the edges. What effect does this have on you? What do you remember? How do my choices work on you?
If I change the colour and materials, I change the result: I only retain the direction of the brushstrokes, from left to right; this is the only thing I don’t change, just as I still feel the need to continue using a brush.... for the whole of the 1990s, Antonio focused on the concept of QUANTITY.... HOW MUCH does a thin layer of paint weigh in my space, HOW MUCH dark blue paint must I apply to a very light sheet of transparent plastic in order to make it become one with the earth, how does the quantity relate — if it relates — to my wishes, my intentions, our happiness or sorrow? To what extent do solids and voids, transparency, glazes, darkness, openness, what is evident and what is hidden work with us? HOW MUCH?1.
Rouchota writes, asking questions in her turn, as if to stress that artists are such — and Scaccabarozzi certainly was one of them — and continue to be such only as long as their work does not cease to investigate the world it addresses. This is what his Quantità libere do, the title of which is, come to think of it, an oxymoron: ‘Here quantity is non-quantitative: it has a conceptual extension, a basis of energy and a wealth of expression that allows it to be continuously transformed into quality, or rather differences of quality. Saccabarozzi’s works invite us to experience the whole range of the quantity in which it can do without mathematical calculation...’,2 Christine Brunner — one of the artist’s most attentive critics — wrote three years after they first appeared.
Let us take a look at them. The sheets of transparent polyethylene are translucent surfaces to which the brushstrokes are applied: the paint is spread to create a vibrant form that varies according to the wall where it is placed, the light that passes through it and the bodies of the spectators standing in front of it who, in their turn, change it with their physical bulk, their shadows and their very presence. For a moment or for an hour! Everything is changeable in the experience of the visual world. Quality of the quantities. The main theme of Scaccabarozzi’s work is, in fact, the transformation of the former into the latter, or rather the indissoluble unity of mind and matter, to put it in outmoded terms. Ten years ago he was investigating the concept of moderation and predominance, always proceeding along a path leading from focusing on perception led to the creation of a form. The form was, however, the always the result of the ineluctable embrace between quantity and quality: many embraces, many forms. The manifestations had different results: the watercolour was neither the pastel of the dairies nor the ink of the transparent polyethylene. Here the light flashes where the vinyl captures a luminosity that has defeated the dust but, as a consequence, has lost its brightness.
This narrative morphology is essential for Scaccabarozzi. For us, the permanence of the style and a secret recognizability are essential in the morphology of events, so that everything constitutes a colour: liquid quantities and the pressure of the painting knife, speed of the gesture, energy,... the perception of himself over time3.
The astute observations of Mauro Panzera — another of the early critics of Scaccabarozzi’s work — date from 1991. The artist had just embarked on the adventure of the Essenziali, in which he mixed the paint with mastic, freeing it from the transparent polyethylene support: this was revenge — or perhaps an affront — for the whole question of the penetration of the surface. In the Essenziali everything is resolved by a declaration of total independence: the work exists and it decides for itself.
From the mid-1990s onwards Scaccabarozzi started using polyethylene sheets again, but without the brushstrokes of colour. This was another declaration of independence of the work, which could now be folded, extended and allowed to fly and flutter about thanks to its plastic resilience — rather than strength — and the lightness of its installation: coloured threads, thin nylon or double-sided and removable Sellotape.
But it was not only the lightness, transparency and versatility of polyethylene that fascinated Scaccabarozzi: he regarded it as the locus where he could deal with the question of vision and its limit on a new level, as well as an investigation of the replica, the recto and verso of painting and the latter’s relationship with — and expansion into — space. This process involved the thin plastic sheets, which semiotically tackled the theme of diaphaneity, passing from the phantom of pure transparency to translucency that allowed light to filter through but did not allow us to see either the outlines or the traces of the figures behind the screen up to the most impenetrable turbidity or opacity. An adjective related to the process through which something becomes visible, diaphanous is composed of the Greek preposition dia (through), indicating something that separates or rends, in other words a crossing, an opening or a breakthrough, allowing an interiority to be glimpsed and revealing something that had been hidden. The Greek verb phainein (to show), which is added to this preposition, is related to phōs (light): it means not only ‘to shine’ or ‘to light up’ but also ‘to make appear’, ‘to make visible’ or ‘to reveal’ what is shrouded; and also ‘to make known’, ‘to show’, ‘to herald’, ‘to present’, ‘to indicate’ or ‘to manifest’ a physical phenomenon or a spiritual aspect (the latter being, of course, invisible).4
Twice cut light blue polyethylene. 1999 77x71 cm
It is from this that the verb diaphainein derives, meaning to be hardly visible or to start to be visible, and diaphainēs, the capacity of a body to let light shine through it.
It’s the same feeling I have when visiting the temple of Hephaestus. When you walk around it, the columns allow you to glimpse the inner wall, but from certain angles they completely cover it, thus creating a magic combination of circulating air and further protection of what is preserved within. This happened five years ago in Athens.5
Once again we are before a Greek temple. Let us ascend the long flight of stairs leading to its heart. We raise our eyes in order to observe Scaccabarozzi’s vibrant and hieratic colour surfaces. Even further within is their naos. I like to think that the one in the Polietileni is diaphanous.
1 Natascia Rouchota, Antonio Scaccabarozzi L’emozione del metodo, Crocetti, Milan, 2012.
2 Christine Brunner, tuntitled essay in Antonio Scaccabarozzi – Quantità, catalogue of the exhibition curated by Christine Brunner, Galerie Hock, Krefeld, 7 June – 12 July 1986.
3 Mauro Panzera, Quantità Essenziali, in Antonio Scaccabarozzi. Essenziali, catalogue of the exhibition curated by Mauro Panzera, Centro Arte Santelmo, Salò (province of Brescia), 3 March – 15 April 1991, Grafiche Facetti, 1991.
4 See Patrizia Magli, ‘Έστι δή τι διαφανές. Esiste dunque del diafano’, in Diafano. Vedere attraverso, edited by Chiara Casarin and Eva Ogliotti, ZeL Edizioni, Palermo, 2012, pp. 17–24.
5 Antonio Scaccabarozzi, 1999, untitled text, first published in the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Matériau: couleur’, edited by Mel Gooding, Centre régional d’art contemporain, Montbéliard, 23 September – 19 November 2000.
(photo credits: MIMMO CAPURSO)