• 2022_03 Creating the Rule: Going Beyond - Museo del Novecento, Milano

Creating the Rule, Going Beyond.

Gabi Scardi 2022, March

‘Creating the Rule: Going Beyond’, this expression sums up — also from a conceptual point of view — the constant, systematic growth of Antonio Scaccabarozzi’s artistic career that spanned most of his life. He never ceased to pay close attention to developments in the world of art and what this allowed him to discover. It was, indeed, from the surface of the painting that the artist set out on his journey of discovery, limiting himself mainly to the borders of the picture. And it was to this that, fifty years later, he returned after exploring its conventions and potentialities. His inquiry regarded the language of art, the materials used and the relationship of the artwork with its setting.      Thus, his main concern was painting and it was, above all, in the picture that, in his opinion, philosophical and existential questions were reflected — in other words, the contingencies of life and the possibility of understanding the meaning of life, which is, after all, what art is about:

My main area of interest is to give meaning to simple daily aspects. A fine glance at material life, to discover new possibilities of interpretation: which sensations I’m able to feel, in which light a colour appears to us, what a breath of wind produces…. Life is my source of inspiration.[1]

Over decades of experimentation, his position was always that of an uncompromising spectator of his own work: when, as such, he was no longer astonished, it was a sign that it was time to move on to a new phase in his work. In order to explain the perspicacity with which Scaccabarozzi undertook his investigation, it is sufficient to read a concise chronology that he wrote and then typed up himself, which came to light among his very orderly papers:

Antonio Scaccabarozzi… born in Merate in 1936….

1965 Abstract painting.

1969 Work programme based on the method that gives the best results as it overcomes it, giving importance to the unforeseeable aspects as they happen unexpectedly.

1983 Works characterized by the idea that spreading a quantity of paint is itself an artistic gesture. Nobody does it without a reason [added in pencil by the artist].

1995 The work becomes an object that separates and contains space.  

1996 Integration and enhancement of the ground looking through the work.

2001 Geography

2003 Intimate

2004 Through the glaze [added in pencil by the artist] [2]

Non-representational, containing both figurative and abstract elements, his first paintings were executed in oil on canvas, or acrylics or ink on paper. These were followed by canvases crossed by large coloured bands showing the influence of such artists as the German-French Jean Arp and French Fernand Léger and reflecting the impression conveyed by the highways seen in the European countries from which the artist had just returned. 

            But it was from the end of the 1960s that his work began to reveal the features that were subsequently to characterize it. In fact, this marked the beginning of well over ten years of activity linked to the concept of the programme. Not by chance: since the mid-1960s, as a reaction to the predominance of individual expressivity, typical of Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism, the work of many of the more forward-looking artists, both in Europe and elsewhere, tended to be inspired by a more impersonal or even scientific dimension that often bore the stamp of Gestalt theories. Many artists focused on practices related to visual perception, basing their experiments on choices of rationality, method, and the verifiability and replicability of the processes, in the belief that only with the renewal of the language of art would it be possible to produce a positive effect on society. Thus, the artist established the generative principles and the procedures of the work, ensured that it took shape according to the process as planned and, lastly, examined the result and analysed its implications.

            It was in the wake of these developments that Scaccabarozzi started to focus on the language of painting, its underlying logic and the use of materials, as well as on the relationship between the artwork, its location in space, external agents and the spectator. In a typewritten document held by the Archivio Scaccabarozzi, the artist describes a series of works executed in 1966, entitled Equilibrio Statico Dinamico (Static-Dynamic Equilibrium): ‘With reference to history. Paintings that establish a spatial equilibrium between horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines.’ Thus, the painting originates from the reduction of the surface to a geometric modular structure that is repeated with only a few variations and covers the whole surface; it is, therefore, a continuum with forms that are always the same, with different shades of white and grey, which, in theory at least, expand beyond the picture plane into infinity. As the title states, the result conveys a sense of balance and, at the same time, of the dynamism of forms.

            The same balance and dynamism are evident in a series of works executed shortly afterwards, not with a brush, but rather with a drill and a hammer or a punch. In the artist’s own words:

1969 Strutturali (Structural) series. I follow a method for seeking unexpected perceptions. Monochrome and polychrome relief works made of wood. Relief works made by cutting small discs in the canvas, which are then raised above its surface. Structures with coloured dots painted on the canvas.[3]

In these works, which tended to be three-dimensional, self-discipline was combined with an excellent command of technique and meticulous precision in the use of materials.

The Elementi (Elements) series was made by inlaying small slanting pieces of wood of differing lengths into a monochrome, generally white, ground. In other works in this series, the sequences of elements are grooved, hence the title Incavi (Grooves). The perception of colour is created by the tops — some of them coloured, often brightly — of the wooden elements forming the sequence: the variable effect of light and shade they produce generates a sense of dynamism. Quite frequently, in this period, in order to evaluate the result of his work, the artist displayed these pictures on a wall in the open air, so they could be seen in full daylight.

With regard to the Fustellati (Punched Works), which Scaccabarozzi executed, above all, in the period from 1970 to 1974, the critic Ernesto L. Francalanci wrote in the brochure accompanying the exhibition of his work at the Galleria del Cavallino in Venice in February 1973:

The canvas is white. On the white ground, the punched discs, raised at a certain angle and in the same direction in each row and changing their position from one row to another, create remarkable light effects. The time of day and the different seasons create the infinite colour variations of his works.[4]

A subsequent cycle of the artist’s work, executed from 1970 to 1979, was called Prevalenze (Prevalences); in these, the dot became the generative nucleus — he called it ‘centre of interest’ — of the picture’s structure, while the rhythm and the distance between the dots, established on each occasion by the artist, were the organizing principle. These round forms, sometimes white on a uniform white ground, at other times coloured, were made in relief or else were painted. The sequences punctuate and give a rhythm to the picture space: this is a choice based once again on control of the pictorial experience, which is intended to be objective. Over and above their conceptual and applicative aspects, a compositional value remains in these works and, in the long term, it is in this that we can find an important raison d’être

            During these early years of Scaccabarozzi’s career, his works were the result of specific rules, seen in relation to programmaticity pursued meticulously. The rigour of the method was, however, tempered by the intrusion of the unforeseen, chance, infraction or error that the artist did not try to resist, but rather — not without irony — incorporated in his work.

            Thus, the picture became a field of tension between rationality and irrationality, and the application of the instructions and their avoidance. Besides, as Scaccabarozzi wrote with regard to the Prevalenze, one of the main cycles of this period:

The problem with the Prevalenze is…. that they cast doubt on a number of reassuring certainties or idées fixes by means of the dynamic of dialectics rather than through additional certainties.[5]   

The period comprising the late 1970s and early 1980s marked a turning point in Scaccabarozzi’s artistic output. He still focused on the theme of measurement, which, in fact, became its leitmotif; but his choices became more subjective. The question of ‘how some conventional measurements can prove to be questionable with regard to the poetic experience’ was now of primary importance. After taking an interest in ‘almost straight lines, recording the wavering and trembling of the hand…’,[6] the artist concentrated on the relationship between the quantity and quality of the physical substance of colour. The formal responses for these Misurazioni (Measurements) were, however, different.   

            For example, the canvas was injected with paint in order to establish how many forms could be produced by the same quantity: this was the beginning of the Iniezioni (Injections) series. In answer to the same question — the ways in which paint expands on the canvas — Scaccabarozzi also replied with the Delimitazioni (Delimitations) in which he highlighted in pencil or with a brush the border between the wet and dry areas of an unprimed canvas on which he had applied liquid paint. Thus, the form is the result of the stain that has been created.

            The Immersioni (Immersions) regard the prerequisites of the concept of painting, in relation to the relationship between the liquid volume of the paint and the weight of the painting, or the quantity of the surface occupied: these are attempts to explore the dividing line between reality and appearance and reach the basic aspects of vision, allowing its characteristics, contradictions and paradoxes to emerge.  

            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), a series of bottles filled with coloured liquid, linked to reminiscences about his painter grandfather through whose ever-present bottle the artist saw the rays of light penetrate, illuminating the colour of their contents. This was, indeed, a jocular manner to refer to the genesis of his reflection on painting and to allude to his origins.

Also, with regard to the Misurazioni, in the late 1970s and over the 1980s, there were numerous experiments that, without abandoning the logic that governed the whole of his output, did not involve the use of painting in the strict sense of the term. These included, for example, Misura reale – Misura rappresentata (Real Measurement – Represented Measurement, 1979), a series of photographs in which, by superimposing thin lines bearing measurements, the artist highlighted the distance between two trees, as could be seen in the photographs (41 cm) and as it was in reality.

Other digressions from Scaccabarozzi’s purely pictorial work are seen in the portfolio Una condizione particolare (A Special State), which comprises repeated writing exercises using the left and right hands (Mano sinistra. Mano destra [Left Hand. Right Hand]), linked to his experience of a period of reduced mobility following a road accident; and then in Centootto volte NO (One Hundred and Eight Times NO), in which the word ‘no’ — the expression of radical opposition — is repeated endlessly. Moreover, the word ‘no’ was the subject of a series of variations on a theme, some of which expanded in space to assume habitable dimensions. A photograph taken in his studio in 1983 shows that it has been invaded by ‘noes’. And this was far from being a one-off: in fact, the artist produced numerous environmental installations in the course of his career.

A demystifying element lends a touch of normality to all these works: after all, although they are centred on an evaluation of the various linguistic conventions of art, they do not exclude the possibility of an encounter with the outside world. On the contrary, they avoid detachment, seek contact with life and accept its contradictions and ambiguity. And, while neither art nor life necessarily follow logical and linear paths, it is, in fact, the discrepancy between the artist’s programme and the empirical force of the works themselves that creates their poetic effect, freeing them from any didactic stiffness. While Scaccabarozzi continued to investigate the significance of materials and their supports, measurements, qualities, quantities and the perceptual effect they created, reflection on and experimentation with materials remained closely linked in his work.    

It was in this period, however, that his interest in the purported scientific nature of painting began to wane. While his relationship with art was still characterized by neutrality in the execution of his works and the greatest frugality in the use of materials, his approach tended become alchemical rather than scientific. Thus, although the artist continued to proceed by variations on a theme starting from the given parameters, he relaxed the impersonal rules regarding the execution of the work. The relationship between quantity and quality was brought into play thanks to a more flexible approach: increasingly, what counted most was the quality of the experience, while the artwork became self-sufficient. Now, more than ever before, the focus was on what painting could reveal in terms of limits to our experience and the dissonance between the image and the real world and between vision and substance.  

It was shortly after this that Scaccabarozzi started to work on his large Quantità libere (Free Quantities) series, then on the Essenziali (Essentials). The former, executed from 1982 to 1990, were painted with broad brushstrokes, mostly on a support of transparent polyethylene: this was a material the artist had used previously, but, from then on, it became central to his work. ‘1983: Works characterized by the idea that spreading a quantity of colour is tantamount to painting,’ the artist wrote in his chronology,[7] adding to this note: ‘No one does this without a reason.’

The basic characteristics of the Quantità libere are force, rhythm and inclination. At first, the edges of the paintings were linear and closed, then, progressively, they broke up, following the direction of the brushstrokes applied on one, then two, then three and, finally, on four sides: it seemed that Scaccabarozzi was going beyond geometry and relaxing the rules. Although taking a carefully planned approach to the work, he now sought to establish the flexibility of rules and well-tested limits, including the concept of ‘quantification’.

In a document held by the Archivio Scaccabarozzi, the artist stated that the Quantità libere were ‘works resulting from choices governed by a fleeting desire. Painting linked to the subjective — the movement of painting — with colour, ending in a form.’[8] Although the artist wished to stress that these works were not intended to express ‘a gestural desire linked to expressiveness,’[9] this was distant from the analytical definitions and the cogent linguistic expressions of the previous years.

Sometimes the Quantità libere were executed on sheets of newspaper: thus, the brushstrokes were confronted directly with the printed media, which are difficult to measure by definition and are characterized by topicality, speed and rapid obsolescence, thereby confirming that Scaccabarozzi’s reflections were relevant to the real world. Hence, painting was evidently conceived as a way of confronting the real world rather than merely illustrating it: this is the intrinsic meaning that he always attributed to it. And this was the guiding principle underpinning his continuous experimentation.  

From 1990 to 1995, driven by ‘a certain aversion to the traditional support’, Scaccabarozzi started to produce the Essenziali, that is to say ‘artworks linked to the subjective-movement of constructing with paint. Works devoid of a support, executed with paint mixed with glue and reinforced with a mesh.’[10] Only the bare minimum of painting was left here: colour, rhythm and inclination, already present in the Quantità libere, and the tension and dynamism of an interrupted gesture, frozen just as it was taking place. Without a support, the work consisted essentially of broad diagonal brushstrokes, as precise as they were powerful. The solidified paint, the energy of the movement and the final result were, in a literal sense, one and the same. Thus, painting became completely self-sufficient and Scaccabarozzi was able, once again, to assert that it came to fruition independently and could be both self-evident and absolute. In other words, logic and theory — always present in his work — increasingly corresponded to praxis.

In the late 1990s, the artist started to produce one of the most radical cycles of his career, the Polietileni (Polyethylenes). Polyethylene is an everyday, clearly synthetic, material having the neutrality that Scaccabarozzi — like other artists with similar fields of interest — sought from the beginning of his career.    

While, up to then, what interested him about polyethylene was its transparency that, by making it almost imperceptible, allowed it to become a support on which he could work so as to make the painting appear to be an independent entity now the artist’s gesture and brushstrokes had been excluded and, since it no longer functioned as a support, it became wholly self-sufficient. Scaccabarozzi was, in fact, proposing it as a separate work, with its immediacy as an extra-pictorial material and the simplicity deriving from its industrial origin. Monochrome, with the ordinary colours available on the market, in opaque or translucent versions, polyethylene allowed him to create geometric forms, sometimes shaped with linear cut-outs, and animated by the creases caused by the folds. He did this without insistence, but with great respect: as he wrote in one of his typewritten notes, ‘Although I now work with a light material, I create as a stone sculptor, removing one part of the whole material.’[11]

At the same time, Scaccabarozzi stressed the sensitivity, lightness and responsive nature of this material. The works made with polyethylene were pinned to the wall so that they seemed to be pictures, but, at the same time, as a result of the physical conditions of the ambient, they tended to form creases and waves and to react to movement, even small wafts of air caused by visitors walking around, just as they changed in response to every variation in the level of light. Thus, they were able to embrace the phenomena and upheavals of the world.

In the Eclissi (Eclipses) series, the layers of polyethylene, each with a different colour, were superimposed. Those underneath could be glimpsed at every minimal flutter, recalling transition and also emotional states, memories, atmospheres and landscapes — maybe Greek ones — that the artist was familiar with, loved and internalized.

On the other hand, in the Banchise (Ice-Fields) series, the title of which suggested unexplicit presences, hidden from view, the polyethylene sheet was slightly detached from the wall in order to create moving shadows. With their absolute composure, these works expressed typically pictorial values: form, the picture-plane and the texture of the surface capable of capturing the light that animated them, allowing them to exist and continually renew themselves. While previously Scaccabarozzi had been guided by a set of rules, these works, despite their precision, were intended to embrace the infinite possibilities of the contingent and to express inner states. Landscape emerged as a profoundly poetic existential dimension that it was possible to draw freely on now that method and emotion coexisted successfully.

The theme of the border, implicit in all the artist’s works, became explicit in another series in shaped polyethylene executed from 1995 onwards: they are the Cancelletti (Gates) and Barriere (Barriers), works that, despite their diaphanous lightness, symbolize separation. The titles of individual works include such phrases as Di qua e di là (On This Side and the Other). It is evident that underlying this period of Scaccabarozzi’s work was the question of walls, borders, perimeters and the inclusion-exclusion dialectic and, by extension, the minority-majority dynamic. This was a dynamic that, interpreted in different ways, regarded us all: there was an invitation to cast our gaze further afield and, at the same time, awareness that, where there was a barrier holding us back, there was desire; it was exactly there that, more than ever before, the eye tended to rove.

Among the artist’s notes, which are always precise and illuminating when referring to painting — but also with numerous mentions of the real world, including everyday life — there are numerous references to the theme of barriers and the obstacles to our sight. It is in one text, in particular, that the strength and effects of the powerful aesthetic revelation that was the driving force behind these works are evident:

I’m looking out into the garden from a ground-floor window. My attention is focused on the light-coloured wall partially covered with ivy. I find the relationship between the green areas and those still bare particularly interesting. This won’t last long: ivy spreads rapidly and soon it will be quite different. 

        My gaze wanders here and there, and then returns to the room. I have just enough time to realize I have observed this scene through a transparent curtain, the window pane, a fly screen and wrought-iron railings without being aware of their presence. I repeat the whole operation: now the objects — which I hadn’t previously noticed — interposed between me and the outside world acquire great importance in the division of the more distant space. They produce numerous links; they send back their image and, at the same time, allow the gaze to pass. When I realize all this, I feel a strong sense of excitement: 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. Since then, I have often had occasion to reflect on this emotional state when I had to think about new works.

        The works of 1996–97 highlighted my return to the world of ‘painting’, with flat figures formed by lines that are only just transversal, obtained by cutting the polyethylene. The upper part of these figures was applied to the wall, thus allowing them — thanks to the lightness of the material — to rise freely and then fall back with every movement of air.

        In the last two years, although their main characteristics have been preserved, the form of my works has developed and they are now suspended in space, attached to a nylon thread stretched between two nails. The aim is to turn the work into the border area of two opposing forces where the tension established between the configuration of the object and the gaze projected beyond it fuels this concept of vitality.[12]

The Polietileni, Cancelletti and Banchise, which themselves involved a spatial dimension, often took the form of environmental installations. In these cases, more than ever before, the work, with its succession of planes, revealed its capacity to comprise the dimension of time and be an expression of perceptible phenomena: a sense of intimacy, interiority, familiarity and also extraneity imbued these immersive works.  

            While he was still working on the Polietileni, Scaccabarozzi was already thinking about the future, with a renewal of media and materials, balanced, however, by the continuity of his modus operandi. This was the period when he decided to start producing his Velature (Glazes) cycle, which expressed his desire to return to the techniques of painting, concentrating in this all his previous reflections. In other words, he went back to the picture.

            These works were executed by superimposing numerous layers of monochrome paint, applied with vertical brushstrokes; naturally, the first layer affected the following ones. Once again, what counted was not what was conveyed through colour and the artist’s gesture, but rather the underlying method, expressed by brushstrokes applied in an identical manner and the succession of the layers. It was now clear that, just as his Polietileni were an invitation to look behind and beyond, in the Velature the artist was asking us to go beyond the surface, in depth, and to look inside and observe areas of experience and life that have been forgotten or are unknown or repressed.

            Thus, while Scaccabarozzi always considered art to be a way of reflecting on reality rather than of representing it and his work was characterized by conciseness with regard to the chaos of the world at large, the need to show restraint in an age that often seemed to have gone too far, precision in the use of the words, together with attention to the smallest details in his relationship with materials — taking into account a general lack of contact with these — his artistic career closed with the complete concentration required by his meditation on existence and its profundity.


[1] Artist’s statement in English on the occasion of his exhibition at the Sleeper Gallery, Edinburgh, 2004. This document is held by the Archivio Scaccabarozzi.

[2] Document held by the Archivio Scaccabarozzi; Eng. trans. David Stanton


[3] Document held by the Archivio Scaccabarozzi. Eng. trans. David Stanton.

[4] E.L. Francalanci, in Antonio Scaccabarozzi, catalogue of his solo exhibition at the Galleria del Cavallino, Venice, 13–28 February 1973.

[5] Typewritten sheet, 1976, held by the Archivio Scaccabarozzi (Eng. trans. David Stanton). 

[6] Typewritten note sent to Adelheid Hoffmann on the occasion of his exhibition entitled ‘Antonio Scaccabarozzi Retrospektive 1965–1991’, Galerie Hoffmann, Friedberg, 11 September–1 December, 1993.

[7] See note 2.

[8] Document held by the Archivio Scaccabarozzi. Eng. trans.: David Stanton.

[9] A. Scaccabarozzi, in Peter Wolkein, ed., Museum für Konkrete Kunst Ingolstadt, catalogue of the museum’s collection, Edition Braus, Heidelberg, 1993.

[10] Document written in French, held by the Archivio Scaccabarozzi. Eng. trans.: David Stanton.

[11] Note typewritten by the artist, 2004, held by the Archivio Scaccabarozzi.

[12] Antonio Scaccabarozzi, 1999, untitled text, first published in the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Matériau: couleur’, ed. Mel Gooding, Centre régional d’art contemporain, Montbéliard, 23 September–19 November 2000.