‘A monochrome curtain has fallen at the end of painting’s last act’ (E. Castellani, quoted in G. Celant, (ed.) Enrico Castellani: 1958-1970, exh. cat., Milan, 2001, p. 16).
Executed in 1963, Superficie Bianca eloquently encapsulates the unique approach Enrico Castellani adopted in response to the artistic tabula rasa heralded in the ground-breaking journal Azimuth, which he had co-founded with Agostino Bonalumi and Piero Manzoni in 1959. Here, the artists called for the creation of ‘images which are as absolute as possible, which cannot be valued for that which they record, explain and express, but only for that which they are to be’ (P. Manzoni, ‘For the Discovery of a Zone of Images’, Azimuth 2, 1960). To this end, Castellani developed an innovative technique in which the empty, flat, monochrome surface of his canvases became spatially distorted by stretching the fabric over a systematically arranged series of nails. These pushed against the canvas from behind, creating reliefs and depressions in the surface of the canvas. Further accentuating this effect, the artist punctuates the canvas from the front too, with an evenly spaced set of corresponding nails ensuring that the surface is not completely raised, but rather a pattern which alternates between concavity and convexity. Affixed to a wooden board at the back of the canvas, these nails disrupt the two-dimensional expanse of the picture plane, manipulating the canvas to create an abstract, rippling grid of peaks and troughs. This dimpling transforms the surface with its complex play of light and shadow, negative and positive depth, blurring the boundaries between painting and sculpture to create a ‘painted object.’ In this way, Castellani shifts the focus of the artwork to its objecthood, creating a space where a sense of depth, light and shade are achieved without the aid of traditional painterly methods.
In this treatment of the canvas, Castellani subverts the traditional illusory quality of the painted picture, transforming it into an autonomous, seemingly authorless composition, devoid of narrative, mimesis and the gestural mark of the author. Rejecting the romanticism of the artist’s mark and the prevailing intuitive nature of Arte Informel, Castellani sought to create a timeless, pure, elemental art based solely on the concepts of space, light and time. Thus, there is no sign of Castellani’s presence in Superficie Bianca, the canvas’s modulated rhythm of volumes and voids entirely determined by the underlying structure of the frame and nails. With this technique, Castellani created a self-formulating, logical, repeatable, mathematical structure. The tension of the surface is achieved through the inclusion of the central grid, its harmony produced by the strict spacing of the nails. The rhythmic undulations show no sign of the artist’s hand, leaving the work to refer only to itself and its own structure. Explaining this choice, Castellani states: ‘The surface, which has, on various occasions, described, alluded and suggested, and has been the scene of idylls, drama and raving, is now silent’ (Castellani, quoted in G. Celant, (ed.) Enrico Castellani: 1958-1970, exh. cat., Milan, 2001, p. 16).
Superficie Bianca is filled with a dynamic tension, as the regular crenellations in the painting’s surface create an undulating effect which causes the static surface to appear as if it is vibrating under the viewer’s gaze. This is increased by the play of light that occurs across the canvas, as it sweeps across the ridges and dips of the composition, throwing a series of deep shadows onto the surface, which shift and move depending on the viewer’s standpoint before the composition. By simultaneously involving both the stretcher behind and the light reflected on the surface in this way, Superficie Bianca demonstrates its conceptual richness, as it engages with the intangible aspect of light, time and space. ‘My surfaces,’ Castellani has said, ‘…tend to modulate themselves and accept the third dimension that makes them perceptible. Light is now a tool of this perception: contingent form and intensity are abandoned to this fortuity’ (Castellani, quoted in G. Celant (ed.), Enrico Castellani: 1958-1970, exh. cat. Milan, 2001, p. 149). As such, depending on the source of the light, its quality, the level of its concentration or diffusion, and the multiple points of view from which it can be approached, the painting becomes a space in which an infinite number of readings are possible. By harnessing the irregularities and unpredictable influence of atmospheric effects in this way, Castellani draws attention to the physical and temporal experience of the artwork and the role of the viewer in its perception.
To further the impact of this effect, Castellani roots his ‘painting-object’ in a field of brilliant white paint, its bright surface absorbing and reflecting light in equal measure. Castellani, like Manzoni, had embraced white as an achromatic, non-colour, which allowed him to articulate his conceptual aims most clearly: ‘White [was] for me… not a colour, but rather the absence of colour. Just as in the treatment of the surfaces of my works I seek to create something as objective as possible, the same applies to colour. White is the colour, or rather the non-colour, that makes this objectification as perceptible as possible’ (Castellani, quoted in Enrico Castellani Work from 1958-1970, exh. cat. Cambridge, 2002, p. 27). The play of light and shadows imbues the surface of the canvas with a striking chiarascuro effect, granting the composition a richness that belies its extreme minimalism.
The artist saw these surfaces as ‘invitations to contemplation,’ in which the viewer was encouraged to assess and analyse the physical and psychological act of viewing the artwork before them. In collapsing the boundary between the painted image and the space of the viewer, projecting the former into the latter, Castellani encourages the viewer to engage and interact with the painting on a deeper, contemplative level, rendering the otherwise impersonal artwork a participatory experience. Indeed, standing before Superficie Bianca, the viewer becomes acutely aware of their role in the apprehension of the work, their presence in relation to its projecting surface, their unique perception of the shifting shadows and bright points as their eyes move across the plane, even the temporal dimension of their experience. By deliberately using the traditional tools of painting in the creation of this iconoclastic artistic statement, and using entirely abstract means to stimulate unexpected responses in the eye and mind of the viewers, Castellani disrupts and challenges the viewer’s beliefs regarding the conventions and boundaries of the painted image, re-establishing the painting as a place of encounter between mind and body rather than a passive entity for the outpourings of the artist’s soul.