Christie’s is delighted to offer an important collection of works from a distinguished Italian collection with highlights by Enrico Castellani, Giuseppe Penone, and Pier Paolo Calzolari. Coming into prominence in the 1960s, these artists were part of a generation who sought to strip back art to its most basic principles in the aftermath of the Second World War. United by their use of dark monochrome tones, the artists’ colourless surfaces played a crucial role in the search for a new ground zero for painting and sculpture. By limiting their palettes in this way, they were able to emphasize the materiality of the canvas, allowing the previously unexplored elements of light and movement to redefine the picture plane. In Penone’s Pelle di grafite-riflesso di alurgite (2008) a vast black background is swathed in an intricate pattern of luminous convoluted lineation that reflects the light in an ephemeral array of patterns. The charcoal hue of Castellani’s Superfici Grafite (2007) provides the foundation for the artist’s three-dimensional explorations, while the mixed media assembled in Calzolari’s Untitled (1989) emphasize the purity of his natural elements, rendered in subdued tones of black and white. Along with their contemporaries – most notably Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni – these artists reinvigorated the Italian art scene during the Post-War period, paving the way for the international development of Minimalist and Conceptual art.
'There is nothing to read (in it), there is no episodic event that might lead one to think that I was trying to do anything other than what I actually did.' (E. Castellani quoted in G. Celant (ed.), Enrico Castellani 1958-1970, exh.cat., Milan 2001, p. 13)
‘It should be pointed out that my “surfaces”, because of their regularity of composition and lack of imagery, can be easily and rather properly interpreted as invitations to contemplation’ (E. Castellani, quoted in Enrico Castellani, exh. cat., Fondazione Prada, Milan, 2001, pp. 15-16).
With its undulating topography spanning across a vast monochromatic canvas, Superficie grafite is an eloquent example of Enrico Castellani’s celebrated Superficie. Begun in the 1960s, and pursued throughout his oeuvre, this career-defining series of works is characterized by a constructional autonomism that bridges the gap between painting and sculpture. The lustrous slate canvas, pulled taught against a protrusion of nails, transforms the work into a three-dimensional relief, activated by the capricious play of light and shadow. The work’s metallic hue accentuates the modulation of light across the fluctuating peaks of its surface, imbuing the composition with a muted kinetic rhythm of shifting visual patterns that harnesses the innate energy of the canvas. In his manifesto ‘Contro lo stile’, Castellani professed his desire to limit manual intervention, allowing the underlying structure of nails and the interplay of space and light to determine the composition. By reducing the canvas to the ‘semanticity of its own language,’ Castellani creates a work that, through its liberation from chromatic and figurative constraints, transgresses the traditional boundaries of painting (E. Castellani, quoted in Enrico Castellani, exh. cat., Fonazione Prada, Milan, 2001, p. 43).
Along with Lucio Fontana’s Tagli and Piero Manzoni’s Achromes, the Superficie provided the creative ground zero that paved the way for the next generation of Italian artists, informing the development of Minimalist and Conceptual art over the following decades. In particular, Castellani and Manzoni were united by their ambition to create an art form that was open to all. By removing all the signifiers from their art, they sought to create pared-down works that carried universal resonance. ‘It should be pointed out that my “surfaces”, because of their regularity of composition and lack of imagery, can be easily and rather properly interpreted as invitations to contemplation’, the artist explained (E. Castellani, quoted in Enrico Castellani, exh. cat., Fondazione Prada, Milan, 2001, pp. 15-16). The rhythmic opposition of peaks and troughs creates a sense of infinity, enhanced by the incidental play of light across the surface of the canvas. Rigorously self-defining, the Superficie hover before the viewer as authorless entities, devoid of all traces of the artist’s hand. ‘Monochrome offers the last chance for painting to distinguish itself from the other arts’, Castellani wrote; ‘the surface, which has, on various occasions, described, alluded and suggested, and has been the scene of idylls, dramas and raving, is now silent’ (E. Castellani, quoted in Enrico Castellani, exh. cat., Fondazione Prada, Milan, 2001, p.16).