A glowing pink plane framing a lighter square of rhythmic indentations and protrusions, Enrico Castellani’s Untitled (Superficie bianca e rosa) is a rare and recently rediscovered early example of the artist’s landmark Superfici (Surfaces) series. Monumental in its size and unique in its use of two varying red hues of soft, luminous colour, Untitled (Superficie bianca e rosa) has a mesmerizing lyricism, absorbing the viewer into a dynamic mirage of light and space. Stretched over a grid of evenly placed nails, the rhythmic undulations in the centre of the canvas create a delicate topography of peaks and valleys, inducing a gentle play of light and shadow across the work’s coloured membrane. Thrown into a quivering state of flux, the canvas appears to vibrate, its soft glowing colours enhancing the engulfing visual effect of this luminescent work. Executed in 1962, just three years after the artist had initiated this career-defining series, Untitled (Superficie bianca e rosa) dates from a moment of extraordinary creativity in Castellani’s long and prolific career, while the artist was working in Herning, an industrial city in Denmark that became, in the late 1950s and 60s, a vibrant artistic hub that bore witness to some of the greatest innovations of the post-war European avant-garde. Invited by the passionate patron of contemporary art, the Danish industrialist, Aage Damgaard, it was in Herning that Castellani continued to develop his radical Superfici, experimenting with different techniques as he explored the expressive potential of the surface of artwork itself. Acquired by the present owner directly from the artist at the time of its execution, Untitled (Superficie bianca e rosa) has a unique provenance, a rare and pivotal work within the artist’s oeuvre.
It was Piero Manzoni, Castellani’s great friend and artistic collaborator, who initially introduced the artist to Herning. First commissioned by Damgaard in 1960, Manzoni had discovered the fertile creative environment of this Danish town, and encouraged Castellani to accompany him to what he described as a ‘paradise’ on his next trip there a year later. The owner of the Angli shirt-making factory, Damgaard held a fervent belief that contemporary art should be accessible to everyone, and felt that it should be integrated into places of work so that his employees could enjoy and experience it at first hand. He commissioned a host of artists from across Europe to travel and take up residence in Herning, paying them a monthly stipend, as well as taking care of their rent, board and artistic materials. Freed from financial constraints or critical pressure, the artists revelled in this creative freedom, able to experiment, collaborate and create what they wished. They worked alongside the factory workers and the other resident artists, creating works for the factory itself, as well as completing commissions and pursuing their own ideas. In 1962, Castellani returned once more to Herning, this time without Manzoni, having been commissioned to design a petrol station by a friend and relative of Damgaard. Although the commission did not, it is believed, come to fruition, while he was there he continued to develop the Superfici, experimenting with monochromatic colour, shaped canvases and other modes of constructing his unique art works. It was during his second trip to this richly creative and diverse artistic centre that Castellani executed Untitled (Superficie bianca e rosa), a work that is unique within his oeuvre.
Castellani, like many of his contemporaries, believed that art needed to be returned to a pure and elemental state, freed from the bounds imposed by tradition, convention and by the gestural presence of the artist himself. ‘The surface that has in turns described, alluded and suggested, that was the “theatre” of idylls, dramas and empty talk, has now fallen silent’, Castellani declared in 1958 in an essay entitled ‘Totalità nell’arte d’oggi’. ‘A monochrome curtain has been lowered on the last act of painting and it would be a waste of time to linger there in mystical contemplation’ (Castellani, ‘Totalità nell’arte d’oggi’, 1958 in ZERO, no. 3, 1961, in Enrico Castellani Catalogo ragionato, Tomo primo, Opere 1955-2005, Milan, 2012, p. 73). With his Superfici, Castellani developed a highly distinctive pictorial vocabulary that enabled him to achieve his aims in creating an autonomous, depersonalised and minimal form of art, stripped of illusionism and mimesis. Using a grid-like structure of nails, over which he stretched the canvas, Castellani created a repeating geometric pattern of depressions and protrusions that show no sign of the artist’s own hand. Autonomous and self-generating, with the Superfici Castellani transformed the two-dimensional canvas into a three-dimensional object, harnessing the dynamic concepts of space and light to create a unique art object.
From the inception of this seminal series in 1959, Castellani experimented not only with the visual potentials of the white monochrome surface, but also with a variety of other colours of varying hues. Uniformly covering the canvas in opaque, saturated shades of red, dark blue and black, amongst others, or cloaking it in softer, more translucent tones, Castellani explored the ways in which monochromatic fields of singular colour affected and enhanced the visual effect of the rhythmic patterns of concavities and protrusions. Rarely however, did the artist use two tones as in Untitled (Superficie bianca e rosa). There is an extraordinary softness to the colour of this work as it dissolves gently into the central square of pale pink. Framed with a deeper shade of this glowing pink hue, the visual effect of Castellani’s signature square of undulations is intensified, heightening the dark shadows and brighter highlights created by the distortions of the canvas. These rhythmic protrusions and depressions appear to expand outwards, projecting directly into the space of the viewer. Castellani was not using colour for its representational value nor for its iconographic or symbolic implications, but purely as a means for creating different spatial and light effects. ‘I think of colours as filters of light’, the artist has stated, ‘that’s all’ (Castellani, quoted in H. U. Obrist, ‘Breaking away from Painting: An Interview with Enrico Castellani’, in Enrico Castellani, exh. cat., London, 2016, p. 20).
The softly applied, glowing planes of colour in Untitled (Superficie bianca e rosa) are immediately reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s all-enveloping, transcendent colour field paintings, invoking in the viewer the same sense of serene contemplation. Castellani embraced this meditative quality of his Superfici, believing that, in their rhythmic, gently undulating structure, they were ultimately vehicles for existential meditation. ‘It should be pointed out that my “surfaces”’, Castellani explained, ‘because of their regularity of composition and lack of imagery, can be easily and rather properly interpreted as invitations to contemplation, although this peculiarity does not cover the full range of my problematics and indeed is only one result of it, on a level with certain elements of religious architecture, especially Muslim. I’m referring on the one hand to my so-called canopied and angular surfaces, and on the other to the “doors” of mosques, which have only the metaphysical value of “passage” to liken them to doors or entrances, whereas in reality they are a concave, curvilinear space, or niche, functioning in fact as a space for mystical contemplation’ (Castellani, quoted in Enrico Castellani, exh. cat., Milan, 2001, pp. 15-16).