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.
“When I was a child I went to live in Venice, an isolated postwar city, where the light was still psychic. An invasive light, it possessed objects and physical realities, making them abstractly tactile. It gave the sensation that objects were made of light, physical but impalpable. Then I remember the lines of the Venetian bridges, the most ancient ones made of wood, which rest on, weigh down upon the streets with their soft and sensual outlines, almost abandoned between water and land.”
—P. CALZOLARI, quoted in G. Celant, ‘Toward the Sublime,’ in G. Celant, Pier Paolo Calzolari: Interview/Essay, exh. cat., Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York, 1988, p. 7
The poetic tranquillity of Pier Paolo Calzolari’s Untitled (1989) merges the rich history of alchemic investigations with the radical techniques of Arte Povera. The ephemeral canvas surface of Calzolari’s composition is stained with earthly elements circumscribed by a rippling lead frame. This white expanse, encrusted with granules of salt residue, is disrupted by a hovering square of charred wood. Calzolari’s work is an articulation of the four alchemic elements – the salt of water is infused across the canvas, flames of a fire have scorched the wood, and lead of the earth is oxidised by the surrounding air. While historically, alchemists are associated with the pursuit of transmuting base metals to gold or inventing elixirs of immortality, Calzolari utilises alchemy as a means to suggest the essence of white, reflecting his belief that the ideal white cannot not be depicted in pigment, but rather through the formal arrangement of elements. James Rondeau elaborates upon the alchemic quest that has defined Calzolari’s oeuvre, explaining that he ‘is always searching for the absolute, expressed through natural elements, like moss and lead, or natural phenomena, like fire and ice’ (J. Rondeau, quoted in R. Kennedy, ‘Door Between Galleries Lets in an Artist’s Vision,’ The New York Times, 27 April 2012).
As a founding member of the Italian art movement Arte Povera, Calzolari and his contemporaries often incorporated everyday materials into their compositions. This exploration of unconventional matter and techniques emphasised the intrinsic artistry of these quotidian elements, elevating them to the realm of high art and undermining the aesthetic values upheld by the commercialised gallery system at the time. The movement gained prominence in the 1960s and 70s, reinvigorating the Italian artistic tradition that had waned in the decades following World War II. Calzolari maintains that, as an artist, ‘the fracture of this moment presented a great opportunity [...] we needed to explore at that time, to rediscover the meaning of things- everything had collapsed, the old values collapsed. So in that moment, we had to define again, anew, the value of what was around us’ (P. Calzolari, quoted in J. Helmke, ‘Q with Pier Paolo Calzolari’, in Blouin Modern Painters, February 2016, p. 66). In Untitled, Calzolari’s transfusion of organic matter instils the composition with an ethereal, meditative quality. His alchemical process provides him with a vehicle to reintroduce meaning and beauty into forlorn the post-World War II landscape.