Enrico Castellani was born in 1930 in the town of Castelmassa, around 60 miles southwest of Venice. As a young man he moved to Belgium, and after initial courses in painting and sculpture, he graduated in architecture at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Visuels de la Cambre, in Brussels. He returned to Italy in the mid-1950s and worked for a few years in the studio of architect Franco Buzzi in Milan.
Despite his architectural training, Castellani's heart was set on a career in art. He painted at night and weekends and spent a lot of time at a restaurant called Trattoria all’Oca d’Oro, whose owner was happy for artists such as Castellani and his friends, Piero Manzoni and Lucio Fontana, to pay for their food with the occasional art work. Milan at that time was full of up-and-coming talents who would go on to achieve renown — others included Fausto Melotti, Enrico Baj and Agostino Bonalumi.
Castellani was far from impressed with the state of art in the late 1950s, both in Italy and abroad. ‘There was a lot of derivative work being done then by artists who were still looking to Picasso and Surrealism,’ he said. Castellani also disliked Abstract Expressionism (and its European variant, Tachisme) on the grounds that it was too closely bound up with subjective gesture and a painter’s emotional state. Instead, he set out in pursuit of ‘a new conception of painting’. In December 1959, Castellani and Piero Manzoni opened a gallery in Milan called Azimut, at the same time as launching an affiliate magazine, Azimuth — two short-lived but significant ventures dedicated to redefining art as people knew it. The gallery would hold 13 exhibitions in total, including three by Manzoni and one by Castellani (his debut show).
Where Fontana broke new ground by slashing his canvases with a knife, and Manzoni did so by soaking his in kaolin solution, Castellani created monochromatic reliefs by driving nails into the underlying frames of his canvases at varying depths, and then painting on top in a single colour. This type of work, known as his Superfici — or ‘Surfaces’ in English — became Castellani’s trademark. Superficie Bianca (White Surface), painted in white acrylic, is a typical example: the viewer encounters rhythmic indentations and protrusions, a delicate topography of peaks and valleys.
Although not quite sculptures, the Superfici certainly might be called three-dimensional paintings. Their surfaces, particularly those Castellani painted white, have been compared to lunar landscapes — the first photos of the far side of the moon, showing its mass of craters, were sent back by Ranger 7 in July 1964, around the same time as he was creating works like Senza titolo (Superficie bianca). As the viewer looks across the face of such works, some areas are cast into bright light and others into deep shadow. Castellani duly achieved a new take on the traditional Italian painting method of chiaroscuro, pioneered by Leonardo da Vinci.
Castellani and Manzoni weren’t the only figures on the Continent seeking to ‘achieve purification’ in art, as their Düsseldorf-based peers Otto Piene and Heinz Mack put it. The Italians and Germans found kindred spirits in the likes of Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely in France; Jef Verheyen and Walter Leblanc in Belgium; and Henk Peeters and Herman de Vries in the Netherlands. This loosely connected group of artists became known as the ZERO movement. They exhibited together across Europe in the Sixties, from Zagreb to Amsterdam, and were the subject of a major retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2014/15, ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow. Castellani and Manzoni would regularly travel together to visit their counterparts across Europe in the latter’s clapped-out Fiat 500 car.
Castellani has spent decades trying out his ‘Surfaces’ in different permutations. One of these is to vary the colour of his paint — as well as white, he has used yellow, black, blue and, in works such as Superficie Rossa, red.
A handful of works painted in silver, such as Superficie Alluminio, are distinguished by their captivating metallic sheen. Other variations include changing the shape of his canvases to triangular and rhomboid. In 1961’s Senza titolo (Superficie), he even chose to cover his canvas in a piece of silk.
Where he had started out applying the nails in grid-like form, over time he was also much more flexible about the intervals at which they appeared — in 1987’s Superficie Bianca, for example, he arranged his nails into diagonal vectors that form corridors of open space which alternately narrow and widen across the canvas.
Castellani influenced a number of artists and movements who came after him, perhaps most notably Minimalism. The American sculptor Donald Judd singled him out for praise in Specific Objects, his seminal treatise on the Minimalist movement. The Italian, however, has never revelled in the limelight, preferring his work to speak for itself. To that end, he moved to the small, medieval town of Celleno in central Italy in the 1970s, where he continues to live a peaceful existence, now in his ninth decade.
Over the years, Castellani has designed sets for theatre and ballet productions. In a similar vein, he has also created room-sized installations he calls ‘environments’, which involve placing a number of his works strategically about a gallery. He did so when representing Italy at the 1966 Venice Biennale, where he won the event’s Gollin Prize. In such cases, his art went beyond the conventional bounds of painting into a new spatial dimension that harked back to his roots in architecture. Among his ensemble of white canvases on show at Venice was Superficie bianca n. 34 (White Surface no. 34), part of the surface of which was flat, while the other part was dimpled by nails in the usual Castellani fashion.
In 2010, Castellani was one of three Italians — alongside actress Sophia Loren and pianist Maurizio Pollini — awarded the Praemium Imperiale in Tokyo, one of the most prestigious prizes in the arts world. Handed out by the Japanese imperial family (after selection by the Japan Art Association), the award goes to five international cultural figures each year. As well as the prestige, Castellani was given £15 million yen (around $180,000).