Compared to Fontana, Burri, Manzoni and other masters of Italian post-war art, Agostino Bonalumi has been long overlooked. But, as Alastair Smart discovers, a retrospective at the Palazzo Reale in Milan is now attempting to put that right
This summer, Milan celebrates one of its own sons, Agostino Bonalumi (1935-2013), with a retrospective at the prestigious Palazzo Reale in the city centre. Curator Marco Meneguzzo describes it as ‘a show as overdue as it is comprehensive’.
It’s impossible to argue with Meneguzzo’s choice of ‘comprehensive’ for an exhibition that features 120 pieces from museum and private collections worldwide, covering the Milanese artist’s entire career, from the late 1950s to the start of this decade. More interesting, though, is his use of ‘overdue’, which reflects the belief of many of Bonalumi’s advocates that, when compared to other masters of Italian post-war art, such as Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri and Piero Manzoni, he has long been overlooked.
A cursory look at Bonalumi’s auction prices would suggest as much. Where the record price for a Fontana stands at $29,173,000 (realised for Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio at Christie’s New York in 2015), only one work by Bonalumi has ever exceeded the $1 million mark. What’s more, where Burri was the subject of a major retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2015-16, Bonalumi has had no equivalent exhibition. Until now.
The Palazzo Reale show tells the story of a struggling, young painter who — like his friends, Manzoni and Enrico Castellani — initially exchanged art works for pizza at Milanese restaurant Trattoria all’Oca d’Oro, whose owner, Pino Pomé, is one of the more unlikely figures in the story of Italian art in the 20th century.
Bonalumi would make his name by building on Fontana’s revolutionary act of slashing canvases with a knife. He called his works estroflessioni: essentially, canvases painted in a single colour that the artist stretched, probed and deformed from behind in all manner of ingenious ways.
In doing so Bonalumi extended the picture plane into what traditionally had been the space of the viewer, creating paintings that were simultaneously sculptures. The contemporary critic Gillo Dorfles came up with a label of his own for these pieces: pitture-oggetti (‘painting-objects’). Whatever one calls them, there’s undeniably a beauty and simplicity to the abstract forms Bonalumi created in his monochrome canvases.
His compatriots were up to similar tricks, of course: not just Fontana with a knife, but also Burri, who blowtorched his canvases with fire, and Castellani, who drove nails into the back of his. It’s no exaggeration to say that these artists were redefining painting as people knew it: the canvas now became what American art historian Harold Rosenberg dubbed ‘an arena in which to act’.
For Meneguzzo, though, Bonalumi’s works of the 1960s might also be considered in the geopolitical context of the era — specifically, as a reflection of the Space Age. ‘Agostino was focused on the concept of a new space… which was no longer a typical, terrestrial one,’ he says. ‘There was a whole universe to see, and the goal of art was… to show that new space wasn’t just possible but beautiful.’
The first photos of the far side of the moon, showing its mass of craters, were sent back by Ranger 7 in July 1964. And because of their textured surfaces, Bonalumi’s works — particularly those in white — have sometimes been compared to lunar landscapes. (As has much of Castellani’s output, for the same reason.)
In time, Bonalumi would evolve beyond his estroflessioni. In works such as Rosso (sold by Christie’s in 2014), he took inspiration from the bulges in his canvases and created freestanding sculptures: in Rosso’s case, in red fibreglass.
Another evolution of the estroflessioni came in the form of whole environments he created out of them for visitors to walk through. A well-known example is the concave Blu abitable (below): an immersive installation of interlocking blue elements that both enveloped viewers and, at three metres high, towered above them, too. Bonalumi produced a similar installation for the 1970 Venice Biennale, Struttura Modulare Bianca, and both works have been recreated for the current exhibition.
‘Bonalumi was an artist who never stopped experimenting,’ says Meneguzzo. ‘With his environments, for example, it wasn’t simply a case of his art becoming larger. Rather, he was now graduating from what we might call a “viewed” space to an “experienced” one. People could now be physically inside his art work.’
The Palazzo Reale, previously a royal palace and seat of government for the city of Milan, is today a premier venue for art exhibitions. Recent offerings have included retrospectives for Marc Chagall and Keith Haring, as well a show earlier in 2018 about Albrecht Dürer and the German Renaissance.
Perhaps the revelation of the current show is the section of Bonalumi’s late works. Here we see a return to the estroflessioni, but now with an added feature: metal wire that the artist twisted liberally and then applied to the back of his canvases. There’s a sense of freedom and gesture in his use of the wire that we haven’t encountered from Bonalumi up to this point.
‘It’s almost like freehand drawing,’ says Meneguzzo. ‘Or like the Abstract Expressionists and the freestyle way they applied their paint. I personally also see a parallel across the centuries with the likes of Titian and Rembrandt, in the way the art of their old age also suddenly became loose, expressive and radical.’ Meneguzzo says Bonalumi, who was his friend, was working in his studio right up until his death in September 2013.
But what of the market for the artist’s work? ‘I believe now’s an excellent time to pursue his pieces,’ states Mariolina Bassetti, Chairman of Christie’s Italy. ‘Especially those from the Sixties, because that was the period when he was probably at his boldest and most pioneering.
‘In the past 15 to 20 years,’ Bassetti adds, ‘there has been a growing appreciation internationally of the importance of Italy’s post-war artists, very much led by Fontana, but the likes of Manzoni, Castellani and Bonalumi, too. The Palazzo Reale exhibition has brought into the limelight a large number of Bonalumis that weren’t otherwise well-known — and perhaps some of them will make their way to the market.’
It’s perhaps also worth remembering that we are a few years on from the peak of the artist’s market, shortly after the time of his death. ‘Prices are good,’ confirms Bassetti. ‘My advice is to keep eyes open. This is a great time for Bonalumi lovers.’
Bonalumi: 1958-2013 is on at Palazzo Reale, Milan, until 30 September