‘In these cementi-armati Uncini’s intentions seem to me to be very clear: poetic virtuosity of matter, of materials; and the poetic virtuosity of making - the constructive aspect typical of Man - which turns that material into an instrument according to empiric naturalness’ (ENRICO CRISPOLTI)
‘An object entirely constructed, where CONSTRUCTING - far from coinciding with a more or less historically defined form of constructivism, as many later suggested - is conceived as the joining, disjointing, juxtaposing, closing or opening, concretizing and materializing of space and marks, the latter as presence and the former as measure. The choice of reinforced concrete, a material clearly linked to the idea and the modes of construction, was far from a casual one’ (G. UNCINI)
With a powerful and commanding monumentality, Giuseppe Uncini’s Cementarmato is one of the artist’s defining series, the Cementarmati (‘Reinforced Concrete Works’), a body of radical works that saw the artist embrace industrial materials in his quest to pioneer a new form of art making. First begun in 1957, this series presented, like the work of Alberto Burri, Piero Manzoni, Lucio Fontana and others, a new conception of art; one that was based not on the conventional format or traditional notions of a painting or sculpture, but was instead wholly unique, self-referential and self-defining. ‘For me, in that period’, Uncini later reflected, ‘the important point was that the work should not be a surface-support on which to represent an idea, but that this should be a constructed object, which did not represent, but signified itself alone’ (Uncini, quoted in F. Menna, ‘The Flat Surface’, in Giuseppe Uncini: Una collezione 1959-1976, exh. cat., Milan, 1995, p. 22). Taking concrete and iron, Uncini opened the viewer’s eyes to the artistic potential that lay not in superficial images painted or drawn upon canvas, but in the materials and objects that surround us everyday; a concept that was to have an enormous impact both on the protagonists of Arte Povera, as well as Minimalism. Composed purely of these industrial materials – cement and iron bars – Cementarmato is expunged of any external references. Monochrome, geometric and minimal, in this work, the iron supports emerge from the block of poured concrete, their horizontal emphasis creating a powerful dynamism that runs through this resolute structure.
Like many of his contemporaries, Uncini wanted to forge an art form that broke away from the gestural subjectivity of Art Informel. Living and working in Rome, his deep and abiding interest in materials was what allowed Uncini to do this. In the late 1950s, he created a body of works – the terre – which were constructed from a range of everyday materials, including sand, cement or soil, and adhered onto board. However, though radical in their adoption of quotidian materials, Uncini still felt these works were tied to tradition due to their insertion into a pictorial plane. Uncini found the solution to this problem when, in 1957, he adopted concrete as the primary component of his constructions. Now the material was both the support and the subject; allowing the artist to, in the words of Bruno Corà, shift ‘from the significant, though abstract, representation of a painting to the entity of a constructed self-supporting and self-eloquent “object” (B. Cora, Giuseppe Uncini, catalogo ragionato, Milan, 2007, p. 40).
Uncini himself explained the genesis of the Cementarmati: ‘It was the idea of using matter in an appropriate way that brought about my first reinforced concrete pieces… My project consisted in considering geometry in this way, as matter assuming a form within space according to a thought… In Europe we had not only had Mondrian and the twentieth century Bauhaus, but we had behind us Renaissance perspective and “divine proportion”, and even further back in time the mathematical model of Greek architecture… For me, to create art means…to reason on Italian drawing, on matter that finds its own profound meaning again: it means every day I keep thinking, while I am in my studio, that I descend from Giotto and that Laurana worked in my Marche. Bringing form to life and distilling an idea, and then finding a lucid synthesis of it, understanding its syntax and proportions…’ (Uncini, quoted in ibid., p. 50).
With its combination of concrete and iron bars, Cementarmato is evocative of the industrialisation and the rapid modernisation that was occurring all over Italy in the post-war era. After the destruction and devastation wrought by the Second World War, in the 1950s, Italy experienced what is known as the ‘miracolo economico’. Throughout this decade, the country witnessed an unprecedented boom in industry and infrastructure, as cities transformed into modern urban metropolises. Within this context, Cementarmato takes on a greater resonance, evoking the rush of new constructions that were being erected across the country. Indeed, in 1959, at the time Uncini was in the midst of this series, two large reinforced concrete buildings were being constructed in Rome itself: the Stadio Flaminio, and the terminal for Fiumicino Airport. Uncini was well aware of the links between his works in cement and the civic use of this industrial material, recognising in both man’s innate need to create and to construct. In this way, Cementarmato and the rest of this series, stand as powerful monuments to this new epoch, the embodiment a new raw and elemental form of beauty. As Uncini explained: ‘I work with iron and cement. I use these materials with propriety, meaning that I do not conceal them or use them to achieve particular effects; on the contrary, I employ them as they are employed in yards, to construct houses, bridges and roads – to construct everything man needs. At the basis of all this there lies a need to build and organise: the creative principle at the root of all human progress. This is what I wish to express through my objects. These are objects, because painting or sculpture proper always represent or mimic something, whereas I do not wish to mimic or evoke things, roads or bridges, but rather to salvage the principle from which they spring’ (G. Uncini, ‘Interview by Italo Mussa’, in Uncini: I primi e gli ultimi, exh. cat., Foligno, 2011, p. 103).