‘I think that painting is evading more and more its strict role as instrumental music: it’s now able to reach new modulations, new tones that foretell the entrance of a human voice into the song’
Executed in 1966, Isola Tiberina is a powerful example of Afro’s mature painterly style, as he continued to explore the expressive potentials of abstraction, introducing increasingly dynamic gesture into his works. Comprising solely of a rich interplay of colourful bruhstrokes, vigorously applied to the canvas in a complex system of layering, this work presents a powerful impression of the physical act of painting, embodying a sense of the artist’s movements, his gestures, and the energy he expounded in creating the composition. The lyrical, emotive quality of his free-edged, organic lines is complemented by the interactions of the different hues which structure the painting, as areas of deep, dark black are juxtaposed against thick streaks of bright blue, yellow and fiery red, each executed in a varying density to achieve different chromatic effects. At times, these colours fill the space delineated by the black strokes, while at other points in the canvas they appear to overlap and converge with the darker elements, their tonal values complementing and reacting in different ways to their neighbouring shades. Bleeding across lines and boundaries, these individual strokes at once meld together, and sit apart, their individuality uncompromised by these interactions with one another. Exploring different textures, different colour relationships, and lines of varying width and thickness in this manner, the artist captures a sense of the spontaneous flow of his creative process.
Afro was one of the first Italian artists to fully engage with American Abstract Expressionism, embracing the vibrant, energetic, gestural approach to form and colour that he saw in this new movement. The artist first encountered these paintings while visiting New York in 1950, on the occasion of his inaugural solo-show in America, at Catherine Viviano’s gallery. After this, he continued to visit the United States frequently, developing close and lasting friendships with a number of Abstract Expressionist artists based in the city, particularly Willem de Kooning. Both he and Afro owed a profound debt to de Kooning’s mentor and friend, Arshile Gorky, whose pioneering abstract morphology came to underpin their increasingly fluid approach to abstraction as their careers progressed. Through these connections, Afro became an important bridge between the American and Italian avant-gardes during the 1950s and 60s, hosting his American friends when they visited Rome, and sharing his discoveries of the current trends across the Atlantic with his compatriots.
As with all of Afro’s works from the 1960s, Isola Tiberina explores a highly personal abstraction of memory, in which every stroke reveals ‘a new space representing the dimension of memory,’ condensing the ‘mysterious flow’ of the artist’s existence into the abstract qualities of the substance of colour, the luminosity of chromatic tone, and the development of line (Afro, quoted in E. Geuna, ‘An Italian Revolution: New Poetics of Colour, Matter, Space,’ in Afro, Burri, Fontana, exh. cat., Haunch of Venison, New York, 2012, p. 8). The title of the work refers to the small island which sits at the heart of the Tiber River in Rome, once home to a temple dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine, and later a hospital. Connecting to his deepest, most essential impression of this place, Afro preserves the purest form of his memory, offering an insight into the intensity of the emotions that lay behind his experience of the Isola Tiberina. Eloquently explaining this phenomenon in his work, Afro states: ‘The development of my lines creates a space that is not different than the depth of memory. The forms open and they are determined as imprints, dimensions coming from far away. I often think of myself as a painter of stories. If my deeper feelings, my memories, my judgements on matters, my intolerances, and even my errors and fears condense themselves in the course of a line, in the brightness of a tone, I feel that the mystery with which my whole life flows in the painting can be understood differently and allow the images of the painting to resurface as far as the origins of my life’ (Afro, quoted in Il Disegno Italiano Moderno e Contemporaneo, exh. cat., San Polo di Reggio Emilia, 2004, p. 5).