Art Informel and the 'Group of Eight'
The current of the Informel (unformed or non-formal art) which ran through so many of the developments of European art in the immediate post-war period is both pervasive and notoriously difficult to chart. Nowhere more so perhaps, than in Italy. Outside of the country, ideas about Italian Informel tend to be dominated by the towering examples of Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana. But while the influence and importance of these two giants of the era is beyond question, the Informel in Italy was far more extensive and varied in its range and development. As Maurizio Calvesi wrote of it in one of the relatively few texts in English available on the subject, 'Italian Informel never presented a uniform appearance, was never dominated by one particular style, ... (but) was marked by a variety of approaches' whose originality was often due to the pervasive 'presence of the Futurist tradition.' (Maurizio Calvesi, 'Informel and Abstraction in the Fifties' Italian Art in the 20th Century. exh. cat. London 1989, p. 289-293)
It was the Gruppo degli Otto (the Group of Eight) founded in 1952 that were among the most vibrant practitioners of the Informel in Italian art in the 1950s. Yet, as Germano Celant has argued, these artists, while well known in Italy, have received little international recognition largely because of their Leftist political associations and, more particularly perhaps, because of their attempts, in the immediate post-war period to transcend what he has described as the comparative 'sin of political engagement'. (Germano Celant (in 'In Total Freedom' in Italian Metamorphosis exh. cat., New York, 1995) Unlike Burri and Fontana who eschewed any involved in politics at this time for example, the Gruppo degli Otto which comprised the painters Afro, Birolli, Corpora, Moreni, Morlotti, Santomasso, Turcato and Vedova, engaged directly with the long-running struggle and politicised debate in Italy then taking place between abstract and figurative art.
Rooting their work in a kind of post-Cubistic use of geometric form and an intuitive sense of composition and construction, these artists attempted to create art that transcended this whole abstraction versus realism debate, by seeking to represent elements of reality taken from the real world - landscape, narrative, memories and emotions, for example - in a predominantly abstract way.
In strategic conjunction with the Venice Biennale of 1952, the Gruppo degli Otto's first exhibition, entitled 'Eight Italian Painters' opened in Rome in May. The eight artists were brought together by the then foremost art historian in Italy, Lionello Venturi who asserted that in the light of the currently politicized cultural debates in Italy, these artists had rightly adopted the only option that allowed them freedom and independence, i.e. exploring the 'uncommon' ground that lay between figuration and abstraction. Embracing the crux of this debate, Venturi wrote in the catalogue for this exhibition: 'These painters are not and do not wish to be considered 'abstract' painters, nor are they, or do they wish to be considered 'realistic'; they propose instead breaking away from these two contradictions of terms - contradictions which on the one hand tend to reduce abstraction to a renewed mannerism and on the other hand to observe political considerations which can only lead to the disintegration of artistic freedom and spontaneity.'
As if in response to this overriding duty to pursue a sense of freedom and spontaneity, throughout the 1950s, each of these very different artists work grew increasingly freer, more gestural, more 'unformed' and more informel as the decade progressed. From Afro's lightness of touch and ever-increasingly deft construction of painterly form to Turcato's metaphoric use of the picture plane as a universe-like realm of infinite exploration or Vedova's forever widening and more energised field of spatial and Futurist gesture, their art seemed to explode in diverse directions and be linked only by its sense of intuitive energy. In conjunction with this expanding evolution of their art, the cohesion of the always diverse and only loosely aligned Gruppo degli Otto inevitably dissolved to the point where by 1957 each artist was working independently and in very different styles, each, in its own way, perhaps with the exception of Turcato, more indicative of the informel than ever before.
Throughout these years, many other liaisons, temporary alliances and even short-lived groups were both formed and dissolved. Central among these liaisons was Afro who in addition to forming important friends and colleagues with the New York School in America, most notably with Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, played a key role in Italy where in Rome alongside his important friendships with Burri and Scialoja he also exhibited with Accardi, Capogrossi, Dorazio, Sanfilippo and Turcato. In addition, Afro, because of his rising fame in both Europe and America at this time, was also instrumental in the north of Italy where he also continued to work in close conjunction with the developments being pursued there by Santomaso, Vedova and Tancredi.
With its concretization of stark forms coalescing at the centre of the canvas, its soft and masterful lightness of touch and its open and expansive field of subtly differentiated blocks of colour, this painting of 1968, echoes the subtle informel compositions made in heavy material and similarly earthy colours by Alberto Burri in the mid-1950s. By 1968 Afro had been a friend and colleague of Burri's for many years and the two artists work often appears to have touched upon each other's at this later stage in both their careers even though, in the '50s each artist had originally arrived at their unique and different styles of working largely independently of one another.
One of the first Italian painters to fully absorb Abstract Expressionism, Afro had derived his unique abstract style of painting under a wide variety of sources and influences and his art forms an important link between the American and Italian avant-garde of the 1950s. Often visiting the United States, Afro developed a particularly close friendship with Willem de Kooning. Both artists shared a heavy debt to the pioneering abstract morphology of de Kooning's friend and mentor Arshile Gorky and it was the basic pictorial logic of Gorky's art that came to underpin much of the development of both painters' increasingly fluid abstraction throughout the 1950s and '60s.
Emerging from the twin painterly influences of Gorky and Picasso, between 1956 and 1957 Afro's work essentially fused the emotional morphology of Gorky and the tachist sense of surface and material of artists like Burri's informel approach in Europe into a wholly new hybrid of abstract form, colour and gesture. While still rooted partially in the objective world of figuration, Afro developed in these new paintings an essentially abstract and 'pure' form of painting in which a unique sense of the freedom of painterly gesture and expression immediately came to the fore. Colour, form, and brushstroke were merged into tight abstract/concrete structures that, though seemingly non-objective, seemed, not unlike Burri's material compositions, to embody and reflect the physical properties of the 'real' world.