‘The only composition criterion possible in our work will be that…the possession of an elementary entity, line, indefinitely repeatable rhythm and monochrome surface is necessary in order to give the works concreteness of the infinite and the possibility to undergo the conjugation of time, the only conceivable dimension, yardstick, and justification of our spiritual need’ (Castellani quoted in B. Corà, ‘Enrico Castellani: Art with the Semantic Value of Language’, in Enrico Castellani Catalogo ragionato, Tomo secondo, Opere 1955-2005, Milan, 2012, p. 19).
A curving white monochrome plane punctuated in the centre by rhythmically undulating depressions and protrusions, Enrico Castellani’s recently rediscovered Senza titolo (Superficie bianca) is a rare and important early example of the artist’s iconic Superfici (surfaces) series, which he had begun in 1959. Constructed with a novel and rarely seen technique and one of the earliest examples in which Castellani used a shaped canvas, Senza titolo (Superficie bianca) dates from a definitive phase in the artist’s explorations into form and space, and embodies the quintessence of his unique aesthetic, as he transformed the canvas into a three-dimensional, autonomous environment. Senza titolo (Superficie bianca) was executed in 1962, during a period of unrivalled creativity, while Castellani was residing in the city of Herning in Denmark. Together with Manzoni, the pair travelled to this vibrant and highly stimulating artistic hub, commissioned by the visionary Danish businessman, Aage Damgaard, and while there created some of the finest works of their career. Acquired directly from the artist at the time of its execution, Senza titolo (Superficie bianca) has a distinguished and unique private provenance; a testament to its rarity and importance within the artist’s prolific oeuvre.
Castellani had first visited Herning in 1961. It was here that Daamgaard formed a unique artistic centre that witnessed some of the greatest moments in the post-war European avant-garde. Daamgaard, who owned a shirt-making factory, had an innovative vision and fervent belief that art should be integrated into places of work so that his employees, who did not usually have exposure to modern art, could experience it at first hand. He invited many of the leading artists of Europe, including Manzoni and Castellani, to visit Herning, and, providing them with lodging, payment and materials, gave them complete freedom to create what they wished. While Castellani and Manzoni were there, they worked alongside a range of international artists including Japanese artist, Tomonori Toyofuku and Danish artist, Serge Vandercamp. This richly creative environment, in which artists could work closely together, was seminal in the development of Castellani’s work, allowing him to further develop his innovative aesthetic that transformed the painted canvas into a new, dynamic spatial object. It was within this richly creative and diverse artistic environment that Castellani executed Senza titolo (Superficie bianca).
The construction of Senza titolo (Superficie bianca) reflects the period of fruitful experimentation and artistic development. Free to experiment with different techniques and concepts, Castellani further developed his distinctive technique. In contrast to the majority of Castellani’s Superifci in which the canvas is stretched over a grid of nails and affixed to the side of the frame, in the present work, the artist has stretched it over and attached it to the wooden structure behind with taut pieces of string. This unique mode of construction sets Senza titolo (Superficie bianca) apart from similar works of its type, illuminating Castellani’s experimental working practices from this fundamental period in his artistic development.
Like Manzoni – with whom in 1959, the artist formed Azimut, a gallery space and Azimuth, a periodical – Castellani believed that a new form of pure and elemental art needed to be found. With works such as Senza titolo (Superficie bianca), the artist achieved his aims by creating an art that broke free from the subjective, gesturality of Art Informel and was instead autonomous, devoid of artistic expression and mimetic representation. Like Manzoni’s self-referential, self-defining and colourless Achromes, Castellani with his Superfici found a means of creating art that shunned painterly illusionism and existed as an autonomous entity in its own right.
The artist elucidated this artistic approach in his text, Continuità e nuovo, published in 1960, 2 years before he executed the present work, in the second edition of Azimuth: ‘In not being interested in expressing subjective reactions to facts or sentiments but in wanting our discussion to be continuous and total, we exclude those means of the language – composition and colour – which are only sufficient for the limited discourse, the metaphor and the comparison, showing themselves to be gratuitous when we consider that in soliciting a choice due to their multiform nature they pose a spurious and unessential problem for the development of art’ (Castellani quoted in B. Corà, ‘Enrico Castellani: Art with the Semantic Value of Language’, in Enrico Castellani Catalogo ragionato, Tomo secondo, Opere 1955-2005, Milan, 2012, p. 93).
‘A white empty surface, it is the most abstract thing one can possibly imagine ’
(Castellani quoted in G. Celant (ed.), Enrico Castellani 1958-1970, exh. cat., Milan, 2001, p. 17).
Senza titolo (Superficie bianca) encapsulates this radical concept: in spatially distorting the monochrome surface of the painting by stretching it over a relief of nails, Castellani purged the canvas from representation and instead, through the play of light, shade and depth, incorporated the dynamic concepts of space, time and light into its structure. Reflecting this new conception of painting, the artist mused, ‘I’ve always thought that art is behind the painting and not in front of it, not what one sees, in fact, something more with respect to the purely visual datum’ (Castellani quoted in ibid., p. 31).
This authorless artistic process further depersonalised the work of art. Imparting a novel three-dimensionality onto the traditionally flat picture plane with the indented rows of concavities and convexities, with this technique Castellani created a self-formulating, repeated, almost mechanical structure. The rhythmic undulations of Senza titolo (Superficie bianca) show no sign of the artist’s own hand, so that the work refers only to itself and its own structure; as Castellani stated, ‘there is nothing to read [in it], that there is no episodic event that might lead one to think that I was trying to do anything other than what I actually did’ (Castellani quoted in G. Celant (ed.), Enrico Castellani, exh. cat., Milan, 2001, p. 13).
Unlike Lucio Fontana who with his tagli created a single, unrepeatable and heroic gesture that broke through the surface of the canvas, revealing to the viewer the black infinite space beyond the picture plane, Castellani’s repeated, anonymous gestures retained the physical integrity of the canvas, therefore creating a surface that he believed could exist indefinitely beyond the parameters of time and space. This was one of the central aims of his Superfici, as he stated in 1960, ‘The only composition criterion possible in our work will be that…the possession of an elementary entity, line, indefinitely repeatable rhythm and monochrome surface is necessary in order to give the works concreteness of the infinite and the possibility to undergo the conjugation of time, the only conceivable dimension, yardstick, and justification of our spiritual need’ (Castellani quoted in B. Corà, op cit., p. 19). This sense of absolute timelessness can be seen in Senza titolo (Superficie bianca). Without a frame, the shaped canvas and the rhythmic undulations appear to expand outwardly into the viewer’s realm: transforming the flat two-dimensional canvas into an autonomous spatial site. With a refined elegance and resonating simplicity and purity of form, Senza titolo (Superficie bianca) embodies a definitive moment in Castellani’s career as he continued to explore the unique aesthetic of his Superfici, breaking through the conventional bounds of painting and sculpture as he examined the dynamic relationship between space, surface and material.