‘Monochrome offers the last chance for painting to distinguish itself from the other arts; the surface, which has, on various occasions, described, alluded and suggested, and has been the scene of idylls, dramas and raving, is now silent’ (E. Castellani, quoted in Enrico Castellani, exh. cat., Fondazione Prada, Milan, 2001, p. 16).
With its glistening, crenelated surface stretching over one and half metres in length, Superficie alluminio is a spectacular example of Enrico Castellani’s landmark Superfici: immaculate shaped canvases that bridge the gap between painting, sculpture and architecture. Executed in 1984, it is one of only fourteen works known to bear the designation alluminio, distinguished by its pure, silvery palette that radiates a captivating metallic sheen. Together with Lucio Fontana’s Tagli and Piero Manzoni’s Achromes, Castellani’s Superfci provided the creative ground zero out of which an entire generation of post-War Italian art was born. Stretched over a grid of evenly placed nails, the rhythmic undulations of the canvas result in the unique topography of crests and valleys, activated by the scintillating play of light and darkness that takes place upon the work’s rippled membrane. Harnessing the natural energy of the canvas, pulled taut over the stretcher, the work appears to vibrate, exuding an autonomous dynamism and throwing the materiality of the surface into a quivering state of flux. Transforming the two-dimensional picture plane to a three-dimensional relief object, Superficie alluminio is situated outside the traditional parameters of painting. It occupies a new kind of pictorial space – part material, part conceptual – that interrogates the tangible properties of the canvas whilst simultaneously invoking the infinite void that surrounds it. In the interminable, rhythmic dialogue between peaks and troughs, summits and depressions, light and shadow, Castellani taps into the basic dynamics that define the perception of physical matter. ‘Reality, too’, he claims, ‘always has an obverse and a reverse that, by fitting together, deny each other in turn’ (E. Castellani, quoted in Enrico Castellani, exh. cat., Fondazione Prada, Milan, 2001, p. 243).
Initiated during the late 1950s, and rigorously pursued over the next five decades, Castellani’s Superfici were the artist’s elegant material solution to his call for an elemental art based solely on the interplay between space, light and time. First voiced in the magazine Azimuth that he founded in Milan with Manzoni in 1959, Castellani’s new pictorial concept drew inspiration from Fontana’s appeal to the space around the canvas. In a move similar to the autonomous technique inaugurated by Manzoni’s Achromes, where blank canvases dipped in Kaolin came to form self-defining entities, Castellani sought to create objects that embodied an authorless material presence. His reduction of artistic intervention to a bare minimum would lead Donald Judd, in his 1965 manifesto ‘Specific Objects’, to proclaim him the father of Minimalism and Conceptualism. Asserting themselves as holistic units, the Superfici reflect the dialogue between the material and the immaterial that lies at the very core of the universe. Drawing comparisons with the elaborate abstraction of Islamic art and architecture, Castellani believed that his Superfici were ultimately vehicles for existential meditation. ‘It should be pointed out’, he has explained, ‘that my “surfaces”, because of their regularity of composition and lack of imagery, can be easily and rather properly interpreted as invitations to contemplation ... I’m referring on the one hand to my so-called canopied and angular surfaces, and on the other to the “doors” of mosques, which have only the metaphysical value of “passage” to liken them to doors of entrances, whereas in reality they are a concave, curvilinear, or niche, functioning in fact as a space for mystical contemplation’ (E. Castellani, quoted in Enrico Castellani, exh. cat., Fondazione Prada, Milan, 2001, pp. 15-16).