‘For me, the question is that of creating a totally white surface outside any pictorial phenomenon, any intervention extraneous to the value of the surface: this is a white surface that is a white surface and nothing else. With the ‘lines’ there is not even the possible ambiguity of the picture: the line extends only in length, it runs to infinity, the only dimension of time… There is nothing to say: one can only be ’ (Enrico Castellani quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, Milan, Fondazione Prada, Enrico Castellani, 2001, p. 45).
Executed in 1970, Superficie bianca exemplifies the rigorous formal investigations that Enrico Castellani has spent a lifetime exploring. The white surface of the painting is vaulted from behind and pierced through from the front with a sequence of nails that create a carefully paced grid pattern. There is nothing of Castellani present, no autobiography, no emotion. His artistic interventions are kept at a minimum, with the canvas’s modulated rhythm of volumes and voids entirely determined by the underlying structure of the frame and nails. ‘The surface, which has, on various occasions, described, alluded and suggested, and has been the scene of idylls, drama and raving, is now silent,’ Castellani once asserted. ‘A monochrome curtain has fallen at the end of painting’s last act’ (E. Castellani cited in G. Celant, (ed.), Enrico Castellani: 1958-1970, exh. cat., Milan, 2001, p. 16).
In fact, this ‘last act’ of painting has generated field of visual research that is still very much active and relevant today. Castellani executed his first Superficie nera in rilievo (Black Surface in Relief) in 1959: this was a decisive work for the development of his art, opening up new opportunities for expression using canvases with three-dimensional surfaces. Although he was working within the ambit of the two-dimensional, the artist shifted the focus of attention to the painting’s objecthood by structuring the canvas so as to create a space for expansion where concave and convex, positive and negative, and light and shade alternated without the aid of traditional painterly methods. White monochromic surfaces are a key part of this strategy to assert the canvas as a self-expressing entity, as they have a tendency to not only reflect light effectively, but also to take on the hue of its ambient conditions.
Castellani’s aim, in fiercely removing all signifiers from his art, has been to allow the traditional materials of painting to emphasise the essentially immaterial nature of its subject matter. In doing so, he sought to establish a self-reliant art form ‘reduced to the semanticity of its own language’ (E. Castellani, cited in G. Clement, ibid., p. 43). And yet Superficie bianca speaks of more than just ‘art for art’s sake’, as it engages with the psychology of perception and the spatio-temporal condition of our existence. The work imposes itself in the three-dimensional realm – our unstable, ever-changing realm – to encourage an act of communion with the viewer.
Castellani’s interpretation of modularity, which possesses absolute clarity in its execution, still manages to harness surprise and emotion thanks to its embrace of the irregular and unpredictable influence of atmospheric effects. When approaching Superficie bianca the viewer becomes absolutely aware of their presence in relation to the work, their apprehension of the shifting shadows and bright points as they move before it and of the temporal dimension of the experience. In this respect, the Superfici (surfaces) are, as Castellani himself pointed out, ‘invitations to contemplation,’ something akin, he said, to the elaborate abstraction of much Islamic art and architecture.
Indeed, Castellani originally trained as an architect at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, before moving to Milan in 1956, at the age of 26. There he founded the hugely influential magazine Azimuth, and the gallery Azimut with Piero Manzoni, which were revolutionary in their impact upon Italian art. Castellani’s early architectural training probably influenced his interest in spatial forms and tendency towards geometrical precision but his subsequent work firmly relates to the evolution of abstraction. He believes his controlled and rigorously impersonal process was first made possible by Piet Mondrian, whose concern for the most fundamental aspects of painting approached an absolute art. Superficie bianca’s endlessly repeatable, three-dimensional grid seems to combine this painterly influence with a concern for the infinite that speaks of the Space Age in which Castellani’s artistic practice was first conceived.
In her seminal ‘Grids’ essay of 1979, Rosalind Krauss deduced that, ‘Logically speaking, the grid extends, in all directions, to infinity . . . By virtue of the grid, the given work of art is presented as a mere fragment, a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric. Thus the grid operates from the work of art outward, compelling our acknowledgement of a world beyond the frame’ (R. Krauss, ‘Grids’, October, vol. 9, Summer 1979, p. 60). In keeping with this theory of minimalist art’s expansive scope, curator and art scholar Achille Bonito Oliva has traced a connection between Castellani and his avant-garde peers that dates back to the Renaissance. The link, which he explored in the book and exhibition Minimalia: An Italian Vision In 20th-Century Art, is founded on the programmatic approach evident in 15th-century mathematical perspective systems, Giacomo Balla’s Futurist analysis of light and Lucio Fontana’s series of slash paintings, among others. Bonito Oliva argues that the development of a minimalist-style art in Italy therefore cannot be reduced solely to the phenomenological reduction of form to pure geometry; it instead retains complexities beyond the work itself.
This is certainly true of Castellani’s Superficie bianca, which, although mute and severely ascetic, is conceptually rich – even metaphysical – in its engagement with the intangible aspects light, time and space. ‘My surfaces,’ Castellani has said, ‘…tend to modulate themselves and accept the third dimension that makes them perceptible. Light is now a tool of this perception: contingent form and intensity are abandoned to this fortuity. But because they are no longer part of the dominion of painting or sculpture and since they may assume the character of monumentality of architecture or scale down its space, they are the reflection of the total interior space, without contradictions, to which we tend. Thus they exist ? insofar as they are objects that may be assimilated instantly ? for the duration of an act of communion before time confines them to their material precariousness’ (E. Castellani quoted in G. Celant, op. cit., p. 149).