Giulio Paolini: On the Borderlines of Perception
How does art manifest itself? What is the nature of seeing and perception? These are the fundamental questions that have steered Giulio Paolini’s practice throughout his career. As a young artist starting out in the 1960s, Paolini was deeply influenced by Piero Manzoni’s inquiries into what constituted art. Taking his cue from the autonomous self-assertion of Manzoni’s Achromes and his use of painting as a self-referential discipline, Paolini began to create open-ended works that investigated the strange nature of their own being. The materiality of art—literally what pictures are made of—became Paolini’s subject matter, as well as the nature of art as language, and as history.
Paolini’s early works, such as Untitled of 1963 (lot 29), clarified his intention that the art must be identified primarily with itself. Its blank exterior offers little to the spectator, other than the visible screws and cut-away corners that highlight the structural support behind the ‘picture plane’. Yet concealed from view, unbeknownst to those who see it hung on a wall, is a collaged photograph applied to its reverse side. It depicts a stockbroker at work, a hidden emblem that hints at the commodity status of art as well as the market forces that dictate our lives. By concealing the image in this way and leaving the front untouched, Paolini refuses both the expectations and the act of painting while paradoxically emphasizing the philosophical implications of that medium. In a very real sense then, he has made painting the content of this work without ever putting brush to canvas. Senza Titolo (6890) of 1964 (lot 25) is similarly made from unpainted Masonite with an image concealed on its reverse side. But in this instance, Paolini has indicated the whereabouts of the collage by adhering it to the panel with a set of brass pins from the front. This is a form of tease that asks us to consider what lies beneath a painting’s surface, as well as addressing the nature of seeing and being seen.
These early works highlight the idea of the moment of exhibition - a central theme in Paolini’s investigations. When displayed, the entirely self-contained panels question the individuation of a painting in a space, its aura as an object distinct from all other objects, and its role as an instigator for escapist or contemplative thought. This approach greatly anticipated the direction of much Conceptual art and came to establish Paolini as one of the pioneers of what Germano Celant would later term Arte Povera. Indeed Paolini went on to participate in all the early Arte Povera exhibitions and was close friends with many of the artists connected to the movement. This association is evidenced in To L.F., a photograph silkscreened onto canvas that honours a fellow Turin-based artist, Luciano Fabro. In this image, Paolini holds up a catalogue from Fabro’s solo exhibition at the Galleria Notizie in January 1967 that featured the In cubo sculptural space that was tailored to fit his height and the width of the artist’s arms. One may see Paolini’s foregrounding of Fabro’s work as an act of evasion, or perhaps it is a way of contextualising his own practice through the work of another. The issue of context is an important one, for photographs are inevitably a permanent marker of a specific moment in time.
Paolini’s historicising of artistic events finds further expression in Antologia (lot 23), an important work from 1974. Two canvases of the same size are mounted back to back, with invitation cards to various exhibitions slotted around the outer edge and into the stretcher bars. These ephemeral souvenirs seem to represent past, present and future. They also stand for the possibility of seeing through time, for the past and future are, of course, always implicated in the perception of the present. Here Paolini stages a double disappearance, both of the art object itself and its author. He acknowledges that neither the artwork nor the artist exist in a vacuum; they belong to a complex web of contemporary and historical influences. In this way, Paolini points to Roland Barthes’ famous post-modern treatise ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967), in which the French philosopher argues that the author cannot—or can no longer—claim to be the unique source of meaning and/or value of the work of art.
Two works entitled Ennesima (lot 36 and 39) make a more explicit literary reference, or at least acknowledge the sign systems that govern language, and by extension our understanding of art. Part of a series of graphite drawings that were later reproduced in one of Paolini’s first artist’s books, Ennesima takes a hypothetical description of the work - written in indecipherable script and progressively divides the text into decreasing units until the composition becomes a fine grid. The title means ‘yet another’ or ‘umpteenth’, implying this deconstructive system could continue indefinitely.
Paolini subsequently stretched beyond the realms of painting to create visually spectacular installations that often incorporate plaster casts of classical statuary. Multiplicity is a recurring theme within these arrangements, as is the notion that the work of art is an essentially narcissistic structure which returns neither the artist’s nor the viewer’s gaze. Caleidoscopio (lot 31) is a major sculpture that draws on both these lines of research and integrates them into one endlessly reflective or mimetic image. A Doric column is broken in two with each half mirrored in a highly polished steel surface - the column is, in effect, turned into a tautological doubling of object and image. Paolini’s references to classicism rephrased his ideas about the interrelationship of past and present, for he identified Neoclassicism as ‘the first of the ‘neo’ movements, that is to say, there was an absence of any new style. It is the first time a style from
the past had been recapitulated without attempting anything new’ (Giulio Paolini interviewed by Mirella Bandini, Prospects, Milan, no. 1, March-April, 1972, np). This idea of ‘creative recycling’ is integral to Paolini’s creative voice and aesthetic. His plaster casts are replicas of replicas, reflecting his belief in the impossibility of artistic originality. This diverse range of works represents Paolini’s uniquely inventive pictorial language, where the systematic examination of material, theoretical, and historical structures aims to arrive at a purely philosophical conception of art.
Antologia (Anthology) marked the beginning of our affair with Giulio Paolini, an artist whose complex, sophisticated, conceptual universe is not easy to enter. It is dominated by a great intellectual energy, sometimes arriving at points of pure "beauty". Wishing to attain a profound perception of his work is not an easy task, also because the different "periods" and the various themes developed by Paolini - always in absolute coherence with his theoretical approach - change the "essence" that the artist attributes to his works, from
time to time.
The most important thing, as we say, is to intuit the direction of the work: then, you can give your own personal interpretation, even your own "projection", to it. This gives the work a new life, perhaps different to the one attributed to it by its creator; but a new life means a viewer who observes and "feels", who converses with what the artist has invented and left behind him. It means experiencing art and making it come alive, beyond the set and preordained canons.
I cannot claim to have acquired Antologia through a stroke of luck: I saw it in an auction catalogue in London and fell in love with it. But, at the time, I was too timid to compete in an auction: so I pursued it, and acquired it from the dealer who had obtained it. It was exciting to see it arrive at home, finally to be able to observe the details with curiosity and interest. The work has a "narrative" structure and presents itself with the formal approach typical of Paolini. The simplicity of the two "reversed" canvases, attached (stretched) one to the other, so that the canvases, not visible, look as though they are sealed inside the work. What is visible are the work's two stretchers, on the front and on the back. Between the two "attached" canvases and the stretcher at the front, Paolini has placed, with a magic touch, invitations to exhibitions of the artists of the time: from Beuys to Twombly, De Dominicis to Charlemagne Palestine, Sol LeWitt to Manzoni, etc... A singular anthology that includes several well-known artists: a work that is both simple and spectacular, which stands out for its sophistication and its "clean", essential language, which becomes elegant. A work that powerfully offers its presence, conscious of being one of the most significant works by Paolini in the collection. The artist's virtuosity lies in rendering it "legible" even to those who have not explored his entire universe. In Antologia, Paolini is immediately recognisable: the support of the work that becomes its front (as already in the canvases of the 1960s), enriched by traces of the artist's personal memory, but also by fragments of the time that have now been transformed into artistic events of the past.
But his work also constitutes a "present" for the collector who gazes at it and studies it often, who establishes a dialogue with it; that is transformed into a significant piece of a domestic panorama, where life goes by: a weaving of past and present, once again incredibly alive. With Paolini who plays the protagonist, via his creation which he wishes, instead, to render protagonist for us.