Executed in 1959, Cementarmato ranks among the earliest examples of Giuseppe Uncini’s decisive experimentation with reinforced cement. Part of a pivotal series of works that would seal the direction of the artist’s career, the present work embodies one of Uncini’s most significant contributions to the artistic debate of the 1960s, proposing a radical response to the crisis of painting perceived at the time, while expressing the artist’s distinct sensibility.
Built entirely from rods of steel and cement, Cementarmato and its related series derives from an earlier group of works. Simply entitled ‘Terre’, these early compositions expressed Uncini’s struggle in coming to terms with painting. Composed of any material or substance Uncini could come by, the Terre were anything but traditional oil paintings and yet were still attached to the language of abstract painting in their compositional mechanisms. In spirit, Uncini’s Terre were indebted to the work of Alberto Burri, pouring into the realm of painting the forms, properties and texture of extraneous materials. Indeed, Uncini - who had moved to Rome in 1953 - had first occupied a studio near to Burri’s, where he was able to observe and internalise the approach and aesthetic of the older artist. Yet, shortly after those first formative experiments, a new problematic - different from those that could have occupied Burri -started to emerge in Uncini’s work. The young artist had become impatient with painting’s absolute primacy over the materials themselves: ‘transposing and modifying the meaning of the materials in such as way as to turn everything into painting is not something I was interested in; Burri, by contrast, became a great master at this’ (G. Uncini, ‘Rome 11th January 1975, letter to Maurizio Fagiolo’, pp. 104-106, in Uncini: I primi e gli ultimi, exh. cat., Foligno, 2011, p. 104). It is in view of this problem that, at the end of the 1950s, the Cementarmati took shape, radically redefining Uncini’s position vis-à-vis of painting.
No matter how abstract and how inclusive of extraneous materials, paintings always seemed to revert to their alleged unique essence: to point the viewer towards ‘another’ reality, there only indirectly represented. Central to Uncini’s artistic ambition became the wish to evade this seemingly imperative condition by collapsing the divide between representation and thing represented. ‘For me, in that period, the important point was that the work should not be a surface-support on which to represent an idea, but that this should be a constructed object, which did not represent, but signified itself alone’, Uncini later explained (G. Uncini in 1968, quoted in F. Menna, ‘The Flat Surface’, pp. 21-27, in Giuseppe Uncini: Una collezione 1959-1976, exh. cat., Milano, 1995, p. 22). Works such as Cementarmato presented the solution to such conundrum. By choosing to work in cement, Uncini eliminated the division between the structural surface (the canvas) and the transcendental surface (the image) that was at the core of painting’s representational claim. Cement - a material that is bound to become surface - allowed Uncini to restore a self-evident unity to the work of art, derived and described by the material itself. ‘What I obtained’, Uncini explained, ‘was no longer a “representative painting”, but a “self-signifying”, “self-bearing” and “non-representative” object: the idea, in other words, was that the technical mode was the concept and the concept the technical mode’ (G. Uncini, ‘Rome 11th January 1975, letter to Maurizio Fagiolo’, pp. 104-106, in op. cit., p. 105).
In this regard, works such as Cementarmato participate in the debate over the survival of painting as a representational means - a debate that had been initiated with the advent of the ready-made, and which in more subtle ways, persisted in the work of many artists of the immediate Post-War period. In Italy, in particular, this tendency was carried forward by artists such as Burri, and also by Lucio Fontana and Enrico Castellani, who - each in their own way - played a major role in emphasizing the ‘objecthood’ of painting: the former by underlying its spatial existence by cutting into the canvas, the latter by emphasising its physical properties by stretching it over patterns of nails. Both Fontana and Castellani thus affirmed the material dimension of painting, yet both remained attached to its traditional structure: a canvas stretched over a frame. Uncini, on the other hand, refused it altogether: in Cementarmato rods of steel have replaced the wooden stretcher and a cement cast, the white canvas. The material has become the picture and it is in this interest for the pure material of the artwork that Uncini’s work also begins to anticipate the Arte Povera tendency of the late 1960s
Embedded also in Cementarmato - in its material and in the process of its creation - lies Uncini’s conception of artistic creation being a kind of ‘fabrication’. In a letter to the art critic Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco in 1975, Uncini explained the genesis of the Cementarmati as being motivated by a desire to manually build: ‘It was between 1958 and 1959 that I came up with my first cementarmato, an object entirely constructed, where CONSTRUCTING - far from coinciding with a more or less historically defined form of constructivism, as many later suggested - is conceived as the joining, disjointing, juxtaposing, closing or opening, concretizing and materializing of space and marks, the latter as presence and the former as measure. The choice of reinforced concrete, a material clearly linked to the idea and the modes of construction, was far from a casual one’ (G. Uncini, ‘Rome 11th January 1975, letter to Maurizio Fagiolo’, pp. 104-106, in op. cit., p. 105). It is thus that, despite the theoretical conjectures that they encourage, works such as Cementarmato ultimately propose an ‘aesthetic of labor’, which reconnects the art work to the primordial idea of the artifact. ‘I believe my nature of “homo faber”, as a man who thinks with his hands, is what proved crucial’, declared Uncini while remembering the moment he executed the first Cementarmato.
Indeed, more than for any theoretical implications, Uncini seems to have chosen reinforced cement especially for its obvious semantic resonance: as the material of construction, the bone and flesh of modern urban societies. ‘I work with iron and cement. I use these materials with propriety, meaning that I do not conceal them or use them to achieve particular effects; on the contrary, I employ them as they are employed in yards, to construct houses, bridges and roads - to construct everything man needs. At the basis of all this there lies a need to build and organize: the creative principle at the root of all human progress. This is what I wish to express through my objects. These are objects, because painting or sculpture proper always represent or mimic something, whereas I do not wish to mimic or evoke things, roads or bridges, but rather to salvage the principle from which they spring (...)’ (G. Uncini, ‘Interview by Italo Mussa’, in Uncini: I primi e gli ultimi, exh. cat., Foligno, 2011, p. 103). From being a way to refuse the traditional way of painting in favor of pure materiality, reinforced cement also eventually acquires a humanistic value in Uncini’s art, becoming the symbol of man’s inner instinct for construction. Enrico Crispolti observed: ‘In these cementi-armati Uncini’s intentions seem to me to be very clear: poetic virtuosity of matter, of materials; and the poetic virtuosity of making - the constructive aspect typical of Man - which turns that material into an instrument according to empiric naturalness’ (E. Crispolti in 1961, quoted in B. Corà, ‘Giuseppe Uncini: The Golden Rules of a Career’, pp. 35-52, in B. Corà, Giuseppe Uncini: catalogo ragionato, Milano, 2007, p. 42).