Stepping into the water without getting wet
Pino Pascali occupies a unique place in the history of Italian art. His brief career, cut tragically short by a motorbike crash in September 1968, stands alone from that of other modern Italian artists in that it both anticipates ‘Arte Povera’ - the movement with which he is most often associated - and forges an important link between it and its origins in the art of the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Incorporating elements of American Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual art and investing everything with an innately Mediterranean sense of time, language, place and history Pascali’s joyous and playfully inventive creations form an extraordinarily rich and varied body of work that continues to resonate and inspire.
Working privately and intensely, often hiding his creations away in his garage-like studio until, like the performance of a play, they were collectively ready to enter onto the world’s stage, Pascali, in the space of just four years created an extraordinary series of works that sequentially build to propose a radical reinvention of the entire world. Taking ‘play’, as the core aesthetic of his artistic investigation, Pascali sought to evoke and explore the real, adult world of sex, war, culture and nature with all the directness, innocence, honesty and power of enquiry that a child has. He took his cue from both the impulsive, direct and artisanal approach of the so-called ‘peasant’ or ‘primitive’ - the ‘man who has nothing’ - and also from the make-believe worlds and ‘pretend’ games of children to construct his very own ‘pretend’ or ‘make-believe’ sculptures, all made, somewhat in the manner of the boat-builders of his native Puglia by stretching canvas over a wooden ribbed support. These ‘feigned’ sculptures were hollow replicas of the things they purported to represent - works that deliberately encouraged the viewer, through a covert display of their own innate artifice, to re-examine the value or significance of the ‘real’ thing on which they were based. Pascali’s ‘playing’ in this sense was not, he was keen to point out, ‘playing for its own sake’, but a serious investigation, a ‘learning system’ which, like children’s play, was ‘set up to experiment with things, to find out about things and at the same time go beyond them.’ It was in this very fluid sense of ‘going beyond things’ that the enduring importance of Pascali’s work lies.
Pascali’s oeuvre is comprised essentially of five separate, individual, bodies of work that he presented individually at what his close friend and gallerist-collaborator Fabio Sargentini once pointed out, were five ‘very poetic’, ‘very generous’ and distinct exhibitions held between 1965 and 1968. In these, Pascali presented five differing ‘reconstructions’ of the world. The first, held at the Galleria La Tartaruga in 1965 was a display that appeared to fuse the erotic language of modern advertising with Italy’s illustrious classical past in a series of deliberately light and overtly artificial ‘object-paintings’ and ‘feigned’ sculptures that openly questioned the language of form and the structures and conventions by which we perceive and judge the world. All were exposed as artifices; as what Pascali later referred to as ‘a multitude of soap-bubbles’ that demonstrated how what is important about the phenomena of the world - what is essentially real and where the potency of life lies - is not in the thing itself, but in our idea of it. This exhibition was followed in 1966 by another show of equally hollow, hand-made, tautological constructions initially thought too contentious by the Tartaruga gallery’s director Plinio de Martiis during this volatile political period in Italy, to put on show on his gallery.
Subsequently held at the Sperone Gallery in Turin where it was to have a major impact on the burgeoning development of ‘Arte Povera’ in that city, Pascali transformed the Turin gallery into an armoury, filling it with ‘feigned’ sculptures of the Italian army’s latest guns and cannons. This show which essentially extended the logic of Roy Lichtenstien’s cartoon paintings into the real space of the here and now while also playfully mocking the ‘game’ of war during the first years of American expansion in Vietnam, was followed by a succession of three even more radical and ground-breaking exhibits at Fabio Sargentini’s L’Attico gallery in Rome. In these three increasingly theatrical productions amongst which the artist would also himself ‘perform’, Pascali expanded his aesthetic to take on the entire realm of nature.
The first of these presented a ‘faux’ menagerie of strange, exotic and extinct animals. Ranging from dinosaurs and bizarre hunting trophies, to whales, sharks and dolphins, it magically transformed the gallery space into a fluid and expanded realm of imaginative possibility when these creatures seemed to surface from the floor or swim through the gallery walls. This pervasive theme of the basic fluidity of all ideas and of the permeability of all seemingly fixed or established boundaries was given further play in Pascali’s next show at L’Attico which appeared to concentrate on the elemental building blocks of life itself: Earth and Water. In a series of works playfully subverting the apparent logic of the American Minimalists’ predilection for the sequential grid as some kind of inalienable bastion of certainty or definition, Pascali filled his own series of grids with water to create mock puddles, rivers, irrigation ditches and even an entire ocean. In addition, he covered hollowed-out rectangular blocks with earth to present another series of ‘feigned’ units that collectively combined to form a new artificial or ‘pretend’ landscape. His aim, he said at this time, was to one day create a work in which the land came to be reflected in the sea.
Pascali’s last exhibition at L’Attico came in two parts and introduced an entirely new nature, first in the form of his synthetic bachi da setola - colourful brushworms made from a series of brightly-coloured plastic toilet brushes adjoined together - and secondly in the form of the artefacts of a whole new primitive society complete with its own rope-bridges, trapdoors and a flora and fauna all made from new synthetically fabricated industrial materials. This curious anthropology for the space-age provided a vision that seemed to bridge both the future and the ancient past and was to prove the artist’s last testament.
Alberto Boatto wrote of Pascali that he always created ‘images (and) stylized icons, in which the real turns into the imaginary the moment it is suggested’. Nothing was ever fixed or defined in Pascali’s art. A pervasive sense of fluidity, optimism and possibility runs throughout his work from his first great masterpieces such as the ‘Wall of Sleep’ or his Torso di Negra al bagno (Birth of Venus) to his giant, synthetic, fur, ultramarine spider of 1968. ‘He does not create frigid mathematic and mental structures.’ Boatto wrote, ‘the surprise provoked by the incongruous relation between the image and the place where it is shown reminds one ... of the provocative style of de Chirico, (where) the sea remains trapped within the confines of a decorous bourgeois drawing room.’(Alberto Boatto: Pascali: a great inventor’ in Pino Pascali, exh. cat. Rijksmuseum Kröller- Müller, Otterlo 1991, pp. 48-9).
Pascali’s extraordinary talent was to be able to release and expose the latent potential inherent within ordinary objects and structures in a way that inspires and captivates the imagination of the viewer. Pascali did this, he believed, by creating ‘feigned’ sculptures that resemble the archetypal mental images we have rooted deep inside of us of the things he chose to depict. Enveloping the innocence and uncorrupted intensity of both the primitive and the child’s-eye view of the world, it was in this way, that Pascali’s work was able to appear to reinvigorate the stale exterior world of things and to restore to it the ritualised sense of magic and mystery that it once had for us as children; to bestow it with an archetypal richness and a vitality that Pascali believed modern technological societies such as America and Europe had lost.
Born in Bari in 1935, Pascali had grown up in the nearby coastal village of Polignano a Mare. The abiding presence of the sea, and his childhood upbringing amidst the basic and largely agrarian rural culture of the far South of Italy along with memories of the American landings and of adults rushing off to join the partisans were to have both a formative and defining influence on his work long after he moved to the metropolis of Rome in 1955.
His work is distinguished throughout by its innate awareness of an ongoing dialogue between the primitive and the modern and of the constant flow and exchange that existed for him and many Italians at this time between the rural, agrarian life of its past and the modern industrial grid of its present. This was a dichotomy that existed for Pascali not just on a personal level, between the world of his Southern roots and that of his glamorous modern metropolitan life in Rome, but also in a wider sense between the arts and culture of Europe and America and other supposedly more ‘primitive’civilizations. Art could, Pascali believed, carve an important path between modern technology and the primitive. It meant ‘finding a method for change’ he said. ‘Like the man who first invented a bowl to hold water. This is how a civilisation is born through the desire for change. After the first time, making a bowl becomes academic…What I do is the opposite of technology, as inquiry, the opposite of logic and science.’ (Pino Pascali, quoted in Marisa Volpi ‘’technici e materliali’ Pino Pascali’, Marcatré, no 37-38-39-40, Milan May 1968, p. 73)
In response to this, Pascali moved fast - ‘too fast’, his friend Sargentini would later lament - constantly bringing his innate, uncontrived passion to bear on something and then changing, rejecting it and moving on. This was not restlessness on his part so much as perpetual reinvention used as a means to keep oneself truly alive. ‘Technique is my entire life’ he said, ‘but I change constantly. I find it and I leave it.’ Like his swimming whales, dolphins and sharks invading the walls and floors of the gallery space or his black Venus perpetually rising from imaginary waves, Pascali operated on the borderlines of convention in a way that demonstrated all boundaries to be both permeable and artificial. ‘I step into the water’ he said, ‘but don’t get wet.’ (Pino Pascali in conversation with Marisa Volpi, quoted in Bruno Cora, ‘Pino Pascali; the reconstruction of self in the lost garden’ in Pino Pascali, exh. cat, Otterlo 1991, p. 81)
It is especially difficult to talk about the works that have most affected you inside. Perhaps because you still keep in your mind a sort of pause, or thump inside, in the moment in which you conquered it. After having yearned for it many, many times in your thoughts,desiring to open up a new horizon for yourself, to begin a new journey, to find yourself enchanted and carried away. After having looked over and over again at the old catalogues, trying to study it, to imagine its details. Then, suddenly, it's yours, this monumental work, which is virtually Pascali's testament to Pop Art. It seems even "too much" for you: you are frightened by the idea that you are responsible for it, that you must preserve its integrity.
An exceptional work that you never tire of looking at, that enters your house and makes it unique. Just like the heart-rending creativity of this artist who, in all his work, never ceases to surprise. A profound emotion has accompanied you in your tenacious pursuit, then you have dedicated a similar amount of emotion and constancy to caring for it. It has become part of your life, with a sort of reverential awe that the Torso di negra al bagno (Nascita di Venere) commands. Extraordinariness can have this effect, and can also deprive you of the words with which you would like to describe her. Perhaps because she represents the realisation of a great dream, which you are rather ashamed to relate. It's like when you have the impression that time has stopped inside you: an unexpected flash and the awareness that something important has occurred. Like meeting someone/ something that you know you already love, with all your being.
Our encounter with Pascali and his black woman came about more or less like this. The strange feeling when we discovered that the bikini is made of pieces of wool taken from the old blankets of the Italian State Railways (1960's: the blankets for the sleeping cars). Everything comes around, in art as in life: time, memory, material. The elegant silhouette of the female body, which shines under the spotlights, enhancing her; the waves, masterfully rendered as the base of the work, in the cut-out "mat". Words are inadequate to describe her.
"She" comes into your home and assumes her position like a queen: she transforms her installation area into the real, undisputed centre of the house, from which she radiates authority, beauty, respect. Even now, many years after her acquisition, we think that rarely can something make you "richer" than possessing Pascali's black woman. An icon of the internationality of Italian Art.