‘The surface, which has, on various occasions, described, alluded and suggested, and has been the scene of idylls, drama and raving, is now silent.’.
‘By way of the reliefs, the introflections and curvatures of the canvas Castellani obtains extremely singular perceptive effects, he dilates the space, he coerces and curves it…’.
Conceived as a meditation on the play of light and shadow, between positive and negative depth, Enrico Castellani’s visually mesmeric Superficie bianca is an elegant example of the continuing evolution of the artist’s pictorial practice through the 1980s. Constructed using the innovative technique which had dominated Castellani’s œuvre for almost three decades, the empty monochrome surface of the canvas is transformed by the addition of a carefully arranged series of nails that alternately push against and punctuate the material, generating a complex pattern of peaks and troughs that catch and absorb the light that falls on its surface. In this treatment of the canvas, Castellani sought to subvert the traditional illusory quality of the painted picture, instead creating an autonomous, seemingly authorless composition, devoid of narrative, mimesis and the gestural mark of the author.
Rejecting the romanticism of the artist’s mark and the prevailing intuitive nature of Art Informel, Castellani instead sought to create a timeless, pure, elemental art based solely on the concepts of space, light and time. Thus, there appears to be no sign of his presence in Superficie bianca, the canvas’s modulated rhythm of convex and concave volumes entirely determined by the underlying structure of the frame and the complex network of nails he has added to the composition. However, Superficie bianca is nonetheless a resolutely hand-made object, in that the struts and bars that act as the foundations of the work have been created by Castellani himself, the nails hammered into their set pattern and the canvas stretched and pulled over their framing by the artist. Although the majority of these elements remain invisible behind the canvas, their presence points to the handicraft that underpins these rigid, architectural structures, generating an inherent tension between the hand-made and the autonomous, between the artist’s presence and his absence.
While Castellani’s first experiments with three-dimensional patterns had relied on the arbitrary placement of a handful of hazelnuts, scattered across the back of a canvas and then secured in place by nails, the subsequent compositions were meticulously arranged around strict mathematical grids. Continued experimentation with the possibilities of the grid over the ensuing decades led the artist to increasingly complex three-dimensional shapes and patterns in the finished canvases, as in the present Superficie bianca, where the meticulously spaced points achieve an intricate design in which the principal lines appear to radiate from the top of the canvas in a fan-like configuration. The central line of nails running vertically down the length of the canvas, meanwhile, appears to divide the canvas into two equal halves, introducing a profound sense of symmetry that suggests the composition could be easily folded over on itself at any moment. Balance was an essential component in the construction of Castellani’s work, manifesting itself most clearly in the partnering of the nails in the canvas: ‘When I started […] I was concerned that the reliefs I was making should be placed in such a way as not to create clusters,’ he explained. ‘And so to each point, let’s say, each positive point, I juxtaposed a negative point. In other words, there is always one negative and one positive point somehow cancelling each other out and allowing the surface to remain as little violated, so to speak, as possible’ (E. Castellani, quoted in G. Celant, ed., Enrico Castellani: 1958-1970, exh. cat., Milan, 2001, p. 14).