By Benjamin Clifford, December 13, 2017
At a recent press event for Di Donna’s Nuvolo and Post-War Materiality 1950-1965, curator Germano Celant described his priorities as essentially historical. Rather than presenting works by Italian artist Nuvolo (b. Giorgio Ascani, 1926–2008) as decontextualized commodity objects, Celant aims to reveal the context and networks of association that informed their creation. After World War II, industry grew rapidly in Italy and occasioned far-reaching cultural and social changes. In response, ambitious artists rejected the immediate past in favor of both radically new techniques and more remote creative precedents. Many gathered in Rome, where Nuvolo made his reputation, forming an international community that is well represented by Di Donna’s exhibition. In the first and largest of the exhibition’s three rooms, Nuvolo shares space with Antoni Tàpies, Cy Twombly, Alberto Burri, and other luminaries of the post-war period. The remaining two rooms are devoted entirely to Nuvolo—first you get the context, then a deep dive into the specifics of his practice.
When Nuvolo came to artistic maturity in the 1950s, gestural painting largely reigned supreme. Abstract Expressionism was at the height of its influence, and various strains of Informalism in Italy, France, and Spain also focused on spontaneity and immediacy of expression. However, many artists of Nuvolo’s generation were skeptical of the humanist subjectivity that underpinned this tradition. In his most characteristic works, Nuvolo stitched fragments of fabric together with a sewing machine to form an asymmetrical but carefully balanced grid. These constructions recall the work of Piet Mondrian, leapfrogging the Abstract Expressionist and Informalist generation in an appeal to earlier modes of abstract painting that privileged impersonality and an anonymous facture. Similar geometric formats appear frequently throughout Materiality. Ettore Colla’s Stagioni (1955–59) is a free-standing sculptural grid constructed from iron pipes, while Jean Fautrier and Piero Manzoni each contribute a near-monochrome painting—Petite magie colorée (1957) and Achrome (1958), respectively—in which rectangular units are arranged in a regular pattern.
The monochrome is a persistent theme of the exhibition. Several entirely white or off-white works by Nuvolo are featured, including two particularly refined grid compositions. The monochrome, like the grid, points to the legacy of the historical avant-garde, and in particular to Kazimir Malevich. Like the artists featured in Materiality, Malevich worked in a moment of dramatic historical transition: the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. He believed his own white paintings represented the end of the medium, a final step beyond which no development was possible.
Although they also desired rupture with the recent past, Nuvolo and his colleagues saw a way forward in non-traditional materials and procedures. Alberto Burri, a mentor to Nuvolo, is particularly well-known for his use of mixed media, and his contribution to Materiality is characteristically eclectic: Bianco (1952) includes pieces of fabric, pumice stone, and polyvinyl acetate glue as well as oil paint. Similarly, works by Lucio Fontana and Conrad Marca-Relli feature unusual and violent mark-making strategies. Fontana punctures the canvas of a typical Concetto spaziale (1957), while Marca-Relli’s Untitled (1959) makes scorch marks a major compositional device.
The fabric fragments Nuvolo used are similarly foreign to the traditional practice of painting. Some were found, some were purchased, and in select cases Nuvolo used pieces of his own clothing. In general, his materials testify to the heterogeneity of commercial and everyday life rather than the purity or transcendence often associated with abstract painting. What’s more, Nuvolo highlights the fact that his works are produced with the help of technology, not made by hand. He often uses clearly machined stitching as an important pictorial, or even sculptural, element—the seams are frequently turned outward, projecting towards the viewer as relief. Most tellingly, in Untitled (1962) Nuvolo abandons the expected grid format and allows his sewing machine free rein, introducing a dynamism worthy of any gestural painter. Stitches careen wildly across the canvas in a motif that’s part seismograph and part abstract calligraphy, suggesting that for Nuvolo the only acceptable act of expression is one that paradoxically operates according to the impersonal logic of industry and the machine.