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The Experience of Colour: Astrazione Oggettiva

13 April - 31 July 2016

A review by Tony Blackmore

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

The Estorick Collection, the reference point for Italian modern art in London, recently hosted the exhibition The Experience of Colour: Astrazione Oggettiva.  Curated by Giovanna Nicoletti, Astrazione Oggettiva is the term used to describe the work of a small group of painters who were active in the 1970s in the Trentino region of northern Italy.

Led by Luigi Senesi (1938-78) and Aldo Schmid (1935-78), the all-male group was created when the younger artists Mauro Cappelletti (b.1948), Diego Mazzonelli (1943-2014), Gianni Pellegrini (b.1953) and Giuseppe Wenter Marini (1944-2015) joined in 1976.  Each artist had a joint role as both researcher and investigator; they all put colour at the centre of their aesthetic investigations and sought analytical methods of painting as a starting point to engage the public in a wider debate.

Showing over three rooms, the exhibition featured pieces created by each group member in 1976-77.

Horizontal Margins, Luigi Senesi, 1977.  Acrylic on canvas.  Image by Tony Blackmore.

Luigi Senesi’s works Objective Subjective Transparency (Central Margins) and Horizontal Margins each contain progressive and graduated chromatic structures with the central placement (either vertical or horizontal) of a white band resembling a white blade of light.  Although Horizontal Margins is a welcome break from the dominance of the vertical compositions in Room 1, both pieces use graduating bands of colour on both sides of the white band; each is an approximate inverse of the other.  This creates a composition in which movement is created from left to right and from right to left - and further - by the lateral structured arrangement of the individual bands of blended colour.

Progression, Luigi Senesi, 1977.  Acrylic on canvas.  Image by Tony Blackmore.

When not creating a dynamic through the temporal arrangement of the composition, Senesi manages to create tension by employing triads of secondary colours, where each is pulled in two directions, such as in Progression (1977).


Aldo Schmid, whose work is prevalent in Room 2, adopts a structural approach, using pairings of bands of colour, but he moves much further towards employing only colour in constructing the composition. Schmid’s work can be divided into two types of paintings. In the first, the impression of light is created by the two complementary colours, in graduating tones, positioned parallel to one another, as in Contrast Gi/AB/V, 1977. The second type is a more complex colour pairing, as in Untitled y1 or Untitled-1976-77, where the perception of light is created by two different pairings, each containing two colours.

Untitled y1, Aldo Schmid, 1976-1977.  Acrylic on canvas.  Image by Tony Blackmore.

The sensory experience is created by the impression of diffused light in the regions of canvas where red appears to be blended into green, and orange into violet.  In addition to both vertical edges of the canvas and the central axis, where the two colour pairings meet, each region of diffused light forms additional vertical spines.  Painted on larger canvases than the other work on show, these hazy areas are painted and contained within fields of pure colour: they have a direct impact on the viewer similar to the reaction one might have to a James Turrell installation.

Whereas Senesi and Schmid both use colour as a means of direct pictorial organisation, the four other artists appear to be equally concerned with shape and line. In his compositions, Diego Mazzonelli primarily investigates the ‘absorbency’ of black.  In Untitled Triptych in Room 1, black unquestionably acts as the void in which shapes of solid ultramarine and purple float.

Untitled, Diego Mazzonelli, 1976. Serigraph on paper.  Image courtesy of the Estorick Collection.

In Untitled, 1976, my interpretation of the black is more ambiguous.  Due to the large area that the rectangles of black occupy in relation to the entire composition, they operate equally well as either an oppressive solid or a void.  In conjunction with the structural framework of the cobalt blue and ultramarine violet, the three colours stabilise one another and act as a balanced whole -  the lack of perceived movement in the blue and violet framework supports either the weight, or the weightlessness, of the black.

In comparison to the other artists on show, Giuseppe Wenter Marini has more of a painterly technique that goes beyond the exploration of colour. With the least saturated colour palette and the application of slightly overlapping thin washes of paint, a temporal feel is established when read from surface to depth. This is further supported by the rhythm of strips of softly-hued, transparent colours which create a space that can also be read from left to right. I find Marini’s work totally engaging.

Hypothesis: Triptych, Guiseppi Wenter Marini, 1976.   Acrylic on canvas. Image by Tony Blackmore.

The strips or colour, appearing at first to be as regular, are not identical; they have slightly differing widths. Marini’s colour palette is also the least definable due to the narrowness of the strips and the visual interplay of the colours, inducing optical disturbance.  In exhibiting three in close succession in Hypothesis: Triptych 1976 in Room 1, this is most likely to be intentional. Marini’s framed serigraph in the third room, Untitled 1976, is formed by a slightly different type of composition.  

Untitled, Guiseppi Wenter Marini, 1976. Serigraph on paper.  Image courtesy of the Estorick Collection.

While not overtly optical, it does appear to have movement, like a vertical window blind that has been pulled open to allow a band of soft light to emerge into the gallery from behind the frame.

Mauro Cappelletti’s works Untitled 1976 (insert 7_Mauroa-Cappelletti-Untitled-1976) and the triptych Directional Fluorescence in Three Phases (1977) also seem to have light seeping from them; slithers of fluorescent orange separate or frame the different colour areas within each composition, while also appearing as light shining through the gaps between the colour areas. The more dramatic pentaptych Five Stages Towards Total Fluorescence (1977) contains four canvases; each composition has an uninterrupted field of cyan blue with strips of fluorescent orange light seeping in at the edges.  These are followed by a fifth canvas of uninterrupted fluorescent orange, which prompts me to ask: “who turned on the light”?

Five Phases Toward Total Fluorescence, Mauro Cappelletti. Acrylic on canvas. Image by Tony Blackmore.

Although it is difficult to see the basis of Cappelletti’s chromatic research, it elicits a response, through our association with the colours and their arrangement. The canvases of cyan blue at first offer creative, reflective spaces, yet they are unable to hold, at their edge, the arousing and intense affects of the fluorescent orange. The viewer may or may not be able to embrace the space of the fifth canvas, which may arouse associations of passion and excitement, or feelings of blindness and anxiety. Will the viewer move forward into this spontaneous, newly-created and dialectical space that we share with the artist, or backwards into the canvases of cyan blue, that now, by comparison, appear to non-reflective and, at best, processed?

The sixth artist in the group, Gianni Pellegrini, constructs compositions that employ bands of thin lines of one colour hovering above a uniform field of another.

Untitled, Gianni Pellegrini, 1976. Serigraph on paper.  Image courtesy of the Estorick Collection.

The graphic quality of the painted lines resemble stretched guitar strings; they possess a vibrational energy and create the illusion of surface and depth.

Overall, this exhibition illustrates the group’s artistic and scientific experimentation and its convictions which, according to its manifesto, was “for each work to have its own internal logic and not…reflect the artist’s mood.”  What is apparent, however, is that the resulting work produced from the group’s social, rational and mechanical sense of reason contributed significantly to the depth of my personal experience and is not at all at odds with the engagement I had with the work on show.

The exhibition was at London’s Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art from 13 April to 31 July 2016.