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The Experience of Colour

Astrazione Oggetiva (Objective Abstraction) At the Estorick Collection

13 April to 31 July 2016

Artists:  Mauro Cappeletti | Diego Mazanelli | Gianni Pellegrini  | Aldo Schmid | Lugging Senesi | Giuseppe Wenter Marini

A review by John Stephens

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

In the late spring of this year Marian Goodman’s London-based gallery held a major show of the 76-year-old Italian abstract painter Ettore Spalletti, in recognition of this well-established protagonist of Italian abstract painting and his significant history within post-war European painting.  It is somewhat bewildering then that in the ’70s and early ’80s in Britain, when painting and sculpture were still the main artistic practices, and the art journals of influence, notably Artscribe, frequently articulated an abiding interest in the 'problems' of painting, that Italian artists engaged in these very issues at the time seemed to have been overlooked.  Looking back, the period might be seen as the twilight of Modernism; in Britain we were still very much orientated towards what was going on in America, with feelings of some unease at the way post-modernism was establishing itself, with its conceptual approaches and new more diverse artistic practices.

What was going on in Europe, where a somewhat more relaxed attitude to the range of emerging artistic activities seems to have held sway, appears to have been of little interest here in Britain.  Certainly, we seem to have had little awareness of the endeavours of abstractionists in Europe, so this show at Estorick offered a long-overdue opportunity to enjoy - and gain some insight into - the work of this group of Italian painters who called themselves Objective Abstractionists.  

Rooted in the emerging left-leaning political awareness of the late ’60s, many Italian artists rejected the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’, preferring to realign their allegiance to what they saw as more socially relevant approaches to art. Those artists with an interest in abstraction orientated themselves around Constructivism. The manifesto Objective Abstraction, developed in late 1976 and published in 1977, articulated the idea that its adherents would “concern themselves with purely painterly elements rather than those employed to descriptive and narrative ends”.

Broadly embracing the tenets of modernist abstraction, flatness, and the organisation of the picture plane to serve the articulation of ideas about colour, this group seems to have been a little more relaxed about the potential constraints. In their preoccupation with colour, these painters sought clarity in their ideas about the making of pictures. They eschewed the idea of gesture, and had above all an overriding belief in a logical and research-based, almost scientific, approach, rather than an emotional approach to the organisation of colour and the construction of paintings.

Thoughtfully hung over three galleries, with representation of most of the group in each of the two ground floor galleries, the exhibition gives a constant oversight of the group as a whole in juxtaposition to one another, while showing enough of each artist’s work that the viewer can understand their individual concerns. The upstairs gallery was largely given over to the portfolio of screen prints published to coincide with the launching of the Objective Abstraction manifesto in 1977.

Gianni Pellegrini’s three paintings in Gallery One, with their subtle violet linear bands on a mauve/grey ground, drew my attention first; specifically, the spatial play invoked by the arrangement of these graphic linear elements drawn over a chromatic grey ground, sometimes appearing like a vapour, releasing the ground colour to float forward, sometimes, in the vertically arranged bands, seeming to shimmer in a haze of a coloured mist.  Despite the declared objective handling of colour, there’s something going on here that defies that objectivity, with a tendency to the poetic.  The works in Gallery Two extend this, with two square-format paintings with what appear to be bands interrupting the blue-grey ground with regularly placed bundles of carefully drawn lines of yellow ochre, dividing up the surface with shifts that upset one’s reading of the ground colour as a continuous plane.

Gianni Pellegrini Lines 1977 Acrylic on canvas.

Gianni Pellegrini, Lines, 1977. Acrylic on canvas.

In contrast, Diego Mazanelli’s three bold, simply-constructed paintings. forming a triptych, have large implied rectangles in blue and violet intruding from outside the framing edge into the absorbent black space of the paintings’ grounds; the blue, cautiously overlapping the violet, plays with the creation of space. The violet, while overlapped by the blue, defies the spatial logic of being behind; instead, it comes forward by virtue of the tonal value of the hue, the disrespect for the framing edge suggesting a defying of the tenets of modernist painting.  In another piece, consisting of a set of six related paintings: Surface, Colour, Structure – 6 Elements, in Gallery 2, the elements are more contained within the framing edge. This set of works establishes a structure that cleverly tests the effects of complementary colours against one another; each colour, yellow, violet, green, red, blue orange in turn take on a linear then a planar role, play both a dominant and then a submissive role. This is painterly logic applied in an uncompromising way.

Diego Mazonelli Untitled Triptych 1976

Diego Mazonelli Surface, Colour, Structure – 6 Elements 1977

In the same room Luigi Senesi, working in pairs of paintings, creates a radiant colour luminance. In one pairing, Progression, he establishes a dominant tonal or colour contrast. There is a central division in each piece, which draws a line between a violet and deep green in one, and vermilion and cobalt in the other.  These two contrasting elements within each of the paintings are flanked vertically and symmetrically by narrow bands of colour which are graded from grey through white to orange to meet the green and the violet in the left-hand painting, and from grey through white to yellow to meet the vermilion and cobalt in the right-hand painting. This has a complex effect; light appears to emanate from the framing edge, pushing the two central colours together. But, because of the illusion of relief that the grading of the colour seems to give, it also appears as though the central two colours are flanked by pillars or columns, a feature I found somewhat troubling as it suggests, again, a flouting of the idea of flatness.  In another pair there is again a central division, one vertical, the other horizontal. In Horizontal Margins sprayed colour, in each half, shifts in one direction through the primary colours from yellow through blue to red, creating rather muddy tertiary colours on the way, and then in the other half it does the same but in reverse. A similar principle has been adopted in Objective Subjective Transparency (Central Margin) except that here the intervening muddiness is avoided; the palette of colours drifts down from a violet tint through yellow into green on the left of the painting, and then in the opposite direction on the right.  But it’s in Senesi’s Chromatic Verticals that his colour radiance really comes into play.  Here, there’s a vertical arrangement of narrow bands of vertically changing hues, from violet through yellow, green, violet and orange, divided laterally by vertical bands of white that give a rippling light across the surface, thereby emphasizing the sense of radiance.

Luigi Senesi Chromatic Verticals 1977

Consisting of five vertical panels, Mauro Capelletti’s piece Five Phases Towards Total Fluorescence employs the group’s signature logic to explore flat monochrome colour.  Four of the five panels are painted in a flat cerulean blue, with the picture plane picked out on the left hand edge with a contrasting vermilion: in the first panel, left and top; in the second, left top and bottom; in the third, all four edges; in the fourth and in the fifth the whole surface, thereby suggesting that the sequence starts again, but with chromatic opposites.  In another work comprising three panels, Directional Fluorescence in Three Phases, Capelletti continues with this planar use of colour. This time, each panel is divided vertically between tints of cobalt blue and what might be ‘hooker’s green’.  Each colour’ by virtue of the level of its tint’ occupies an equal spatial location. The apparent repetition of each panel is interrupted by a minimal intrusion in the middle panel, created by the introduction of a sliver of vivid fluorescent green between the blue and the green, marginally wider at the bottom than at the top, giving a focus to the central panel and creating a feature that unifies the piece and arrests the sense of repetition.

Aldo Schmid Contrast Vi/B/AR 1977

Aldo Schmid Untitled V2 1976/77

Aldo Schmid gives his works titles that invoke scientific associations.  He too conceives them in pairs, and the two titled Gi/AB/V and Vi/B/AK set out what appears to be his preoccupation with colour confrontations, which he achieves through the vertical division down the middle of a portrait-orientated format, allowing him to pit complementary colours against one another. In Vi/B/AK it’s cobalt and vermillion, whilst in Gi/AB/V it’s cadmium orange against cobalt. But then, by spraying these colours, he creates a drift towards the edge - from orange to chrome yellow, and cobalt to green in one, and from cobalt towards violet, and from vermillion towards cadmium red in the other.  This drift in colour works well in this pairing; it has the effect of forcing the two complementaries together in their clash in the centre.  In the larger, squarer-formatted pairing he develops the concept of confrontation further; again using blue/violet against cadmium in one and violet and a deep green in the other, he applies the same technique of allowing each of the central colours to drift to warmer hues towards the framing edge, and in doing so, he again forces the confrontation in the middle.  Along the way, he creates shady tertiary colours that separate the more saturated hues of cadmium orange from cobalt/violet, and the cadmium red from the green, thereby heightening their brilliance.   Looking at the pairing you become aware that he’s used pretty much the same palette in each of the paintings, but has flipped the division in the second painting so that blue/ violet is switched to the left panel in the second painting to confront what had been the outside edge of cadmium orange in the first painting.  Again, in keeping with the manifesto, he’s adopted a very logical, non-emotional approach to the construction of the work.

Aldo Schmid Untitled y3C 1976/77

Understated, in comparison with the others in the show, Guiseppi Wenter Marini’s triptych of small squares explores the use of the stripe device in articulating colour changes, tonal shifts and combinations.  It takes some very careful viewing because at first glace it’s as if the paintings consist of alternating stripes on a ground colour, but on careful inspection one realises the stripes are in fact close-tinted, but changing, hues of pinks and greys in the first painting, then include a pale blue in the second painting and then darker-toned blues and mauve-greys in the third painting.  None of the colours can be established as a ground colour, and while it is in keeping with others in the show, adopting a thorough and methodical exploration of combinations of colour, the work nevertheless establishes a gentle rippling rhythm of pastel tints and chromatic greys across the surfaces of all three paintings, the enjoyment of which is entirely hedonistic.  It’s for this reason that I’ve kept the Marini piece to the end, because this triptych of small squares of vertical stripes is for me the most satisfying in the show and demonstrates how the logical and objective approach adopted by the group can produce such extraordinary painterly beauty.  

Giuseppi Wenter Marini Hypothesis Triptych 1976

Luigi Senesi Progression 1977

Luigi Senesi Objective Subjective Transparency –(Central Margins) 1976