Renata Wirz and Federico Sardella, Enrico Castellani: Catalogo ragionato, Tomo secondo, Opere 1955-2005, Milan 2012, p. 403, no. 316, illustrated
From 1971, the present work is a stand-out example from Castellani’s career-long devotion to this body of work. The first Superficie dates from 1959 and Castellani continued to make works in this series well into the Twenty-First Century. The year 1971, however, stands out as a milestone in the artist’s oeuvre when his surfaces manifested a particular self-referentiality. This sea change is evidenced by the artist’s titling of his individual works which took place exclusively during this one-year period of considerable productivity and ostensible contentment. Only forty-four extant works, of over a thousand registered by the archive, carry a title that differs from ‘Superficie’. These extraordinary canvases were executed predominantly in the lead up to the artist’s solo show at the Galleria dell’Ariete in February of the following year. The nomenclature of the works allows unprecedented access to the artist’s poetic world. In the case of our canvas, the lexeme ‘Troika’ translates from the Russian as ‘triad’. While the title can be explained literally by the three zig-zags that play across the canvas, the Russian etymon begs further exploration. Art historian, Federico Sardella, suggests a reference to the birth of the artist’s son, who joined the family that year. Castellani leaves it up to our imagination to identify this group of three. Executed in the purest chromatic articulation of silence itself – white – this painting narrates an extraordinary moment in the history of art when the prevailing narrative of conceptual art and minimalism had launched into full swing.
To create these works, Castellani developed a special kind of canvas stretcher riveted with slender wooden mouldings. This internal ribcage was then used as a skeleton to achieve the artist’s desired geometric pattern. By using a gun to drive nails through the wooden structure, firstly without the canvas and secondly over the top of the stretched fabric, the artist was able to create undulating landscapes of peaks and rivulets. The effect is mesmeric, miraculous, and belies the architectonic structure operating behind the canvas surface. Appropriating a set of tools associated with three-dimensional construction for an ostensibly two-dimensional work of art, Castellani achieved an illusionary effect traditionally created through painted chiaroscuro; this is an effect, however, dependent upon an external set of environmental conditions. These works are fundamentally spatial in nature; they invite immersive contemplation activated by the viewer’s position in space.
Castellani first trained as an architect before he launched his career as a painter at the end of the 1950s. It was during this early and formative moment that he, together with friend and close artistic contemporary Piero Manzoni, set up Azimut Gallery and Azimuth journal in 1959. Concerned with exploring the elemental properties of aesthetic expression, Azimut and Azimuth became a locus for exhibitions and discussion for the Italian avant-garde. In this regard, Castellani and Manzoni were natural allies of the German ZERO group, founded by Otto Piene and Heinz Mack in 1957, which sought new forms of perception through privileging light and movement as the essential tenets of a new and radical form of artistic expression. Until its dissolution in 1966, Castellani and Manzoni exhibited under the mantel of ZERO alongside an increasingly international coalition of artists that included Günther Uecker, Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein and even Yayoi Kusama; all of whom shared an aim to transcend the limitations of conventional painting and sculpture. However, by the mid-1960s, the distinctly European momentum drawing these artists together and driving the movement forwards had begun to dissipate. By 1963 both Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni had passed away, and by the middle of the decade other members of the group were beginning to pursue increasingly individual and international pathways. During this period, Castellani ventured beyond his European roots and began exhibiting widely in the US. This would in turn set in motion a great legacy of artistic influence that would come to define one of the most canonical and international movements in twentieth-century art history. Indeed, such was the sphere and impact of Castellani’s influence that he was famously anointed the ‘father of Minimalism’ by the movement’s staunchest proponent: Donald Judd. The present work utterly encapsulates these critical milestones in the history of western art; from ZERO to Minimalism and beyond, Castellani’s Troika commands silence, absorbs thought, and locks our very being into an elemental contemplation of space, form, and light.
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