Superficie rossa invites the observer to engage in a kinetic encounter that is deeply rooted in the perceptual experience of space itself. An undulated landscape of geometric patterns, the monochrome canvas is moulded by the warping bends in its physical structure. The artist thus succeeds in appropriating the aesthetic language of sculpture with a subtle architectural sensibility – acquired during his training as an architect in Belgium – and a decidedly painterly modus operandi. In doing so, the dialectics of light and shadow are incorporated into Castellani’s stylistic repertoire as a vivid variable, an eternally unpredictable technical device that animates and energises the spatial dimension of the surface in a volatile response to its specific environment. The angle, intensity and position of light determine and complicate the structural order of the construction, submerging the work in trembling passages of luminescence and darkness. In stark contrast to this glowing waltz of light and entirely devoid of polychromy, the self-referential curtain of red paint is suspiciously silent. Castellani rationalised the function and necessity of the monochrome through a profound and precise understanding of the conceptual implications of his artistic production: “Only the possession of an elementary entity, a line, an indefinitely repeatable rhythm or monochrome surface is necessary to give the works the concreteness of the infinite and subject them the influence of time, the only conceivable dimension, yardstick and justification of our spiritual needs” (Enrico Castellani, ‘Continuità e nuovo,’ Azimuth, No. 2, January 1960, Milan, n.p.). The visual power of the monochrome is then harnessed to create an intoxicating expanse of pure radiating colour, at once immobile and static, yet forcefully bursting into space from its surface to envelop and engulf the observer in a sublime ocean of bold, red paint. Superficie rossa is thus an extensive investigation into the physical properties of painting and the traditional boundaries of artistic gestures. As such, the work encapsulates a precise historical moment in the flourishing European avant-garde, when Castellani and a select group of Italian artists turned their gaze to the creative enterprises of Yves Klein in Paris and the ZERO group in Dusseldorf.
In 1959, Castellani and fellow artist and friend Piero Manzoni formed the gallery Azimut and the journal Azimuth in Milan, establishing close international ties with like-minded artists and curators. Deeply impacted by the purist semantics of Piet Mondrian, the visceral gestures of Jackson Pollock, and the spatial experiments of Lucio Fontana, Castellani and Manzoni rebelled against the gestural abstraction of the previously dominant school of Art Informel and with intellectual finesse took advantage of a moment rife with possibility. In tandem with the Pop art movement and burgeoning school of American Minimalism, Castellani’s oeuvre is part of an exceptionally significant art historical moment that saw the conceptual reconfiguration of the very notion of the canvas. Throughout his five-decade-long career, Castellani proved to be uncompromising and consistent in his exploration of those pictorial enquiries that he had started to examine as he was beginning to make his mark as a painter in the late 1950s, so much so that he went on to become a touchstone for many generations of artists to come, and was even mentioned as a crucial precursor of Minimalism by the American sculptor Donald Judd in his ground-breaking essay of 1965, Specific Objects. Exemplifying the Italian artist’s revolutionary pictorial vision, Superficie rossa bears witness to a defining moment in the development of contemporary art.
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