Portrait Giorgio Griffa
Why are people now taking a renewed interest in Giorgio Griffa’s work? Perhaps because around 1970 he had already anticipated many of the concerns of painting today, with his serial gestures and unprimed canvases nailed onto the wall. Eva Fabbris writes about how the artist developed a unique position between Conceptual art and Arte Povera.
Folding an unmounted painted canvas is a simple, neat, and really quite ordinary way of putting it away. And it is a way of reaffirming its “material” quality. “The original creases are part of the composition. But this is only a formal quality, and not so important. It may change. It is important that the free fabric is a protagonist – that it is not neutral. And it is important that my work can change in time, like a living organism, and the creases may alter or disappear. I fold the fabrics because this is the normal way to store them,” explains Giorgio Griffa (born in Turin, 1936). When a painted canvas is taken out for an exhibition, the creases that have formed during storage will add to the coloured signs already traced on it. It will not be stretched, just nailed to the wall along the upper edge. The inclusion of creases in the play of abstract compositions have by now become familiar features in the contemporary art world: from Tauba Auerbach’s sophisticated compositions to the crisp, powerful lyricism of N Dash’s surfaces. It is surprising to find an independent, radical anticipation of this sensitivity in Griffa’s work from the 1960s. After studying law and attending the Accademia Albertina in Turin, he worked simultaneously as a painter and civil lawyer. He was a member of the concrete art movement and was in dialogue with many artists, particularly Aldo Mondino and the Arte Povera group. He exhibited with the latter in 1969 at Galleria Sperone in Turin, which had already put on a solo exhibition of his work. His first exhibition in America was at Sonnabend Gallery in 1970. There has been a renewal of interest in Griffa’s work, particularly since his solo shows in 2012 and 2013 at Casey Kaplan in New York.
Griffa envisions a form of “painting that represents nothing other than itself.” To some extent, his art reflects the interests of a number of artists who began reconsidering painting in terms of its traditional elements in the late 60s. As the Italian critic Filiberto Menna pointed out at the time, the analytical approach of this genre was typical of conceptualism. Within conceptual art, the need to define artistic activity was being reaffirmed, bringing to light the structure of visual language. In a sort of methodological decanting, painting thus began to make use of the linguistic and poetic forms that were typical of this approach. “Analytical painting” investigated the underlying meaning of the medium’s basic elements: canvas, colour, and brushstroke were examined and reduced to their essence. This operation often took the meticulous form of reiteration, in the manner of minimalism. Unlike minimalism, however, Griffa’s approach to painting is not programmatic: “First of all, the choice of the media forming part of the traditional ones of painting is not a theoretical choice for ‘painting’ in contrast with other media. It is a practical choice determined by my conditions, knowledge, capacities, and personal limits. For some time now, I have maintained that painting must not be considered either privileged or reductive with regard to other media.”
Griffa also established a methodological dialogue with the artists of Arte Povera, and shared their interest in using a series of actions to create form. His painting process emphasises action through the liquidity of the acrylic paint and the imprecision of the trace, and “physical” choices through the unprimed canvas, crease, and free hanging. His focus on gestures that are repeated – but unique, since they are handmade – is something he shares with his friend Alighiero Boetti. And then there is Mario Merz’s work, in which the worlds of physics and biology operate as both symbols and factual realities stuck onto similarly unstretched canvas. One example of this is Merz’s La natura è l’equilibrio della spirale (1976): a raw canvas featuring the first numbers of the Fibonacci series painted in a watery red, and actual snail shells applied as helical emblems of organic expansion. Though Griffa remained faithful to abstraction, he shared a similar idea that art is the construction of reality, and that the work is an almost living organism with its own existence in time and space.
Griffa’s work is organised in series, all of which have a starting date but not necessarily an end. In 1967 he began his Segni primari, which summarizes the most original and radical aspects of his work: the flatness and repetitiveness of signs that are controlled but clearly handmade in their imperfection. In the mid-60s, he started Connessioni e Contaminazioni [Connections and Contaminations], which introduced the possibility of varying the forms and sizes of the signs. And then came Frammenti [Fragments], with the canvas painted and cut into irregular pieces scattered around the exhibition space, and Alter Ego, which takes on his main sources of inspiration in the history of painting: “Matisse, Yves Klein, Klee, Tintoretto, Beuys, Paolo Uccello, Dorazio, Brice Marden, Merz, Anselmo, the Romanesque, the International Gothic, Laocoön, and others.”
Eight series coexist in Griffa’s art, each with its own development, in some cases not yet complete. The most recent, started in the early 2000s, is devoted to the golden ratio, and includes numbers among the signs. Each element that Griffa decides to admit into his painting system is added to what is already there.
His artistic vision does not contemplate the possibility of reaching a definitive endpoint. On the contrary, he has over the decades preferred to formulate it by means of addition.
And this idea of constant though minimal addition further underscores the importance of process in Griffa’s practice.
What is true for the series is also true for individual works: the coloured lines have a direction or an inclination, but no point of arrival. It can’t be said that they are interrupted; rather one might think of a lyrical, aerial stasis. Liquid, possibly. Wave upon wave. All waves, like all of Griffa’s lines, are unique in terms of form and mood. But they are repeated: when we look at one of his works, we negotiate between our desire to concentrate on each particular line, and the pleasure of knowing that there is another one – and another after that. The series, the ensemble, and the reiteration make us feel at ease and lead us to a form of light-hearted, conscious concentration.
The golden ratio in Griffa’s series refers to the same mathematical principle underlying the Fibonacci series. The golden ratio (or section) is an algebraic ratio at the heart of geometrical figures like the spiral. Over the centuries, it has been viewed in the West as the equilibrium underpinning proportions of perfect beauty. The spiral opens up towards infinity, and we can only imagine where it will end. Alternatively, we can reflect on its infinitesimal essence, as Griffa does when he highlights the value of the golden ratio (1.6180339 …). But this is not the conclusive number, since the decimal places never end: they are infinite, so they, too, describe a never- ending vortex. This equation, which defines the most sublime use of space in both nature and culture, expands internally, in an abstract place that is Griffa’s art.
Eva Fabbris is a curator and writer. She lives in Milan.
Giorgio Griffa, born 1936 in Turin. Lives in Turin. Exhibitions: A Retrospective 1968 – 2014, Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève (solo); Artists and Poets, Secession, Vienna (2015); Galleria Lorcan O’Neill, Rome (solo); The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin (solo) (2014); 39greatjones, Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich (2013); Mies van der Rohe Haus, Berlin (solo); Fragments 1968 – 2012, Casey Kaplan, New York (solo) (2012); MACRO, Rome (solo) (2011). Represented by: Casey Kaplan, New York; Galleria Lorcan O’Neill, Rome