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Gianni Colombo

retrospective 1959 - 1990

curated by


1 October 2010 - 21 January 2011

Spazio_Curvo,_1990_alluminio,_animazione_elettromeccanica,_2_elementi,_2x195_cm.jpg Afterstructures,_1964-67,_legno_e_lampade_con_meccanismo_elettromeccanico,_60x120x10_cm.jpg

Gianni Colombo is one of the artists who, between the 1950s and 60s, demonstrated at the highest level the transfiguration of art from a form of representation to a perceptive experience, a path begun by Duchamp at the beginning of the XX century. In this game of mirrors where the spectator’s vision/action results in unexpected perceptions of which s/he is part, Colombo is without doubt a master.
Finding a place within this change of front, which involved and influenced a large part of contemporary art, is the retrospective opening the autumn season at Galleria Il Ponte, dedicated to Gianni Colombo. Displaying a group of more than twenty works, the exhibition marks the salient moments in the artist’s career from Rilievi intermutabili and Strutturazioni pulsanti (1959), passing through Strutturazioni fluide (1960), Cromostrutture (1961-70), Strutturazioni ritmiche (1964-70) and Spazi elastici (1974-77), up to Spazi curvi (1990). It is a brief summary that unfortunately excludes the perceptive environments which, more than forty years on, are perhaps the elements that have had the greatest impact on the subsequent development of art. Nevertheless, some of his design models for them are displayed. 

In partnership with:
Gianni Colombo Archive, Milan
Marconi Foundation, Milan


Text of Mauro Panzera in catalog
Since the two years between 1959 and 1960 marked such a radical turnaround from the art produced immediately beforehand as to aspire to a revolution – which is still going on today, though with what degree of freshness I do not know –, we see the artists whose creative imagination distinguished those two years as fathers, and, in short, heroes.
Without doubt, this elite – an unrhetorically tiny elite – includes Gianni Colombo. I spontaneously bestow this attribute and judgement with such certainty owing to Colombo’s passage in less than ten years from a critique of the contemplative surface to his construction of an acted space.
It goes without saying that at first his work deals with the notion of space and it is only upon building the relationship between the work and its beneficiary that Colombo also discovers the aesthetic edge of the temporal dimension; but I would say that, being so close to the exploration of perception, this aspect of his research would never be radically taken forward. It would remain a persistent component, but not a poetic focus. The passing of time will always be an experience that recreates a relationship between the artistic dream and common everyday experience; and this is where spatiality, and its manipulation with respect to that very everyday experience, indeed leads to a consciously aesthetic experience.
Since Milan was where the action was taking place, we need to point to Lucio Fontana’s artistic adventure as the engine that fired the right conditions for welcoming these new linguistic experiences, all united by their rejection of the informel style.
In addition, we need to point out Gillo Dorfles as prompting scientific attention, something which at the time had been lost in artistic circles. It is thanks to his insistence and intellectual authority that the publishers Feltrinelli undertook to translate and print the text that was fundamental for this chain of events, Art and Visual Perception by Rudolf Arnheim, in February 1962 – when the classic text Film as Art dating from 1932 had only been translated two years before!!! In Italy all this came together under the label of arte programmata, which dominated the debate at the Verucchio Conference in 1963.
I cannot say if Gianni Colombo knew these texts or had second-hand information; the fact is that the artist was already living in a post-informel climate as the relationship between the universe of vision and the world of architectural planning and design was already close, fundamentally thanks to his brother Giò Colombo, seven years his senior. Therefore, the artistic universe facing Colombo did not relate to the classic system of the arts, despite having been a pupil of Achille Funi!
A space of expression was coming into being between painting and sculpture which was to end up making its mark on the contemporary scene: Colombo started by using felt in place of canvas, an upright rectangle which simulated the pictorial space but was prohibited from representing anything. Indeed, only the nature of the material was exhibited, its physical make-up: a minimal declaration, a threshold beyond which the artist was committed to building a new universe of expression, with great ethical implications. Already with his Rilievi intermutabili, from 1959, he had revived the memory of Arp’s bas reliefs and made the radical break: a piece needs to be worked on as if it were a changing organism. While denying contemplation, at the same time it is confirmed that the work is a device for…a relationship with something other than itself, that is, the person who is looking at it, examining it, the person who notices its factual existence but also identifies it in analytical and functional terms.
Colombo would carry on along this line of experience, and remain, so to speak, formally linked to the ‘picture’ genre, but already the space that it constitutes is a volume that includes the spectator’s body – a variation on Mondrian’s inverted focal pyramid. And so we get a series of works more linked to the perceptive experience, appearing like objects in space, for example the Strutturazioni acentriche, or like angular panels similar to technical devices. It is true that this is the most fleeting and least vital part of Colombo’s reflection, but it must have been of use in his convincing himself to make the great leap to form artificial space inside which the spectator can be made to act.
A singular and independent experience was embarked upon with a series of pieces which work with the same self-generating principle: the Strutturazioni fluide in which a ribbon is forced to unravel inside a Plexiglas box causing it to draw the most varied and apparently free figures without the presence of an active user. We cannot rule out that the late cycle of Spazi curvi from the 1990s began to be imagined at this point.
The first time that Colombo would fully formulate the new conception of space was with his world-famous Spazio elastico, which would open the way to environmental art. Other experiences were to follow, linked to the common sense and experience of human movement. These formulations were increasingly autonomous from the classic categories of painting and sculpture, while at the same time increasingly linked to the sense of man’s experiences of space and time. In short, he created a neo-Humanism which a couple of decades ago, in a text dedicated to the work of Gianni Colombo, alive at the time and as generous and attentive as ever, I expressed using the term: actionman (uomoazione). Now I am increasingly conscious that a genuine root of Colombo’s way of doing art can be found in the varied experiences of Futurism, the only truly avant-garde movement in Italian art. And while temporality means life and is thus a confirmed acquisition, linguistically it is space that has to be inhabited by a new series of objects with a metaphysical nature that it will be the task of the critics and aesthetics to investigate.

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