Different Repetitions Over Five Decades: The Relief Paintings of a Masterful Italian Artist

85-year-old Italian painter Enrico Castellani has been known not to mince words when describing his influential body of work. “The work is what you see,” he has famously stated. It’s not a surprising explanation if you’re familiar with mid-century Italian art history.

  • Installation view of “Enrico Castellani: Alla radice del non illusorio” at Cardi Gallery, 2015. Image courtesy Cardi Gallery. 

Castellani has long been associated with minimalism and a stripped-down approach to art and its criticism. In 1960, together with Piero Manzoni, and with the help of their mentor Lucio Fontana, he founded the art journal Azimuth and exhibition space Azimut, dedicated to the “development of the newest and youngest avant-garde painting.” As an artist, he was involved with a movement in Italy that sought to develop a basic visual language using minimal materials. For his part, Castellani made a name for himself by stretching monochrome canvases over carefully placed nails to create texture, relief, and pattern. In 1965, his work earned a spot in a noted 1965 show at MoMA, “The Responsive Eye.”

  • Installation view of “Enrico Castellani: Alla radice del non illusorio” at Cardi Gallery, 2015. Image courtesy Cardi Gallery. 

A central tenet of Castellani’s back-to-basics philosophy is the idea that art need not be subject to interpretation, that a work of art can have such lucidity, such a clear essence, that no explanation is required. It’s a unifying theme in “Enrico Castellani: Alla radice del non illusorio,” a new exhibition of his work at Cardi Gallery in Milan. The show features fifteen pieces created over five decades. By and large, they share common characteristics. They’re abstract and geometric, emotionless, highly structural, and rendered in bold, monochromatic colors.

Employing his signature technique, Castellani has manipulated the canvases here by fastening them over protruding nails to forge elevations and indentations. The resulting effect, in works like Untitled (1963), is one of an object trapped behind the canvas, pushing through and raising small sections of the composition’s surface.

Though Castellani made the works on view from the 1960s through the 2000s, many of them bear such a striking resemblance to one another that it would be easy to miss the fact that a painting like Superficie rossa (1999) was created nearly two decades after its predecessor, Superficie bianca (1981). It’s a good example of what Italian art critics called “ripetizione differente” (different repetition.) And it’s Castellani’s way of expressing various manifestations of a pure idea: he repeatedly explores a concept in a way that yields a distinct result each time. But this is one artist who wouldn’t want viewers to hear much in the way of critical analysis. The work is, to paraphrase the artist, what you see.

Bridget Gleeson

Enrico Castellani: Alla radice del non illusorio” is on view at Cardi Gallery, Milan, Sep. 23–Dec. 18, 2015.

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