Enrico Castellani, a leading figure of the European postwar avant-garde who was hailed as the father of Minimalism by Donald Judd, died on Friday, December 1. Born in Castelmassa, in the Italian region of Veneto, in 1930, Castellani studied art and architecture at Belgium’s Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts and École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in the early 1950s. Upon graduating, he worked at the Milanese studio of architect Franco Buzzi for a few years. While living in Milan, Castellani painted in his free time and eventually befriended artists Piero Manzoni and Lucio Fontana.
In 1959, Castellani and Manzoni founded the Azimut gallery, and the associated journal Azimuth. They organized thirteen exhibitions at the venue and published essays that challenged popular art movements in Europe at the time. While their joint venture was short-lived, their programming established Milan as an important hub of activity for the ZERO movement. Castellani held his first solo exhibition at the gallery in 1960. His work was later featured prominently in a number of ZERO exhibitions, including “Tentoonstelling nul” (known as Nul 62) and “Nul negentienhonderd vijf en zestig” (known as Nul 65), at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1962 and 1965, respectively, as well as in the “Group Zero” show at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, in 1964.
Castellani is best known for his monochromatic reliefs: three-dimensional paintings featuring nails hammered into complex frames. Titled “Superfici” (Surfaces), the series of works, which he created throughout his career, is an exploration of light and space. In the June 1999 issue of Artforum, Marco Meneguzzo describes Castellani’s gesture as “repeated” but never “repetitive.” “One could paradoxically state that the artist takes abjectness to another level, that of light and surface, which themselves become present and tangible as ‘objects,’” he writes. Yet, in recent years, Meneguzzo has added that “the theme of his work has changed: In addition to surface, there is life, as Castellani himself wrote in Azimuth forty years ago.”
In 2001, the Fondazione Prada in Milan organized a major solo exhibition dedicated to Castellani. Over the course of his career, the artist participated in notable group exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale in 1964 and 1966; “The Responsive Eye,” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1965; Documenta 4, in 1968; and the “Identité Italienne: L’Art en Italie de 1959 à aujourd’hui” at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 1981. In 2010, Castellani received the Praemium Imperiale Award for painting by the Emperor of Japan.
His works can be found in a number of public collections including the Stiftung Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf; the Fondazione Prada, Milan; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma, Rome; the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin; the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC.