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PRINT October 1986

ETTORE SPALLETTI'S ARCHIPELAGO OF COLOR

OVER THE LAST TEN YEARS Ettore Spalletti has elaborated an art that stimulates the senses without showing preference for any one of them. His paintings, architectural fragments, and sensitively designed installations of monochrome objects all have the feeling of a Japanese garden, one in which the rocks have been polished smooth and colored in soft, tenuous tones, while the gravel is a layer of stone ground to sand, or, rather, to a dust of pure color, and the trees are compact, even-surfaced columns covered with powdered pigments of azure and gray The space where his work appears becomes still; its atmosphere seems to have set, to have gelled, just as each element within one of the installations appears crystallized out of color. Everything looks planned in Spalletti’s environments, which one wants to experience and perceive by moving through them, gaining a variety of points of view. His static gardens offer a succession of compact monochrome forms—disks, vases, basins, columns, all suspended in the exhibition space, whether inside or outside. It is as if color, in its powdered, pure-pigment state, has been solidified into the shape of “monuments” of daily life while maintaining its softness and looseness. The sensual richness and tactility of these objects bespeak a pleasure in the actual material of painting, a euphoric delight in color, and an imagination that can take over a place, expanding and spreading outward to encompass the very skin and volume of the space it enters.

A Spalletti installation in 1977 in Milan, at the Paola Betti gallery consisted of a layer of pale blue pigment spread over the floor. A year later, in Rome, the artist used the same shade of blue in a cylindrical column that he added to the Galleria Pieroni as if to support the ceiling. In each case the color insinuated itself deeply into the room; it became a part of the architecture, both concretely and metaphorically an element of its structure. Moreover, the splendor of the pigmented surfaces, like skins soaked in the voluptuously dense chromatic powder, rendered everything almost aphysical. One’s glance rested on the column’s exterior, missing its materiality and concentrating on the smooth, serene azure; it was as if this architectonic aggregate had no weight. Encased in chroma, lost in an expanse of blue, the column assumed the luxuriance of a tree covered with moss; it seemed embraced by celestial ivy. Thus the piece took on a metaphysical quality and in this sense Spalletti’s “paintings in three dimensions,” as the Japanese describe their gardens, use color as an instrument of the ”elsewhere," or, more specifically as an instrument of intimacy. The pigment may conceal depth, but it also promises it: the potent, if elusive, sensory impact of a Spalletti space turns the viewer inward, the still simplicity of both form and color bringing one to meditative contemplation.

The promise of inner depth is reinforced by the tenuous quality of the colors Spalletti chooses. Neither dully opaque nor brightly vibrant, they maintain a latent luminosity, both suggesting a certain weight and remaining delicate and suffused with light, like certain of the skies in paintings by Carpaccio and Raphael. Everything moves toward a dimension of inertia, of calm. In the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, Gent, in 1983, Spalletti filled the rational space of the museum as if with volumetric islands in a lake—a series of variations on the cone, the cylinder, and the sphere suggested a vase, a bowl or basin, a disk, an amphora, and so on, scattered in an intimate, mysterious archipelago. The room had some of the mood of a religious site, though one in which the visitor’s experience was purely contemplative. As in a Zen garden, geometric symmetry gave way to the evocation of an optical and sensate path among the objects; the rhythm that unified the space was psychological and spiritual. In this installation too, the surface of each element called attention to itself as an area of color. Passing among tones of azure and gray, ocher and ivory one felt the sensuality of Spalletti’s pictorial world, as well as the completeness of his smooth, static objects. Here, color was dreamed of as the actual place from which emerges form. One imagined a latency become present, as though the invisible and impalpable in painting had swollen up and, through the pigment’s accumulations of glimmering luminosity and thickness, had originated and given life to elementary shapes.

Where some painters seem to want to render color three-dimensional, and the paint in their work strains outward from the flat surface, in Spalletti’s work paint actually appears to become object. He condenses the light of color into volume, giving density to the impalpable. The hard limpidity of his vases and basins makes clear the potential of painting when it shows no desire to search out excuses for its existence in mythology, or legend, but gives itself over to the richness of its primary material and doesn’t bother to tone down its exuberance but unfolds into a true sensuousness. The same sensuality pervades the paintings Spalletti has been doing since 1983, paintings whose delicacy of color and obvious materiality recall earlier art ranging from Mark Rothko’s to Alberto Burris. The surfaces of his works, which seem to change as one looks at them, are full-bodied, smooth, and almost elastic; the powdered pigments congeal into dense grounds which outline hill and mountain landscapes, art motifs thousands of years old. On Spalletti’s canvases, the outlines are no longer firm but fluid. These contours and masses, which recall the mountainous countryside of Abruzzi, the region of Italy in which Spalletti lives, seem like fragile waves emerging from a sea of color. They maintain the sea’s transparency, as if they have been buried in its depths for centuries and now emergent, have kept a certain underwater softness and patina.

Both Spalletti’s canvases and his installations are “paintings in depth”; they share a visual rhythm simultaneously peaceful and tonic. Just as Cielo celeste (Celestial sky, 1982) and Collina sopra Cappelle (Hill above Cappelle, 1983) are like spaces for contemplation, so the Rome show in 1978 had an aura of open landscape, the powdered-azure column harmoniously tying air to earth like a soft tornado, its tint seeming to melt into an atmosphere rather than asserting a dramatic dialogue between the vertical and the horizontal lines of the room. At times, Spalletti’s objects become ethereal—Pietra di rosso cinabro (Stone in cinnabar red, 1981) and Disco nero (Black disc, 1981) seem to fly within empty space. Their antigravitational quality depends on their color, which liberates their forms from constraint. The artifice in art has been dissolved in these works—nothing is added to or subtracted from the natural richness and expressiveness of the pigment. Rather, color is proposed in its magmatic essence, in a realm of its own neither heavenly nor of the earth. The observer senses a deep significance in the mysterious and elegant simplicity, of Spalletti’s works. These are fragments of sacred sites in a cosmos which never sees the extremes of either summer or winter, let alone the passing of artistic seasons and trends. As in the 15th-century Japanese Buddhist temples of Tofuku-ji and Ryoan-ji, in Kyoto, their underlying hypothesis is to use the material as a way of organizing the immaterial, to intensify the void to the point where it becomes perceptible and present.

Born of essential conjunctions of colors and forms, of volumes and ancient landscapes, Spalletti’s art seems to emerge from a liquid world contained only by eternity. These fields of azure, red, pink, and gray create lakes of serenity from which arise sacred stones and venerated objects of utility. Here we face not the cold industrial intelligence of the Minimalist tradition (though the work is based, like Minimalism, on visual economy and reduction of detail), but a force evoking the gravity and quiet intensity of ancient colors. Spalletti’s sculptures and paintings are ritual signs. Where today’s casual expressive figuration, were it an aural art, would sound like convulsive cries and chatter, Spalletti’s work uses silence to convey the enigma of color. That enigma must remain unresolved, since, as Marguerite Yourcenar has written, “color is the expression of a hidden virtue.”

Germano Celant is a contributing editor of Artforum. Recently he Collaborated with Pontos Hulten on the Futurismo & futurismi exhibition, which will remain at the Palazzo Grassi. Venice, until October 12, 1986.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.