PRINT March 1992


Along the Edge

“To insist, to repeat, and to continue seem the only ways to sustain the weight of a void that no one expects to fill.” So Giulio Paolini wrote in 1991. The sentence’s focus, it seems to me, is less the active verbs that start it off than the void that the artist takes on at its center. Looking at Paolini’s work, and reading his writings, I always have the sensation of moving with him as if along the edge of a well, around an emptiness that he has shown me. Now, in response to my suggestion that he write an artist’s statement for Artforum, he has agreed on the condition that I add an introduction. Once again, he is taking me to look at that dizzying boundary. And here I am.

For Paolini, the role of the artist is clearly not to offer the viewer a comfortable place to land. He has never practiced a didactic art; he has never assumed the stance of the master, has never set out to teach. He is here, alongside us. He shows us the void and everything it paradoxically contains. And he always leaves us free to take responsibility for ourselves and tumble in.

Paolini’s role, rather, is metacritical. He lends his voice as a narrating “I,” but he is also the silent witness to the scene, as well as the viewer’s faithful companion. In this fusion of roles, no line is drawn between subjectivity and objectivity. Yet the result is not chaos but synchrony. The critical activity of the observer and of the artist’s “I,” fused in a single interrogation, allow an expanded, shared morality of art. As Jacques Derrida has written, it is “in this desire for inseparability, the non-absolute-absolute, that the origins of the poetic are expressed.”

The function of the I is central to Paolini’s work. An I that speaks in the first person yet is stripped of subjectivity. An incorporeal I that is nonetheless physically expressed in the eye. An I located at the center of the representation, and in its turn representing all possible viewpoints. This is not a psychological I but a philosophical one, and its foundations are in the Enlightenment. It recalls Italo Calvino’s description of “the I . . . that serves only so that the world can continually get news of the world’s own existence, a mechanism that the world contrives in order to know if it exists.”

An impossible scheme. What does it mean, philosophically, to practice simultaneously the centrality and the marginality of the I? How can one maintain a solitary association with the absolute and at the same time represent a plurality? Is this, then, an ethical ideal doomed to the failure of self-contradiction? No, because the I in question is not subject to any narcissistic agenda or logic. (In fact the “author” is gone, absent, offstage.) Instead, it assumes a practice of doubt that negates centrality itself. For Paolini, Francesco Poli writes, “an adhesion to rationalism, as in Valéry, is accompanied by a precise awareness of its crisis.”

The author leaves the stage, but not because he’s distracted, or because he’s hiding his identity, or because he’s invoking a “pure” art apparently detached from a subject. (Paolini is always aware of being a subject.) If the author goes into exile—creating the empty void it is only to allow beauty to express itself, in all its fullness, through representation. In preparing the stage on which beauty will appear, Paolini is neither jealous nor possessive. Knowing that the bright, enigmatic manifestation of beauty is a gift he will receive, he cannot be, does not want to be, the only witness to it. He will only be the receiver of a secret that must be shared. We can interpret Paolini’s departure from the scene as an expression of generosity, then, as well as a sign of profound discomfort. But how could it be otherwise? As Giuseppe Ungaretti writes, “How will one who doesn’t think of himself as God, who doesn’t accept dogma, who considers himself a man, simply a creature, express the inexpressible?”

Ida Panicelli


FIRST OF ALL, even before beginning, I would like to ask that this text not be illustrated, that it be associated with no image other than that of the room where I find myself writing, in other words that, you don’t give it the weight of bearing a message, the kind of facile point that I specifically want to avoid, before it is even read.

No amplification to support the words; better not to raise one’s voice when invoking silence.

This doesn’t mean I don’t feel the urgency, even the necessity, of writing. I’m grateful to Artforum for requesting a statement from me, and here I am, attempting a version of one, almost attempting a confession: I am still searching for, or waiting for, beauty.

Being beyond definition, beauty is a close relative of infinity, and of the vertigo of interpretation; but it isn’t located on the other side of sonic indecipherable perspective, in the farthest unattainable distance. Ever changeable even as it is immobile, beauty appears at the threshold of the room, against the light. We claim as beautiful certain lineaments of the real that our eyes are trained to see, but that really have nothing to do with beauty, and are inadequate to depict it, to give it a face. For beauty may grow out of the real, but does not recognize the real as its model. How and where can we discover beauty, whether inside or outside the work?

In an interview some years ago, I was asked my choice for the most beautiful painting in history. Without hesitation, I answered with Watteau’s Embarquement pour Cythère.

I forgot, or rather I couldn’t predict, that I would later be asked to speak on Diego Velázquez; and that I would find I couldn’t speak at all about Velázquez without inconsistently asserting that Las Meninas is the most beautiful painting in history.1 And in effect it is, as is the Watteau also, and as, with equal reason, are all the paintings that by one means or another present transparent, conscious images—images that are nothing but images.

A few lines up, I used the word “means,” or in Italian verso. The word can certainly be translated as “means,” or “way”; but it can also be translated “reverse,” or “back.” And indeed, the back of the canvas that Velázquez is painting in Las Meninas opens up the face of modern vision, and illuminates the innumerable, tormented ways, some still unexplored, in which we now can look at a work of art.

The artist believes he is “touched” by beauty, that he “alone” has the privilege, or the punishment, of access to that room where beauty’s image presides. Whether he “alone” represents a collective mandate to discover the beautiful, or whether he follows his own desire, depends on the stance, the role, that he wants to claim for himself.

Whoever hesitates to venture along the shortcut forced open by Joseph Beuys (“All men are artists”) risks being sucked into the equally indeterminate vertigo of its opposite (“All artists reveal but a single artist”). Inquietude, impatience, intolerance are the salient and symptomatic terms of a solitude as desired as it is feared. Perhaps we depend on something that we can individuate only in our own freedom, obliged as we are to be always and only ourselves.

Today, the artist knows he can actually express himself less than others. Always and forever, every day, he probes the elusiveness or the absence of expression; which, if it manifests itself, does not reveal itself in him but leaves to him the bitter task of giving it voice.

And the artist knows, more nearly than anyone, that the image he must discover is not his own but everyone’s (even if it is not for everyone). Despite appearances, destiny imposes on the artist an absence from the world stage, an exile of time and of place.

I live here, I write here, and from now on I intend to stay here. That doesn’t mean opening or closing those doors—as usual, they will remain ajar. Nor does it mean ignoring the phenomena at the forefront of contemporary art. Art, however, has to be ancient.

Perhaps something really is opening and something closing, at least for me. A different phase opens, a new field of view runs out toward the horizon; and to see it better I am ending the practice of the “grand tour,” the precarious conquest and then abandonment of “exhibition spaces,” those sterile, temporary colonies of an aleph without fixed abode. But if the work’s moment of truth coincides with its exhibition, and if its design is completed in the place that contains it, what place could ever contain the work besides the room that watches over the very possibility of its manifesting itself?

Attention is concentrated inside those four walls: seven studies,2 the ship’s logs of a solitary voyage to no specific destination, project a centripetal point of view, meant to examine, to interpret, a loss of orientation.

Thus the author leaves the scene. The work is elsewhere, untouchable.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.



1. See my conversation with Alessandra Mammì, “Il fronte del morderno,” L’Espresso, Rome, 2 October 1989, p. 149.

2. See Contemplator enim, Florence: Hopefulmonster, and Turin: Galleria Christina Stein, 1991, which illustrates possible versions of the work heralded in this writing.