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THE RE-ENCHANTMENT OF THE WORLD: PINO PASCALI'S LATE WORKS

Pino Pascali with Columba della pace (Dove of Peace), 1965, Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, Toyota, Japan, 1965. Photo: Claudio Abate.

THE FIRST SUBSTANTIAL BODIES of sculpture Pino Pascali produced in the four short years of his mature career seem so different that they could be the work of separate artists. Pascali emerged in 1964–65 with a series of object paintings: canvases seemingly wearing bikinis, bearing bulging pregnant bellies, or pursing pouty lips—works clearly connected to the playfully sexual imagery of Pop. In 1965, he used automobile parts to make fake tanks, cannons, and bombs for the series “Armi” (Weapons), which was, fittingly, shown at Galleria Sperone in Turin, then Italy’s center of car manufacturing. In 1966–67, the “Finte sculture” (Feigned Sculptures) followed, for which he stretched canvas over wooden armatures to suggest the macabre but bloodless forms of dinosaur skeletons and decapitated giraffes. The artist’s last two major bodies of work were somewhat more connected: The 1967 group of works “Elementi naturali” (Elements of Nature) was based on features of the landscape such as rivers, irrigation channels, plowed fields, and seas; the “Ricostruzione della natura” (Reconstruction of Nature), 1968, included bristle worms made of scouring brushes, and wire-wool sculptures based on objects from Tarzan movies and the comic B.C., such as an animal trap and a rope bridge. At the 1968 Venice Biennale Pascali presented further works from this series, filling a room with mushrooms, drawbridges, and vines. Given his sense for the fantastical, I can imagine he might have gone on in the ’70s to become a glam-rock concert producer or a movie director, but, sadly, guessing his next move is a futile game—the most imaginative sculptor to emerge in Europe in the ’60s was killed in a motorbike crash in September 1968.

The distinctness of his various bodies of work was not just a consequence of Pascali’s restless energy but the result of a determination (shared by many artists of the mid-’60s) to challenge clichéd ideas about the artist-author. Yet while his contemporaries questioned the Romantic conception of the artist’s touch by having works fabricated mechanically or by using chance or serial systems to determine the structures of their work, Pascali took issue with the notion of a consistent strategy or style, refusing to create works that could easily be recognized as his. This approach was akin to that of Michelangelo Pistoletto, whose Ogetti in meno (Minus Objects), 1965–66, also look like works by multiple people—perhaps both Pascali and Pistoletto had a premonition of how closely some of their Italian colleagues would later be identified with their signature products, whether Mario Merz with his igloos or Giuseppe Penone with his trees. The startling diversity of Pascali’s work might once have posed problems for his dealers, but now it raises different challenges for curators: Given Pascali’s treatment of each body of work as distinct, do you show all the artist’s series together, or not? It’s possible to imagine an exhibition one day where the “Armi” and the “Finte sculture” would be shown near the last groups of works—albeit ideally in separate rooms—illustrating what a jump it was for Pascali to make sculptures based on animal forms, or how he moved from using industrial materials to re-create contemporary weaponry into using domestic materials to conjure a world of prehistoric fantasy. The space that held Pascali’s most recent exhibition, at Camden Arts Centre in London, has only three galleries, however, and curator Martin Holman made a brave decision when planning the artist’s first solo show in the UK. Faithful to Pascali’s approach, Holman concentrated on the artist’s most outrageous and materially inventive works—those making up the “Ricostruzione della natura”—and brought in just a few pieces from the previous year’s “Elementi naturali.” There are only nineteen extant sculptures from the final series, though, and most are extremely fragile, so my fear going into the Camden show was that the institution would simply not have managed to get the loans that it needed to do justice to the artist’s last works.

My concern evaporated as soon as I entered. Many of the objects that I had seen only in reproduction were larger than I had expected. On reflection, this was not surprising—many are gigantic inflations of small things. But size itself was not Pascali’s only gambit: He treated scale in interestingly contradictory ways even in the brief moment of his career represented in the exhibition. Though most objects are roughly our own size (we do not loom over them, nor do they tower above us), they have different relationships to the objects on which they are based. And though many works involve enlargement (a huge mushroom, a gigantic worm, an enormous spider), some are “correctly” scaled: For instance, the animal trap is just big enough to enclose a large mammal. Other works, such as a shoulder-high drawbridge and a rope bridge, are smaller than the things they mimic (neither was in the show). If the imagery of the artist’s last sculptures veers from the fantastical to the commonplace, the play of scale conveyed by the Camden installation reinforced the sense of an oscillation between obdurate fact and exaggerated fiction, making for a powerfully visceral experience.

View of Pino Pascali’s installation at the 34th Venice Biennale, 1968. Photo: La Biennale di Venezia-Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee.

The question of scale is related to the dynamic between long and close-up views. As we look at the artist’s series of pieces from 1968, the sculptures at first seem a group of easily identifiable figures: a trap, a bow and arrow, a sundial, a bristle worm. No great surprise occurs when approaching one of these objects and walking around it, as would be the case with contemporaneous American sculpture by Donald Judd or Eva Hesse, where different perspectives and changing qualities of reflected and absorbed light change one’s very understanding of the structure. Instead, the surprises in the “Ricostruzione della natura” pieces come when one gets close enough to get a sense of the unexpected sculptural substances they are made from. We find fake fur covering the mushroom and the spider, household brushes forming the bristle worms, and steel wool providing the body of the other works. In some cases, Pascali took the steel wool off rolls (e.g., in Coda [Tail], 1968), and in others he simply threaded scouring pads over a wire armature (e.g., for Trappola [Trap], 1968). Mostly he left the material as is, though in Meridiana (Sundial), 1968, he coated furniture foam with a layer of paint.

Although one might think the experience would be disappointing or deflating, it is actually amazing when one gets close enough to recognize what these materials are. They are so unexpected as sculptural substances, and so unlike the things they appear to stand for—whether animal hair, vines, or vegetable fibers. In describing one of his earlier groups of sculptures as “feigned,” Pascali had suggested the difference between his work and classical sculptures made of marble or bronze, but there is nothing unreal about the substances he used. They turn one’s thoughts away from the fantastical imagery and toward the normal places where they are found: kitchens, workshops, cheap clothing shops, and so on. The fake fur in Pascali’s works has a particular material quality—it is plastic, kitschy, and glistening. For the spider, Vedova blu (Blue Widow), 1968, he chose a tone quite close to Yves Klein’s International Klein Blue, but in place of the indeterminate ethereality of Klein’s blue we have something much more physical—as physical, in fact, as the tufted fiberglass Piero Manzoni used for some of his “Achromes,” 1957–63.

Seeing Pascali’s objects together at the Camden installation suggested a revealing way to consider his project more generally—and even to get a new perspective on the debate around his reception. Pascali’s work has been seen as a wide-eyed celebration of the powers of the imagination in the face of industrial culture. In this reading, Pascali reclaims primitive man’s powers of invention as a way of countering industrial modernity; his attraction to the natural and agricultural world, for instance, signals his yearning for the pure elements of water and earth. Responding to these positions and their imputation of naïveté to the artist, some scholars have more recently argued that Pascali in fact wanted to show to what extent the realm of the imagination has been colonized by commerce—as well as the degree to which our fantasies are preprogrammed echoes of Hollywood culture. The sculptures might come from the worlds of Tarzan, comics, fairy tales, and so on, but what is important about these fictional sources is that they are themselves consumer commodities, at once responding to and fostering the romanticization of the primitive.

The three examples shown in Camden from Pascali’s penultimate series, the “Elementi naturali,” bolster this second approach to his work. The two earth-covered boxes jutting out from high on the far wall of the main gallery were 1 mc di terra (1 m³ of Earth) and 2 mc di terra (2 m³ of Earth), both 1967; the first is longer, the second wider. Here earth submits to measurement and rationalization. The boxes appear as a riposte to Minimalism, with Pascali exchanging Judd’s sleek metals for crusty brown Pugliese mud. But they are also an acknowledgment of the fate of the countryside, which, no longer a refuge from the city, submits to the regime of industrialized agriculture. Fiume con foce tripla (River with Three Mouths), 1968, likewise reflects the containment of nature: Though the title suggests a river rushing out to sea, what we see are twelve identical low trays filled with water. Riverbanks have been replaced by metallic containers; graceful meanders make way for sharp angles where one tray abuts the next; rushing water becomes stagnant, arrested. At Camden, this piece was installed brilliantly in its own room with windows on two sides. Daylight reflected off the trays, but the effect was primarily to illuminate the accumulations of dust that settled on top of the water. If the title makes us think of the grandeur of a great river, the object itself recalls waste-polluted canals. The work can, moreover, be rearranged in other configurations, for example Canali di irrigazione (Irrigation Channels), in which the trays of water are placed next to sculptures representing furrows of plowed earth. The unusual idea of a set of components turning into other possible works seems in this case less about the versatility of the sculptural object and more an allegory of the way in which industry diverts nature to whatever course suits it.

Pino Pascali with Vedova blu (Blue Widow), 1968, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome, 1968. Photo: Claudio Abate.

Yet anyone who reads Pascali’s art only as a lament for the loss of pastoral innocence or the colonization of the imagination by the culture industry is missing its evident playfulness. Like his contemporary Alighiero Boetti, who in 1967 made an object from metal tubes that he titled Collina (Hill), Pascali was interested in the way basic manufactured objects could suggest very different-looking natural forms. It isn’t that the objects are a kind of abstraction of the referent; instead, they are a shorthand for it. We see water-filled trays; we think “river.” Pascali knew this way of seeing was close to the way children easily understand a few wooden blocks as a castle. For an adult it can be liberating to revert to this simpler mode of perception and signification: to see a set of mud-covered corrugated metal structures as a field or let blue-dyed water stand in for the sea. If, in the “Elementi naturali,” Pascali tested the effects of letting industrial or commonplace objects summon up natural forms, in the “Ricostruzione della natura” he asked a different but related question: What happens when the most everyday of materials (steel wool, scouring brushes) are used to make giant worms or jungle traps? Because viewers of this latter series can recognize the constituent materials from their own kitchen sinks, they imagine not only strange creatures and faraway places but also how they might transform the materials that surround them to conjure a life less ordinary. But more than this, because the materials are barely transformed (the scouring pads threaded along the wires of Trappola could easily be unthreaded and used again to clean dishes), the viewer senses that a transformation of the everyday can only ever be a temporary suspension of disbelief. The fantasy is all the more precious because it is transient.

Pascali’s desire to explore the tension between the mundane and the fantastical, and the related interest in a tenuous and provisional repurposing of commonplace objects, brings us to the question of theater. Pascali had some training as a set designer and in 1964 made a painted construction called Teatrino (Little Theater) with orange curtains on top of a black block. In some pictures of it, a pineapple on little legs takes the stage. But—after a few early performance pieces (and although he became known for the crazy outfits he wore to the openings of Pistoletto’s exhibitions)—rather than creating actual performances, Pascali put his theatricality to use in a sequence of extraordinary photographs of him with his works. These photographs are nothing like the more famous late-’60s images of serious sculptors at work (think Serra throwing lead), nor are they pictures of the artist in the studio in an unusual engagement with his or her materials (Hesse holding up a sheet of cellophane or lying under a tangle of cords). Instead, Pascali had himself pictured dressed in camouflage manning a cannon from the “Armi”; balancing on a bomb as if riding it while it flew through the air; tiptoeing through the slight gap between trays of water in 32 mq di mare circa (32 m² of Sea Approximately), 1967, where he balances as one would if scaling an outcrop of rocks rising over the waves. The next year, he lay down beneath his spider, curled his legs over his shoulders, and stuck his arms out from his sides as if he were the creature’s baby (or its next meal). On one occasion, he posed inside his steel-wool trap with only his arms protruding. On another, he had himself photographed in a field with his bristle worms, sunbathing with them and tending to their needs.

All these images should be understood not as documents of actions, events, or performances, but as a further body of work that complements his sculptural practice. Pascali disseminated these images in parallel to his shows, through exhibition invitations, announcements, and small catalogues. The spectacularization of contemporary art was powerfully felt by artists by the mid-1960s, and Pascali was keenly aware of the ways in which publicity photographs were turning sculptures into images, and of the pressures on artists to be showmen. (Just before the opening of his 1968 exhibition at Galleria l’Attico in Rome, he even dressed up in a fake-fur skirt, covered his head with raffia, and posed for pictures as a kind of wild caveman.) Taken together, the photographs of Pascali and his work hold up a mirror to this culture of spectacle. But it is a warped mirror, because he made sure his images were so absurd that they exceeded their manifest purpose of publicity or promotion. Indeed, they have a far more important function—to provoke his audience to enjoy his works with an irreverent attitude and an open mind. These pictures were not meant as instructions on how literally to behave with the objects: Pascali did not ask spectators to move or handle the works, nor did he expect them to try out his animal trap. The photographs simply invited viewers to follow the artist’s lead into this animate, imaginary world.

Pino Pascali with Bachi da setola (Bristle Worms), 1968, outside Rome, 1968. © Archivio L’Attico/Fabio Sargentini.

Pascali once insisted that “when an artist makes an exhibition, he is unavoidably putting on a show, but it’s not like in the theater: The sculptures are not actors, and they’re not scenery, either.” These words indicate how strongly Pascali held to a certain idea of his medium, and how far he was from wanting to treat his sculptures as animated characters or props. The way the materials function so differently in close-up is also in accordance with Pascali’s belief that the gallery was the necessary site for the encounter with sculpture to take place. When he did take his works out of this context, the act itself was not for anyone else’s benefit. He brought his bristle worms out to the countryside just so that he could be shown relaxing with them. Compared with the more radical tendencies of 1970s sculpture, it’s true that some of his attitudes might seem conservative, until we realize what other figures have achieved using similar means: I think in particular of Fischli & Weiss, whose work, like Pascali’s, is also often charged by the difference between the image it creates and the material of which it is made—for instance, their sausage-meat “carpet shop” or their unfired clay sculptures of supposedly hardy objects such as boots and chains. With a sense of humor akin to that of the Swiss artists, moreover, Pascali ultimately proposes the most unorthodox rearrangements of our perception of the everyday. Indeed, his motto might have been the combination of Marx and Lautréamont that was used as the title of a group show at Moderna Museet in Stockholm the year after Pascali died: “Transform the world! Poetry must be made by all!” The fairy-tale toadstool Pascali covered in fake fur and titled Contropelo (Against the Fur), 1968, is typical of his art: A storybook archetype mixed with a modern material and named after a backcombed hairstyle, this mushroom does not allow a hallucinogenic escape from the modern world but, rather, re-entrenches us in all its actual strangeness.

Mark Godfrey is a curator of contemporary art at Tate Modern in London.