PRINT November 2013

Nick Mauss

Carlo Scarpa, preliminary drawing, ca. 1970, for the Brion Tomb and Sanctuary, 1969–78, San Vito d’Altivole, Italy.

CARLO SCARPA’S WORKS are permeated by a certain attentive empathy toward objects, materials, and artworks. This feeling materializes in real but irrational apertures, thought vectors, and processional spaces gauzily layered in the mind—so that architecture becomes a garland unraveling, rather than a discipline governed by exigencies of production or consumption. With its Venn-diagram display windows, the pressed-concrete facade of the former Gavina furniture showroom in Bologna, Italy, for example, breaks radically with the centuries-old house it invades, while paying homage through difference. Ground down to softness by four hundred years of friction, the original stairs of the Querini Stampalia in Venice are sectionally clad in new marble slabs that appear to have been simply laid over and against the worn-out treads and rises. Strangely delicate, even halting, this alteration seems to want as much to protect the original form as to draw attention, through open margins and slits in the slabs, to the accumulated traces of past ascensions. Feeling the tension of both upward motion and declension, you realize that Scarpa has invented an apparatus that coaxes out both diachronic and synchronic experience, rendering the transition between them nearly painful.

Scarpa’s work is a text structured by the intricacies of its combinatory units and internal links, drawing the eye (and its body) toward points of contact and giving rise to spiraling thoughts about how the whole thing holds together. As the incomprehensible system opens up—this synthesizing of fragments from the future with fragments from the past—you are suddenly flowered by the question of whether a particular element is functional or ornamental, or whether a separation between these modes even matters. Indeed, I often find it difficult to give names to the things Scarpa has designed, as if he had drawn them into a new sense and invented them for a purpose beyond practicality or knowledge. Walking through Scarpa’s sensitive interventions at the Museo Correr or the Accademia in Venice has its parallel in the experience of reading Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji: extraordinary slowness, partiality, flicker, and the constant surprise of poetry, strung through the sense of transience or mono no aware, the pathos of objects.

Passages of emptiness—but there is no such thing as emptiness in Scarpa’s work—constitute another aspect of his alienation techniques. The emptiness suggests breathing, digression, and new sensorial knowledge. In his display ensembles for artworks, he stubbornly pursued the perfection of each object as a dialogic fragment. Every work and artifact was intended to be encountered as a continually unfolding discovery with aesthetic conditions, demands, inclinations. Scarpa silently brushed aside dull, equivocal assumptions about audience and pedagogy and inherited museum constructs, wondering instead how a picture by, say, Antonello da Messina should be tilted away from the wall if it were to be approached through a long enfilade with a view of a piazza.

What kind of public did Scarpa imagine? With all of his work, you have to answer this question backward, or through inversion. Drawings for some of his museum designs—in addition to the specific presentation conceptualized for each artwork via devices designed directly for, to, or against it—also feature a stylized fantasy figure. This wispy Felliniesque proxy stands in for the observer but is so wildly out of sync with the devotional rigor of the rest of the plan that one is left to wonder how Scarpa imagined the body of the viewer in relation to these scrupulously articulated correspondences among objects, planes, patina, scale, color, and pose. In that sense, Scarpa’s project is akin to that of a jeweler, whose work is a process of translation that relates a precious stone to a fantasized body—and to gravity, to motion, to time. The work of interpretation in Scarpa’s displays is so nautilus-like, spiraling, and complex that the events he creates can be inexplicably jarring. It is almost as if the spaces and objects are thrown into empathetic interrelationships—and the viewer moves among these scenes as an interpolator. The welded armature that holds a bronze bust of a man aloft shocks in its intimate revelation of the cognitive struggle as inchoate thought brought to a point of clarity. Scarpa asks, What is required to make the thing visible, sensible? What are the right clamps, poles, and easels to dynamize, isolate, cradle, and understand the work, to thrust it into new thoughts? Scarpa’s display devices are site-specific, but, more important, they are necessitated—even commanded—by the objects they raise, tilt, pivot, suspend in a volume of air, dreaming backward from the object, upside down.

Nick Mauss is an artist who lives in New York.