Giulio Paolini

Le Nouveau Museé

This retrospective exhibition of Giulio Paolini’s art was a considerable achievement. To present 25 years of an artist’s work, including most of his major pieces, and respecting not only the evolution of his esthetic decisions but also their different manifestations over time—this is not the easiest of tasks, for the artist as for the curator. Paolini himself worked on the large catalogue, which presents most of his writings together with extensive documentation of his work. In the catalogue as in the show, the esthetic approach prevails over any didactic one.

Strangely, the most impressive part of the exhibition was that presenting Paolini’s early production. His work from the beginning of the ’70s on is well known, and while it is always interesting and rigorous, it does not surprise so much as it offers the secure feeling of a perfectly controlled artistic output. The work of the ’60s, however, which assures Paolini a leading position in the Italian art of the time, is less known.

Paolini’s work has always dealt with cultural structures and artistic or esthetic ideological processes, even if not directly through its iconographic elements. This remark almost suggests a questioning of the unity of the art, yet through the late ’60s the elements Paolini uses, pragmatically determined through perception and understanding, point to their own purest essence, avoiding any iconographical arbitrariness in order to bring out their original, basic arbitrariness, the ambiguity of their necessity. Paolini’s work, then, constitutes an analysis of the visual arts, and a critical, dialectical debate on their functions. Unlike post-Minimalist or conceptual work in northern Europe or America, Paolini’s art avoids formalism and any kind of psychological interest; its sociological aspects are immediately brought to a speculative level of quasi-metaphysical concern.

A form of tautology plays a role in Paolini’s work insofar as in each piece one element is always absent or indeterminate. In Giovane the guarda Lorenzo Lotto (Young man looking at Lorenzo Lotto, 1967), for example, Lotto’s young man looks out at the viewer as the viewer looks at the work. Where then is Lotto? Is he the enigmatic absence contained in every historical object, and preventing it from being seen clearly? Does the intense presence insisted on by the young man’s eyes, which meet the viewer’s, make the viewer into Lotto? In the early ’70s Paolini develops a network of mythological figures existing as historical forms determined by neoclassical iconography. Lotto becomes Antonio Canova or Johann Joachim Winckelmann, and the artist unlooses his senses in the search for meaning. The work discloses a strong theatricality, not formally but in terms of convention. Everything becomes scenery displaying the ordering of representation. By the same token, art is replaced by the myth of esthetics. The problematic relationship between frame and edge in the earlier work mutates into the connection between stage and scenery, which also presents an allegory of myth and history. For if myth in Paolini’s work is determined by art history, it is hard to understand whether the scenery of representation in his work comprises a setting for a play that does not exist or for a play that has no author. What is the artist’s own role in his work? Is he an unemployed set designer, or a peeping tom in an antiquarian shop?

The project Paolini published in Artforum in December, 1983, “Triumph of Representation,” was realized in this show in a large darkened room. The images were projected onto the walls of the room in a multiplying series of views. These allegorical figures, with their air of the 18th century, are in one way identical, but also represent the other to each other; symbolic attributes of vision—perspective lines, frames, eyes, etc.—frame them in a collage apparatus like a map, or a technical drawing from an encyclopedia. Does “Triumph of Representation” posit a viewer who looks at another, infinitely repeated viewer as a kind of postponed possibility for identity? Does it symbolize the taking of attributes for essences? Does it show how the museum seals the representational process as a sacred function, or is it an empty projection which cannot attain the intensity of a phantasy?

Paolini’s early work throws an interesting light on these questions. Their strongly ontological analysis argues that no illusion is possible without a stage. It is not, however, the scenery that delineates the stage, but the stage itself that orders the scenery and by extension the illusion. A stage without scenery comprises a pragmatic order which unmasks illusion but which surprises in itself; a scenery without stage produces only delusion. Paolini brings this melancholy syndrome of art historians and museum curators to public view, No longer does the young man look at Lorenzo Lotto; instead, a professional artist looks at Erwin Panofsky. In myth, as in history, the world is always missing.

Denys Zacharopoulos