Giulio Paolini

From the beginning of his artistic career Giulio Paolini has placed himself at the end of a trajectory that starts with the structure of the view in the desexualized, monocular glance of Brunelleschian perspective, and runs through what is commonly defined as the Modern era. (One collage in this show, La cosa stessa [The thing itself, 1984), seemed to relate directly to the second of Bruneileschi’s lost tavolette.) This trajectory was challenged by 19th-century mannerism (Neoclassicism, Romanticism, the Nazarene and Pre-Haphaelite groups, Realism, and Symbolism), broken by Impressionism, and exploded by the early avant-garde, and Paolini does not revive it; rather, he examines its sources. He continues to seek the originary measure of representational space, and to see in his mind’s eye (and here is his affinity to conceptual art) the one moment, the point of origin and escape, the zero matter from which the big bang of the represented world was generated—the grande parade of Western art, the changements of the décor du Temple.

One of the allegorical works in this show has the title Le Décor change (The decor changes, 1983), and it consists of a golden pillow sitting on fragments of white paper. Some of them bear written phrases: “L’Arte e lo spazio (per Martin Heidegger)” (Art and space [for Martin Heidegger]), “Era vero (Averroè)” (it was true [Averroës]), “Cythère”—all titles or emblems of earlier works. But these phrases are symptomatic not of a return, but of a mirroring, a glance; they constitute not a participatory sinking into the material of representation, but a reflection on it. From his earliest work—and this bears repeating—Paolini renounces glorification of both the model and the simulacrum. In his indefinite series of duplication in Western art, including his own, he investigates not the question of subject matter, media, or icon, but rather the rationale that determines and is fundamental to the process of representation in its totality. (this he achieves secretly, through impact and surprise.) Paolini’s extreme conceptual reductivism puts him in touch with the origins he seeks, and in them he discovers abstraction at the same time that he announces its decline.

The glance for Paolini has two end points. The source, or vanishing point (in terms of perspective), is the dematerialized and dematerializing glance of the Brunelleschi of the tavolette; at the other end is the contemporary artist, the child of Renaissance perspective (as Icarus, the pseudo angel who fell to sea when he flew too near the sun, is the son of Daedalus, Athenian architect of the Labyrinth). Along the line connecting these two points are only fragments, T.S. Eliot’s “bits of paper whiling in the cold wind/That blows before and after time”—which, in their literal form, Paolni pastes within his collages, places beneath the golden pillow, lets overflow from an opulent cylindrical cover (Era vero (Averroè), 1983–84). What remains is merely memory, which eludes abstraction, consisting only of fragments of subtle duplications and feelings of loss, of falls, of ruptures. Above the framed photograph of the sea in Cythère, 1983–84, the glass is broken, as if by a hammer, at the vanishing point—the point of the image’s escape. Beneath the horizon line of the photograph the web of broken glass covers the magmatic mass of the sea. This is the hypothetical site of Icarus’ fall, of the rupture of the surface, of plunge and loss. On the floor below, fragments of plaster wings refer to that fall and loss; nothing else remains, and what does remain is little. In Gianni Vattimd’s words, “One cannot undertake with impunity the way of reflection, nor can one with impunity attempt duplication.”

Pier Luigi Tazzi

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.