New York

Pier Paolo Calzolari

The six sculptures in this exhibition, all associated with the Conceptual art that flourished in the late ’60s and early ’70s, are as quietly vital as when they were first made, and now freshly pertinent. Where they were once important because of their integration of heterogeneous materials (including neon, tobacco leaves, a flute, a refrigerator compressor, candles) into a poetic antiart, they are now important because of their role as markers on a secret path to transcendental wisdom. In all of these “Keatsian” works there is a latent religiosity, a preoccupation with the notion of the divine, and, using contemporary materials, a reconceptualization of the symbols that evoke it.

The sense of progress to some unknown but higher destination is perhaps most transparent in L’aria vibra del ronzio degli insetti (The air vibrates with the buzzing of insects, 1970), where an unstable curvilinear ladder ascends to an invisible realm. Is it the ladder of Jacob’s vision, on which the angels moved up and down between heaven and earth? Made of a continuous loop of refrigerator piping hooked up to a compressor, it is covered with white frost and certainly seems to belong to another world. Also covered with frost—in deep freeze, as it were—the wooden flute of Un flauto dolce per farmi suonare (A sweet flute to make me play, 1968) can only play heavenly music. The frost that coats many of Calzolari’s works is beautiful in its equivocation: its whiteness symbolizes the sleep of angels and the nullity of death, which, in the end, are the same.

A floor work entitled Non (Not, 1969–70) consists of a row of nine identical “winged” pieces, each with the word “non” in blue neon flanked by a pair of dried tobacco leaves. The serial repetition, which underscores the literalness of the repeated materials, seems less important for its Minimalist aspect than for its spiritual connotations. The effect is like a stop-motion photograph of a bird or butterfly in flight, but the “non” that forms the thorax of the peculiar butterfly (a symbol of the soul) suggests a heavy bodily element that resists spiritual flight.

Underneath the blithe spirit of these works is a sense of determination and struggle. Calzolari wants the works to transport us, not just sit there in the inertness of their material novelty. Rapsodie inepte (Inept rhapsodies, 1969), an incomplete infinity symbol made of tin wire, tobacco leaves and neon, is a kind of self-reflection. Calzolari is aware that his rhapsodic works may fail, may not lift our spirits to a higher realm, may degenerate into an interesting combination of materials (that is, regress to a condition of antiart), may seem to make only an art point. An untitled wall work from 1970 shown here, which consists of two white candles and two slightly uneven white neon tubes, may end up as nothing but a contrast between natural incandescent light and mechanical neon light. We may miss the irony of the contrast—how the natural light is less pure and intense, and so less spiritual in import, than the very white neon light—and, without that irony, the gallery may look like an empty space rather than a sacred one.

Art historically, Calzolari stretches the Surrealist notion of the poetic object to the spiritual breaking point. The ordinary object that becomes spontaneously poetic, looked at in a certain light—in Calzolari’s case, frosty white light—is here laden with an import that it may not be able to sustain, making it, after all, just another vaguely enigmatic art object.

Donald Kuspit