Wilma Tabacco

Wilma Tabacco makes minimal collages in ink, acrylic, and torn paper. Each monochromatic fragment is inscribed with ciphers: marks, crosses, and cancellations. The works in her exhibition “Continental Crossing” were arranged in serial groupings ordered by an invisible grid. In Sette tappe (Seven way-points, 1991), layers of semitransparent white paint and a thinly applied geometry of pale horizontal lines suspend Tabacco’s marks between alternating strata of vagueness and precision. Thus her ciphers reappear faintly but matter-of-factly, so that the drawings resemble maps or records. This repetitive method produces small variations between pictures, and marks appear as both symbolic and haptic cancellations; before anything else, Sette tappe establishes a cartography of writing.

Works of art have presently become subsumed in a logic that addresses them primarily as illustrations of generic formats. Tabacco’s deliberately mute objects require that they be addressed outside the demands of this reasoning, beyond the imperative that they be historically relevant. In effect, this is the antinomy drawn by Thierry de Duve between Modernist logic and esthetic judgment. The need to distinguish between formalist esthetics and Modernist logic was central to “Continental Crossing.” Since the two terms were traditionally thought to be interchangeable, the question arises: what would formalism without Modernism look like? For a start, in Tabacco’s painting we can see a collapse of the linkage between negative referents associated with Modern art: the drive toward the materiality of the art object, and a refusal of representation.

In her last paintings, like Cuore (Heart, 1991), Tabacco’s valorization of subjectivity was so close to a now-clichéd ’80s form that the difference was almost imperceptible. Those works self-consciously appealed to the continuum of tradition located within recognizable religious symbols—the heart, a pitcher of water, the rose. “Continental Crossing” emphasized the opposite: the mediation of reflection. This deferral was established as subject in I Luoghi della memoria 2 (Memory zones 2, 1991) by several means: the title; the allusion to reading; a diffusion of attention across several component parts; and an archaeology of weathered paper.

Almost indistinguishable from one another, Tabacco’s pictures eliminate symbolism almost altogether. The effect of torn-paper collage, tonally close monochrome, and serial process is that the artist’s calligraphy is a recording of the shape of the present, not a reference to the familiar territory of absent history, nostalgia, and nationality. These are damaged goods. Tabacco’s works, however, simulate a closeness to the arcane. Her sheets of paper are presented as if they were pages preserved by an archivist, and so they inevitably seem to refer to secrets. Since materiality is emphasized at the same time that representation (of writing) is paradoxically affirmed, it would be incorrect to say that this work simply exemplifies a denial, current among many younger painters, of issues like the politics of representation. Instead, Tabacco’s monochromes indicate the continuing rehabilitation of formalism, stripped of Modernist paradigms.

In an accompanying text, Tabacco wrote that these drawings were “set in the realm of silence.” The silence of “Continental Crossing” was not facile but, in fact, the opposite. If language often exists in a hostile relation to art, obscuring its written formation represents this artist’s trajectory of escape.

Charles Green