Luciano Bartolini

MAMbo | Villa Delle Rose

Luciano Bartolini (1948–94) was a fastidious presence in Italian art of the ’70s and ’80s. The Tuscan artist represented a precise model for all the styles and methods that succeeded one another during those years, and of which he was an intelligent precursor and interpreter. In this retrospective, for example, one sees how in Italian art, the analytical dimension of painting was always accompanied by possibilities for “discarding,” for side-stepping, or for moving obliquely like a knight in a game of chess. In the mid-’70s, when Bartolini constructed his pieces from unfolded sheets of tissue soaked with color and placed alongside each other, his immediate antecedent was Piero Manzoni rather than Barnett Newman or Yves Klein. Bartolini’s characteristic delicacy applies not only to the physical character of the material, but also to the suppleness of the action, deliberately nonideological and nonpolitical yet always tending to diverge from its own norm or violate its internal logic. This was typical of the analytical and conceptual work being done in Italy in those days, which was perhaps less rigorous than comparable practices elsewhere, but was also more open to change—more pliant and flexible. Thus it becomes clear that the basis of the work lies in a stance of sensitivity toward the world, rather than in any classificatory and intellectual stance toward reality.

Equally important is the idea of the initiatory, wisdom-imbued, and mystical journey toward the East, something Bartolini shares not only with contemporaries such as Luigi Ontani and Francesco Clemente, but also with the older Alighiero e Boetti. Voyages to India and to the monasteries of Mount Athos whetted the radiant, transcendent, yet fleeting and provisional spirit with which Bartolini observed the world. During the ’80s, in works such as Foresta interiore, 1988, the artist replaced his geometric arrangements of squares with vertical banners and stripes, whose symbolic colors—gold, black, white—combine the Byzantine sense of the icon, eternal and holy, with a Buddhist-influenced sense of the impermanence of the world, and on which unfettered signs appear as in Eastern calligraphy.

Yet there’s nothing in Bartolini’s work of the uncritical enthusiasm of the neophyte or the banal syncretism of the New Ager. Instead, there is a deliberate loss of self, for instance, in contemplation of a fragment of an Indian temple, in a shadow that stands out among the columns or has perhaps been generated by a projecting capital. It is the shadow of things, rather than things themselves, that Bartolini conveys in his paintings on paper. In truly Eastern spirit, he sought to express the sensation of sound through sight, or to make tangible the remains of a shadow after it has passed. Thus each piece, even the most geometrically and architecturally structured works of the ’70s, resembles a haiku, a Zen poem whose words must disperse in the wind, more than a work “stopped” in time and space. Indeed, an elegant garden would have been a better context for the installation of this exhibition. Under those ideal circumstances, a breeze might have rustled the paper and with it, the colors, and might even have ripped them from their moorings and carried them off.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.