Giulio Paolini

A small white canvas is barely defined by the diagonals and compass points that demarcate its space, like a sheet of paper prepared for a simple technical drawing for school: Giulio Paolini’s Disegno geometrico (Geometrical Drawing), 1960, marks the beginning of one of the most fruitful artistic and conceptual adventures in the recent history of art, in Italy and internationally. At the Fondazione Prada, this most conceptual of the arte povera artists—together with his “fellow traveler,” the curator Germano Celant—presented, along with Disegno geometrico, an extraordinary series of works executed through 1972. It revolves around a large central installation, Ipotesi per una mostra (Hypothesis for an Exhibition), 1963/2003, that forty years ago was too ambitious for the scant means and credibility that a young artist might have commanded from the Italian art world: the silhouettes of a crowd of visitors silk-screened in black and white onto large panes of glass. The figures are set within a space, also silk-screened, where one can make out geometric partitions of hypothetical walls of the hypothetical room where they are located.

The context of the work thus becomes part of the work itself, in keeping with Conceptual art’s most salient line of thought. But Paolini addresses the problem from a surprising and autonomous angle: He looks at the status of the work from the point of view of the space it inhabits. All his activity, in fact, involves a constant search for the definition of the space within which the work can emerge and the artist can act. “Looking at a picture,” the artist writes in the catalogue that accompanies this show, “is like standing at a window. This is what causes artist and spectator to become one figure, the same person: It is this threshold, a real borderline, that allows us to perceive that ray of light—the image of the work—before it goes further, losing intensity in the room behind us, amid worldly things.” Paolini reproposes the traditional notion of the painting as “window,” as a representation of the space, codified and delimited by its surface, outline, and frame. For him, the statement is a point of departure for an awareness of making art, of being an artist. This choice seems deliberately to evoke a rational, classicizing viewpoint typical of the Renaissance: It constructs a space that is the sole place within which relationships between figures and characters make sense, as in the perspectival space of Western tradition; the space in question is unitary and reunites every possible fragment of reality that is found immersed therein. Thus for Paolini, the spatial definition of relational possibilities, which usually constitutes the preparatory labor of a work of art, becomes the completion of the work itself. This is why all his works are theoretically enclosed within that first Geometrical Drawing, which constitutes the field of the infinite hypotheses of representation. Every subsequent work—such as the famous Giovane che guarda Lorenzo Lotto (Young Man Looking at Lorenzo Lotto), 1967, a black-and-white photograph of a work by the sixteenth-century Venetian, whose subject looks beyond the “threshold” of the painting toward the artist who is painting his portrait—is a continuous approach toward and recapitulation of “where we are,” which for Paolini becomes “who we are.”

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.