Sergio Lombardo

Fondazione Mudima

Sergio Lombardo has cut an anomalous, isolated, and eclectic figure on the Italian scene since the late ’50s. Best known for his contribution to Italian Pop art in paintings of large, black silhouettes of famous people captured in gesti tipici, or characteristic gestures, Lombardo suddenly pulled away from that movement, around 1965, to tackle aesthetic research of a scientific and psychological nature—applying algorithms to “aesthetic stimuli” to test “empirical valuation.” In 1979 he founded the Rivista di Psicologia dell’Arte (Journal of the Psychology of Art).

This small retrospective included landmark moments from his career: several of the “Gesti tipici,” 1961–63, including silhouettes of famous political figures such as JFK, Khrushchev, and de Gaulle; a pair of installations, Supercomponibili (Super-units), 1966–67—simple three-dimensional elements made from black and white Formica strips, which can be assembled along the wall or floor in a variety of combinations; and a series of twelve “Heawood maps” (named after their inventor, the mathematician Percy John Heawood) from 2003. This last body of work is difficult to understand in its variability, until one considers it together with the “Gesti tipici,” and indeed, the juxtaposition provides an interpretive key. A Heawood map is a subdivision of flat surfaces into sectors that the inventor called “empires,” which are characterized by their having “colonies” that belong to the same country but do not share a common boundary and must be coded with the same color. Lombardo’s chromatic choice revolves around only two colors, a dark emerald green and a dark magenta, each differentiated into six different tones by added increments of white; these arbitrary but extremely rigid rules allow 479,001,600 possible permutations within which the artist chooses to work; he then tests the results on the public, which is found to take into consideration issues of chromatic balance or “status effect” (the perception that colors positioned at the bottom and to the sides seem darker, more solid, and more traditionally beautiful).

“Beauty,” the artist writes, “does not lie in the fact that we are dealing with an extremely difficult puzzle, but in the fact that the extreme complexity of these structures is a function of aesthetic values that cannot be achieved in uncontrived fashion.” He continues: “These paintings cannot be imitated, but only copied, or reproduced. . . . Since in these maps every formal or chromatic decision has been subjected to experiential proof and responds to very complex laws of optimization, they can only be reproduced just as they are, or they are made worse.” All this brings to mind the so-called micro-aesthetics of German philosopher Max Bense (1910–1990), so fashionable in certain abstract art circles in the early ’60s—a milieu in which aesthetic research focused on finding points of contact with mathematical or at most psychological objectification to establish a clear and scientific basis for concepts of pleasure and beauty.

Lombardo’s beginnings would seem to remain outside this rigorous program, yet he doesn’t repudiate that work; on the contrary, he has presented it together with the recent “maps.” But what does the Pop, graphic idiom of the “Gesti tipici” really have to do with all this? Lombardo investigates the utopia of sociology because, in the end, he would like to apply that mathematical objectivity to human actions, to the rhetoric of gestures, to the seduction of mass attitudes, without taking account of the content of ideas.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.

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