Gianni Colombo

THE CONTEXT FROM WHICH Gianni Colombo (1937–1993) emerged was that of late-’50s Milan, where, after the period of art informel, artists were attempting to make work that reflected new ideas about how we perceive time and space, drawing not only on the legacy of Futurism but also on Gestalt theory and scientific studies. Among the figures who left their mark on Colombo, Lucio Fontana offered a means of exploring the performative and temporal dimensions of spatial structures, while Bruno Munari, another elder artist, focused on Surrealist techniques, the role of the machine in modern society, and the active involvement of the spectator. The influence of both men endured throughout Colombo’s practice, even as he became affiliated principally with kinetic art.

In 1959, Colombo cofounded (with Giovanni Anceschi, Davide Boriani, and Gabriele De Vecchi, who were joined by Grazia Varisco a year later) the collective Gruppo T, whose members were interested in exploring—with quasi-scientific rigor—the dimension of time in the work of art, through the construction of participatory spaces that set out to annul the distinctions between sculpture, painting, and architecture. In Colombo’s case, his research moved from an exploration of the phenomenological properties of paintings and objects to the creation of fluid and unsettling immersive environments. These most fully express what art historian Guy Brett characterizes in this recent exhibition’s illuminating multiauthor catalogue as the key characteristic of kinetic art, “the close relationship between material transformation and the invitation to the spectator to participate actively in the work.”

Organized by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (the Castello di Rivoli’s chief curator when this show began, and now artistic director of Documenta 13) and Marco Scotini of the Gianni Colombo Archive, the exhibition focused primarily on Colombo’s place within the kinetic-art movement. A gallery with early works—among them drawings on paper indebted to Paul Klee, several ceramic pieces, and the artist’s thesis on Max Ernst (which included a pop-up book)—functioned as an antechamber to the presentation of Colombo’s mature work, most of which deploys mechanical and spatial devices in order to induce what Christov-Bakargiev describes as “unexpected disorientation effects in the spectator’s self-perception.”

Series such as “Strutturazioni acentriche” (Acentric Structuralizations), 1962, in which cell-like bodies rotating at a uniformly accelerated speed intermittently produce light; “Strutturazioni pulsanti” (Pulsating Structuralizations), 1959, in which modulated parallelepipeds of polystyrene, foam rubber, and wood are
moved electromechanically; and “Rilievi intermutabili” (Interchangeable Reliefs), 1959, in which spheres between wood and rubber sheets can be moved manually, radically changing the appearance of the work, reveal the artist’s dual interest in the “viewer’s intervention” and the “choice of a simple and industrial material.” The emphatically participatory nature of these works, moreover, portends the developments that would lead to Colombo’s first environment, Strutturazione cinevisuale abitabile (Habitable Kinevisual Structuralization), 1964, a room-size cube revealed to visitors through three programmed cycles of light cast into the space through its walls and edges.

With the “Rotoplastik” series, 1960, Colombo inaugurated the period of his multiples, which Christov-Bakargiev postulates he adopted as a means of suggesting “the democratic dimension of a multipliable artwork, useable by many.” These were followed by the Duchampian “Roto-Optic” pieces of 1964, in which the movement of a disk and two colored rods gives rise to geometric shapes. The intellectual environment in which these works arose had been buoyed by the publication two years earlier of “The Open Work,” in which Umberto Eco wrote of art not as a creative miracle but as the organization of matter, stressing the importance of the intervention of the user to interpret and complete it.

Eco also contributed a catalogue text to “Arte programmata: Arte cinetica, opere moltiplicate, opera aperta” (“Programmed Art: Kinetic Art, Multiple Work, Open Work”), a 1962 group exhibition in the Olivetti showroom in Milan that proved a crucial outing for Colombo. The philosopher here defined, for the first time, the nature of the artistic research being undertaken, calling it “programmed art” and insisting not only that these works required the participation of the user in order to be completed but also that, at the same time, they used mathematical rules and the element of chance as organizing principles. Colombo’s work in this show—one of his “Strutturazioni fluide” (Fluid Structuralizations), 1960—was perfectly in line with this way of reasoning, being a machine that mechanically unwinds long, circular ribbon within transparent boxes according to precise, programmed movements, which produce curvilinear shapes in nonstop, random-seeming mutations.

Colombo continued combining structures with varying, apparently chance-driven forms until he devoted himself entirely to the construction of environments. Among those at the Castello di Rivoli was Bariestesia, 1974–75, a wooden staircase, covered in black rubber, whose steps have an anomalous tilt, and Topoestesia, 1977, in which visitors walk through a series of tunnels subject to progressive topological distortion. Yet the highlight of the show was undoubtedly Spazio elastic (Elastic Space), 1967, which was reconstructed in 2008 for the Biennale of Sydney. This environment is a dark, cube-shaped immersive space, framed in its interior with elastic string that has been treated with fluorescent paint and illuminated with ultraviolet light. Brett notes in the catalogue that in Colombo’s work “one feels a dialectical movement between rational structure and free-flowing fluidity.” Spazio elastico perfectly illustrates this sense of dialectical motion: If one feels at first caught in a gridlike net, this sensation is soon disrupted by the movement of the elastic, as an electric motor starts moving the strings and the space seems to collapse right over one’s head.

Pao la Nicolin is an art critic who teaches at Bocconi University in Milan. She is art editor of Abitare.