New York

Enrico Castellani, Superficie nera (Black Surface), 2003, acrylic on canvas, 39 3/8 x 47 1/4".

Enrico Castellani, Superficie nera (Black Surface), 2003, acrylic on canvas, 39 3/8 x 47 1/4".

Enrico Castellani

Haunch of Venison New York

Enrico Castellani, Superficie nera (Black Surface), 2003, acrylic on canvas, 39 3/8 x 47 1/4".

Enrico Castellani is nothing if not consistent. He has followed seemingly without deviation the path he broached in 1959 with his first Superficie nera (Black Surface). He has unswervingly striven to lend an undifferentiated, uninflected monochromatic (or achromatic) canvas something of the spatial richness and luminosity of traditional painting purely through the physical manipulation of the canvas itself—typically inserting nails beneath its surface, so that it protrudes and draws back in complex patterns at times reminiscent of those in the Op paintings of his British contemporary Bridget Riley. But whereas Riley has highlighted the idea that her paintings are rooted in perceptions of nature—on this account her work can be seen as an extreme extension of systemization and depersonalization of ordinary perception in the Post-Impressionism of Seurat—Castellani gives no hint that his paintings could have any other origin than abstract systems. Yet gazing at any of his surfaces (and in this recent show I would particularly cite the three Superficie nera paintings of 2003) it is easy to think of rippling water or the like. The life of these paintings is in this impression of movement, which allies Castellani with not only Op but also the kinetic art of his generation.

Another aspect of Castellani’s exploration of light and space through the monochrome in relief, this one originating a little more recently, in 1961, can be found in his corner pieces—in this show represented by three works designated Superficie angolare cromata (Chrome Corner Surface), 2010–11. In these, the canvas is stretched between two perpendicular edges to form a delicate curve, but in two of the examples, a single arc made of metal forces the canvas out again from behind at the center. In her catalogue essay, Marcia E. Vetrocq rightly describes the resulting curved surfaces as “nothing less than voluptuous”; in form they become something of an inversion of Marcel Duchamp’s Female Fig Leaf, 1950. The volupté of these pieces owes a lot, as well, to their chrome surfaces. The specific metallic sheen is quite different from that of the silver Castellani has used, for instance, in the Superficie argento (Silver Surface), 2002, in this show—it gives a sense of nebulous depth (rather than of simple reflectivity) while at the same time seeming more tactile.

Given the length of Castellani’s career, it’s curious that what appears to be a distinct lack of development has not been affected by the law of diminishing returns. As evidenced also in another recent exhibition of his, at Galerie Tornabuoni in Paris, which included works from throughout his career, his paintings of the past decade evidence just as much vitality and conviction as his breakthrough efforts as a young artist. He is still capable of finding fresh potential within the parameters he set himself some fifty years ago.

If the exhibition title “Castellani e Castellani” (Castellani and Castellani) nevertheless seemed to argue against the artist’s singleness of purpose, the name was justified by the inclusion, along with recent works, of an unusual piece that represents something of a tangent to Castellani’s career, a road not taken. This was a room-size installation, Spazio ambiente (Ambient Space), 1967/1970—an all-white environment employing both the curved corners stretched across corners and the rippling effects of the nail-inflected surfaces along with less expected linear evocations of perspectival recession to generate the feeling of an empty space mirroring itself to infinity. In this piece, the discreet allusiveness of Castellani’s other canvases, their evocations of nature and body, give way to dematerialization, a seductive effacing of architectural boundaries and of the surfaces rendered so emphatically present in his other work.

Barry Schwabsky