Gianfranco Baruchello, (s.t.), 1965, India ink, enamel, brass, wood, 15 3/4 × 14 1/8 × 3/4".

Gianfranco Baruchello, (s.t.), 1965, India ink, enamel, brass, wood, 15 3/4 × 14 1/8 × 3/4".

Gianfranco Baruchello

Deichtorhallen / Sammlung Falckenberg

Gianfranco Baruchello, (s.t.), 1965, India ink, enamel, brass, wood, 15 3/4 × 14 1/8 × 3/4".

It all starts with ABC. Between 1959 and 1962, Gianfranco Baruchello painted Primo alfabeto (First Alphabet), covering the canvas with a set of pictorial icons of his own invention, hieroglyphs inspired by sources such as books and window casements. Together with several assemblages from the same period, including Quelli che verrano A (Those Who Will Come A), 1959, the painting opened “Certain Ideas,” the comprehensive retrospective of Baruchello’s oeuvre curated by Deichtorhallen’s director, Dirk Luckow. The choice was an apt one, since these early works already feature two of the most salient characteristics of the oeuvre Baruchello has built over the past fifty-five years: a sensitive ear for language and the use of unusual materials. As he branched out into virtually every major medium in the art of the past half century, from sculpture and painting to film and installation art, traces of texts or found objects lifted from everyday life remained a steady presence in his work. Verifica incerta (Disperse Exclamatory Phase) (Uncertain Verification [Disperse Exclamatory Phase]), 1964–65, for example, is a cinematic montage constructed from movie clips, mostly from Hollywood productions, to create a fragmentary plot that directs the viewer’s attention to the connections among seemingly incompatible scenes rather than to the progression of the narrative itself.

The shift of focus from the outward appearance of things to the affinities among them also informs Baruchello’s paintings. At first blush, it seems that there isn’t much to see in them: From a distance, their surfaces are simply whitish, washed-out monochromes. Looking more closely, one discovers structures composed of microscopically small symbols, figures, and words. Works such as Altopiano dell’incerto (High Plateau of Uncertainty), 1965, suddenly reveal themselves as maps of an undiscovered world, filled with information on politics, history, biology, and agriculture. Still, Baruchello’s pictures do not function quite like diagrams: The artist leaves the interconnections between the individual elements undefined and further compounds the difficulty of reading them by using, for example, several languages—Italian, French, German—in one and the same work. Nor do the works’ titles offer any helpful clues.

Yet however much Baruchello keeps us at arm’s length, he does not pursue mystification for its own sake. On the contrary, his works are intimately bound up with the contemporary world and positively demand active involvement. With their diminutive letters, numbers, and signs, they pull our gaze in, though we are never at risk of losing ourselves in them. We are challenged to come up with our own explanations of how the facts and data laid out before us might have to be construed. The artist himself does not offer one correct solution, but instead invites us to discover the possibilities implicit in his art and to exercise our powers of imagination and reflection.

This anti-ideological stance probably has its roots in Baruchello’s experiences during and after World War II. His love of literature is evident in his works, but so is his profound aversion to the dogmatic rhetoric to which he was subjected under the Fascist dictatorship in power during his childhood years. He is very much aware of both sides of the power of language, of its ability to overwhelm and intimidate as well as liberate and inspire. As Baruchello also knows, language remains indispensable: It gives us access to the world. Rarely has art spread its light more inconspicuously, humbly, and poetically than in these enigmatic works.

Sven Beckstette

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.