View of “Paolo Icaro,” 2014–15. Foreground: Cumulo rete (Aggregation Net), 1968. Background: Foto, nicchie (Photos, Niches), 1974.

View of “Paolo Icaro,” 2014–15. Foreground: Cumulo rete (Aggregation Net), 1968. Background: Foto, nicchie (Photos, Niches), 1974.

Paolo Icaro


View of “Paolo Icaro,” 2014–15. Foreground: Cumulo rete (Aggregation Net), 1968. Background: Foto, nicchie (Photos, Niches), 1974.

The work of Paolo Icaro, who was born in Turin in 1936, has long been marked by his radical investigations of form, language, and meaning. “Appunti di Viaggio,1967–2014” (Travel Notes, 1967–2014), the artist’s recent retrospective at Peep-Hole, brought together a selection of his anti-monumental volumes rendered with unfinished plaster and postindustrial materials. Although these works elegantly pose questions about the objective form of sculpture, the role of images and words in the evocation of a spatial-temporal gesture, and the emotional value of an idea, the most surprising element of this generous exhibition was neither the persistent relevance of Icaro’s forms nor the freshness of their content. Instead, the show’s most important revelation concerned the artist’s method—namely, the rigor and constancy with which he has transformed his practice to reassess the fundamental aspects of making sculpture. Such has been the Pesaro, Italy–based artist’s pursuit since the latter half of the 1960s.

The exhibition was organized according to thematic and formal logics so that pieces engaged in a nonchronological dialogue. In this way, the show had the effect of a unique self-portrait unfolding in time and space, moving from intimate snapshots to works that reveal, in no uncertain terms, both the methodological component of Icaro’s conceptual path and the constant relationship between memory and gesture in sculpture. The snapshots included Foto, nicchie (Photos, Niches), 1974, a work consisting of thirty-two black-and-white photographs depicting a nook in the artist’s bedroom where he had arranged a series of objects according to some inscrutable, arbitrary classification. Among the sculptures was Esercizi della mano destra sulla mano sinistra (Exercises of the Right Hand over the Left Hand), 1974–75, made up of eight sheets of white paper folded into various compositions.

While a work like Cumulo rete (Aggregation Net), 1968, a weblike sculpture consisting of tubular, zinc-coated chain, is emblematic of the attitudes of Arte Povera and Conceptual art—Icaro first exhibited this work at Genoa, Italy’s Galleria La Bertesca in the 1968 show “Faredisfarerifarevedere” (Makingunmakingremakingseeing), an exhibition that played a critical role in deconstructing the lexicon of sculpture and its structural rigidity—the photographs that constitute Ideal biography, 1976, seem to privilege narrative and memory. In the latter installation, thirteen sheets of undeveloped photographic paper are pinned to the wall, portraying moments never experienced but evoked by the images’ titles, which appear hand-scrawled by the artist at the bottom of each page. The work is at once a personal meditation on the subject of sculpture and photography and a poetic return to the genre of self-portraiture, rendered here via a concept of sculpture as a montage of text and image. Icaro’s choice of raw materials brings physical and intellectual tension to his oeuvre. Stella Sirio (Dog Star), 1969—a thirteen-foot-long steel tube with reflective surfaces on both its interior and exterior—was used that year by the artist in a private garden performance in Genoa to observe Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Here, the work functioned as a reactivation of this historical action, but it also indicated Icaro’s greater attitude toward the use of sculpture as a medium that might invert the rules of space and rewrite man’s relationship to the world.

By placing and removing, looking and looking again, Icaro’s mode of production encourages a viewer’s sustained contemplation of his objects. His gestures are executed by homo faber—man the creator—a figure that Icaro, a true humanist, places at the center of the universe. Hyperaware of his physicality, the artist sensitively measures the space surrounding him as he constructs his forms from nothing. This is why the exhibition zeroed in on the ways in which Icaro sees sculpture as a veritable theoretical object. (Though it’s a complex speculation, it seemed evident here that connections might be traced between Icaro and the masters of Italian and international sculpture, such as Medardo Rosso or Umberto Boccioni, who moved beyond the aesthetic dimension of sculpture.) Icaro presents his work to the public as fertile terrain for critical analysis, forcing us to take a position, both physically and intellectually.

Paola Nicolin

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.