Bruno Munari, Negativo-Positivo, 1990, oil on canvas, 56 × 56".

Bruno Munari, Negativo-Positivo, 1990, oil on canvas, 56 × 56".

Bruno Munari

Galleria Giovanni Bonelli

Bruno Munari, Negativo-Positivo, 1990, oil on canvas, 56 × 56".

It is a difficult task to condense into one exhibition all the branches of visual research undertaken by the Milanese designer and inventor Bruno Munari (1907–1998). His output spanned from the late 1920s—when he participated in the so-called Second Futurism movement—to the final years of his life, when he staked out a position as an artist. In the intervening sixty years, he eschewed rigid disciplinary boundaries, applying his concept of design to a broad range of visual practices. For this reason, his work has historically been most revered in such fields as industrial and graphic design—as opposed to art—in which practitioners are encouraged to challenge the aura of the producer, or where the primacy of the producer is less important than the product itself. Galleria Giovanni Bonelli’s recent exhibition of Munari’s work reminded the viewer that this artist might be considered, along with Lucio Fontana, the most important protagonist of Italian art (at least for his work produced through the ’50s), and that Italian kinetic art, or “Arte Programmata,” specifically, owes him a great deal conceptually.

For this show, composed mainly of works from the private collection of the Casaperlarte Fondazione Paolo Minoli, curator Riccardo Zelatore brought together a diverse selection of Munari’s efforts, which together traced the contours of the artist’s design methodology. The projects ranged from ’80s editions of his “Macchina inutile” (Useless Machine) series—colored cardboard mobiles consisting of colorful geometric forms that were first created nearly contemporaneously with Alexander Calder’s famous experiments of the ’30s—to his series “Sculture da viaggio” (Travel Sculptures), 1950–87. These extremely light, collapsible sculptures were conceived to fit in inside a traveling salesman’s briefcase; the idea was that they could be easily unpacked and placed on a nightstand, lending a personal touch to anonymous motel rooms. Also on view were examples of Munari’s “Negativi-positivi” paintings. Begun in 1951, this series evinces the artist’s innovation in abstraction, one that toys with perception—for example by obfuscating distinctions between foreground and background. Four of Munari’s “Curve di Peano” canvases, 1970–74/1990–94, featuring fractal-like geometries based on mathematical relationships, illustrate the development of his strategies for producing graphic compositions.

In every piece—especially in preparatory works for his pedagogical projects, which took up a great deal of his time and space—elements of design and production appear to be equally privileged. All of Munari’s exercises emerged from the combination of his empirical consideration of reality with his desire to unsettle the parameters of culturally established realities. He detourned objects to illustrate their hidden or still-unexplored aspects, and examined the potential of error to be a point of departure for innovation. Though this exhibition was not exhaustive, it offered a substantial overview of seventy years of Munari’s frenetic energy, highlighting the artist’s unfailing—and entirely “modern”—desire to expand the territory of the possible, beginning with what already exists.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.