Dadamaino, Volume, 1958, tempera on canvas, 27 1/2 × 19 3/4".

Dadamaino, Volume, 1958, tempera on canvas, 27 1/2 × 19 3/4".


Dadamaino, Volume, 1958, tempera on canvas, 27 1/2 × 19 3/4".

This revelatory exhibition of the work of the Italian painter Dadamaino (1930–2004) was organized chronologically, presenting sequential stages in the self-taught artist’s compelling career. Thirty-nine works produced over forty-three years evinced the artist’s persistent formal inquiry, making a case for the notion that a concept can be constantly rediscovered and made relevant anew.

Dadamaino’s artistic debut took place in Milan in 1958, amid the vibrant international context of the neo-avant-garde group Azimuth. The core members of this collective, Enrico Castellani and Piero Manzoni, founded the seminal homonymous journal and the gallery Azimut in 1959. Her work presaged the Minimalist poetics of the subsequent decade, and while she is only now gaining acknowledgment (her work was featured in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s major 2014 survey “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s”), she should be considered one of the pioneers of practices invested in the reduction of the image. Her first series, “Volumi” (Volumes), 1958–60, consists of monochrome canvases split open by large perforations. Conceived in the wake of Lucio Fontana’s spatialist revolution, her paintings reject the sidereal dimension of Fontana’s work. Instead, they appear as radical gestures toward the liberation of the surface, dominantly featuring shadows and actively engaging the space that surrounds them. The cuts in Dadamaino’s canvases progressively shrink and multiply in her “Volumi a moduli sfasati” (Volumes in Shifted Modules), 1960. Rhythmic successions of holes bored into many layers of semitransparent plastic shift the viewer’s attention from space itself to the artist’s perception of space over time.

The time that Dadamaino was interested in capturing in her images is not the perceptual or dynamic time of much ’60s optical-kinetic research. Rather, she aimed to represent her own subjective experience of time. It is precisely her desire to trace the very development of thought that led to what we can call her subsequent “period of the sign.” From 1974 until 1978, she produced a series of works titled “L’inconscio razionale” (The Rational Subconscious), each consisting of a vertical or horizontal stroke drawn on paper or canvas. As the series title indicates, Dadamaino’s intention was to translate into an image the dialectic between emotional impulse and analytical rationality that comprises all human thought.

From this point on, Dadamaino became committed to an exploration of the ways in which the viewer identifies with an artwork in order to form meaning. Early in this investigation was “I fatti della vita” (The Facts of Life), 1979–80, conceived by the artist as a series of episodes in the evolution of an infinite “alphabet of the mind.” Drawn on the surface of each work is a repeated sequence of a single abstract “letter,” unrecognizable as belonging to any known language. These indecipherable forms are presented as cellular expressions of a primal experience of the world. The artist once described the elusiveness of time and her desire to make it tangible, to become familiar with its “materialistic eternity,” and we see this impulse in her subsequent series “Interludi” (Interludes), 1981, and “Costellazioni” (Constellations), 1984. These works seem to want to aid the viewer in some discovery of the trajectories of the cosmos.

With “Il movimento delle cose” (The Movement of Things), 1994, Dadamaino transitioned to a monumental scale. She accumulated a new syntax of signs, which she drew concisely on long sheets of polyester that here unfolded in the gallery like waves in a seismograph, each cresting form with its own visual tensions, but together a continuous flow of becoming. Finally, her last series, “Sein und Zeit” (Being and Time), 1995–2000, was inspired by Martin Heidegger’s essay of the same name. In this work, she homed in on the notion that being is time; that is, a human being’s experience of existence and time are indivisible. There is something about Dadamaino’s tragic awareness of the impossibility of objective knowledge, combined with the steadfastness of her obsessive registration of time, that reminds the viewer of her participation in the event of being. And there is poetry in the weight of Dadamaino’s spatial inquiries and the blazing presence of her signs.

Francesca Pola

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.