Milan

Emilio Isgrò, Dichiaro di non essere Emilio Isgrò (I Declare I Am Not Emilio Isgrò), 1971, seven mixed-media panels, each 66 × 23 3/4".

Emilio Isgrò, Dichiaro di non essere Emilio Isgrò (I Declare I Am Not Emilio Isgrò), 1971, seven mixed-media panels, each 66 × 23 3/4".

Emilio Isgrò

Palazzo Reale/Gallerie D’Italia/Casa del Manzoni

Emilio Isgrò, Dichiaro di non essere Emilio Isgrò (I Declare I Am Not Emilio Isgrò), 1971, seven mixed-media panels, each 66 × 23 3/4".

This retrospective, curated by Marco Bazzini, showcased Emilio Isgrò’s multiform creative process in all its richness and variety—presenting an oeuvre that, for over half a century, has been based on the encounter between word and image. Isgrò’s artistic journey began in the early 1960s, with his fictitious “Titoli di giornale” (Newspaper Headlines), 1962–64, in which he drew on his professional experience as a journalist to reflect on the ways in which current events are treated by the media, the mechanisms of distortion underlying that information, and the coexistence of truth and falsehood that is inherent to communication. With the painting White Volkswagen on a black ground, 1964, in which the perfection of the car is ironically compared to that of a deity, Isgrò focused on advertising, a realm that perfectly embodies this potentially deceptive mediation. That same year, he began to incorporate erasure as a distinctive feature of his oeuvre. For him, it was not a merely destructive gesture but an affirmation of reality. He erased newspaper articles, telexes, books, encyclopedias, musical scores, photographic reproductions, geographic maps, and historical and present-day documents: the entire universe of the visual. Only details or fragments remained legible, through which his intention was to reinforce the work’s meaning.

By 1966 Isgrò had theorized his “visual poetry” as a “general art of the sign” in which “verbal material and iconic material, namely word and image, coexist in an attempt to initiate an organic esthetic manifestation.” His was a distinctly European approach, descended from a critical tradition of Western thought—stretching from the philosophy of Gorgias to the literature of Luigi Pirandello—that was founded on paradox. His work proposed an alternative to the reigning rhetoric of pragmatism in the United States during the 1960s, as reflected in both the media-related redundancy of Pop art and its antidote, analytical Conceptualism. Metaphor is central to Isgrò’s work, differentiating it both from Conceptualism’s cold tautology and from a simple celebration of the collective imagination. Icons of media and cultural communications that traverse the centuries are translated and incorporated into the flow of a sort of decontextualized mythology, ranging from Jacqueline Kennedy to Mao Tse-tung, from Giovanni Pico della Mirandola to Galileo, from Bach to Chopin.

The exhibition unfolded in three venues, but at the Palazzo Reale it was possible to follow the artist’s entire creative path through a selection of more than two hundred works, including some extraordinary installations such as L’ora italiana (Italian Hour), 1986, dedicated to the massacre at the Bologna train station in 1980. The other two locations, the storage area of Gallerie d’Italia and Casa Manzoni, featured works created specifically for the occasion and dedicated to Alessandro Manzoni, the great Italian writer: L’occhio di Alessandro Manzoni (Alessandro Manzoni’s Eye), 2016, and I promessi sposi cancellati per venticinque lettori e dieci appestati (The Betrothed Erased for Twenty-Five Readers and Ten People Afflicted by Plague), 2016.

For Isgrò, erasing is a critical responsibility that asserts itself in opposition to power, in particular the media power that embodies a specific system of political authority, translated into words and images. Dichiaro di non essere Emilio Isgrò (I Declare I Am Not Emilio Isgrò), 1971, consists of the erasure of his own officially recorded identity. Isgrò’s erasure is a constructive modality, a possibility for once again granting authentic significance to the word or to the surviving iconic fragment. Through enlargement, repetition, repositioning, blurring, and fragmentation, the erased word or image gives rise to a continuous process of alienation, decontextualization, and subversion of communicative codes.

Francesca Pola

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.