Paolo Cotani, Tensioni, 1993, polyester bands, steel, 72 1/2 × 23 3/4 × 3 1/2".

Paolo Cotani, Tensioni, 1993, polyester bands, steel, 72 1/2 × 23 3/4 × 3 1/2".

Paolo Cotani

Paolo Cotani, Tensioni, 1993, polyester bands, steel, 72 1/2 × 23 3/4 × 3 1/2".

Paolo Cotani (1940–2011) first gained acclaim in the 1970s as one of the protagonists of Pittura Analitica (Analytical Painting). This movement, particularly in Italy, France, and Germany, aimed to scrutinize painting’s social issues, psychological motives, and linguistic effects. At that time, painting was seen as an obsolete expressive tool, under attack by Arte Povera and a younger generation of conceptually minded artists. Cotani superimposed monochromatic bands of colored fabric in a quest for a painting that resisted the medium’s conventions while using a recognizable, even canonic, form. This exhibition, curated by Alberto Fiz, emphasized Cotani’s late production and included works that bear witness to a fresh expressive development that became increasingly radical in the new millennium.

Indeed, most of the approximately twenty works on view typified a sort of “exit from painting” that Cotani undertook during the final years of his life. These are his “Tensioni” (Tension Works), 1993–2011, in which the bands that characterized his analytical paintings become individual elements or composite works, stretched between steel bars, revealing their literal and reflexive state of tension, rather than existing in a state of composition on a traditional canvas. These are free elements, both physically and conceptually, whose form—whether singular, composite, linear, or crossed—is provided by the support on which they are installed (a strategy famously employed by Frank Stella and described by Michael Fried as “deductive structure.”) Though seemingly abandoned, the traditional tenets of painting are still, ideally, the origin and, perhaps, the destination of Cotani’s emotional and rational considerations.

Since the end of World War II, bands of cloth have played a role in the imagination of numerous artists. To stay within the Italian (or Italian American) context, this is exemplified in the work of Salvatore Scarpitta. But there are bands, and then there are bands. For example, most such artists were referencing a sort of “heroic frenzy” (in the sense of philosopher Giordano Bruno’s De gli eroici furori [The Heroic Frenzies], 1585) in their confrontation with the surface, the canvas reduced to scraps, as if issues of representation and painting as a tool raised doubts that were, for the moment, insurmountable. In this type of work, the most obvious metaphor is that the destruction and haphazard recomposition of the painting’s surface—and so in many ways the tradition of painting itself—reflects society’s values, which beginning in the 1950s no longer assured a stable hierarchy. While Cotani’s work emerges from these ideas, he confronts the problem from a rational instead of an emotional vantage point, in keeping with the aforementioned attitude of Pittura Analitica. The relationship between the surface and the painting’s form became a locus of investigation rather than a clever declaration of impotence or of refined expressive impasse.

In the 1970s Cotani remade the canvas with innumerable variations of superimposition, almost as if he was searching for the possibility of a new beginning for painting, rather than celebrating its end. After 2000, it seems that, having verified the eventuality of the reconstruction of painting, he sought to decompose the whole into its individual elements. This—the individual compositional element valued for its distinct expressive capacities—is precisely what comes across in the “Tensioni” executed in his final years. One witnesses a sort of elementary nakedness that is nonetheless endowed with communicative qualities, even character; each individual band, provoked by the fixed elements that hold it in suspense, displays its own possibilities of reaction, its own intimate capacity to resist.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.