Gina Pane, Acqua alta/Pali/Venezia (High Water/Piles/Venice), 1968–70/2019, twelve Duralinox pillars, metal tray, muddy water, painted lettering. Installation view.

Gina Pane, Acqua alta/Pali/Venezia (High Water/Piles/Venice), 1968–70/2019, twelve Duralinox pillars, metal tray, muddy water, painted lettering. Installation view.

Gina Pane

In 1963, Gina Pane (1939–1990) graduated from Paris’s École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, where she studied painting and lithography, and quickly became a player in the city’s art scene. This exhibition, “Terre protégée” (Protected Earth), curated by Emma-Charlotte Gobry-Laurencin, featured two paintings from this time, Untitled (no 20), 1962–65, and Untitled (no 31), 1962–67, both modestly sized, portrait-oriented works in oil on canvas. Composed of sharp vertical bands or triangles of bold contrasting colors, separated by paler shades or stripes of white, these works, according to Gobry-Laurencin, demonstrate the influence of Russian Suprematism. Hung nearby, six drawings from around 1967–68, mostly in black pencil on paper, also revealed Pane’s interest in simple geometric forms and her apparent desire to lead her shapes toward volume and space.

Very soon, Pane left painting behind, and after 1968 her drawings were typically no longer ends in themselves, but plans for sculptures, installations, and actions. In this show, Stripe Rake, 1969, exhibited with its preparatory sketch, embodied her move away from the painted canvas. For this work, installed in the corner of the gallery, a small square of dark compost sits amid a larger square plot of coarse sand. In its original presentation, visitors could rake the work with a simple wooden tool propped against the wall. Here, fifty years after its conception, Stripe Rake was to be left untouched; its neatly contoured surface could only be looked at. With the work’s original participatory element removed, it became a static artifact, aligning more with painting than with the actions and installations that form the core of Pane’s environmentally and politically engaged practice.

Acqua alta/Pali/Venezia (High Water/Piles/Venice), 1968–70, is Pane’s first “large environment” work; it was re-created here for the first time in nearly fifty years, as the original artwork has disappeared. Twelve square shiny metallic columns tilted at varying angles from two shallow pools filled with dark muddy water. On the concrete floor surrounding these elements, the words ACQUA ALTA (high water) repeatedly appeared in white-stenciled lettering. The ceiling was stenciled with VENEZIA (Venice) in gray paint, and on the four surrounding walls, the repeated word PALI (piles), was vertically stenciled. The sharpness and verticality of the work recall qualities of Pane’s paintings and drawings from just a few years earlier, but the piece is a leap into a completely new territory, emphatically outside traditional formats of the academy and the gallery and fully engaged with the environmental crises of her time and ours.

Pane began creating “actions” in the summer of 1968, when, for Pierres déplacées (Stones Moved), she shifted a pile of small stones from the shade into the sunlight. Documentation of such works was presented here in simple vitrines and modestly framed photographs. Black-and-white prints of the title works Terre protégée I, 1968, and Terre protégée III, 1970, hung side by side. The first of this series featured ten cloth straps, aligned on bare earth like rows of a tilled field and weighed down with wooden blocks. The other spelled out the work’s title with letters formed in soil and circled by stones. The curator presented Enfoncement d’un rayon de soleil (Burying a Ray of Sunlight), 1969, via four-color photographs and a preparatory diagram. In the photos, Pane can be seen angling a small handheld fragment of a mirror at what looks like a late-afternoon sun, burying the shard in rich, tilled soil, and walking boldly away. Her medium was no longer paint on canvas but the body on earth—yet her work was no less painterly.