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Giorgio Griffa, Finale rosa (Final Pink), 1996, acrylic on canvas, 70 7/8 × 86 5/8".

Giorgio Griffa, Finale rosa (Final Pink), 1996, acrylic on canvas, 70 7/8 × 86 5/8".

Giorgio Griffa

Giorgio Griffa is known for leaving his paintings in states of perpetual incompletion, as though the sheer act of creating something had inspired him to immediately stop and make something else. When “finished,” these works—rapturously hued orchestrations on unstretched swaths of jute, hemp, and linen—are folded up and stacked away in the artist’s Turin atelier, which he has occupied for decades. The weight of so many canvases on top of each other causes them to be permanently creased. When a painting is unfolded, evidence of time’s passage is literally embossed into its surface. Each one is a treatise on repetition and spontaneity, whimsy and order, fulfillment and fallibility. If all good artists give new shape to experience by placing contrasting ideas in tension, Griffa, a great artist, does something else: He reveals, through tantalizing ratios of presence to absence, the shapelessness of experience itself. What’s more, he makes this worrisome revelation a joyous occasion, as evidenced in a recent selection of his 1990s output.

“I am a nomad,” Griffa has said, “in my mind and in painting.” Although he showed at Turin’s Galleria Sperone during the late 1960s—at that time, the city was the heart of Arte Povera—he never strayed from a medium the poveristi deemed intellectually enervated. This commitment to painting loosely allied him with Pittura Analitica in Italy and the BMPT group in France, but these relationships didn’t last; he eschewed those movements’ smug dispassion for a practice embracing both rigor and rapture. His anomalous career, perhaps alongside this unfashionably earnest devotion to aesthetic pleasure, conspired to keep him a secret outside of Turin until 2012, when the Casey Kaplan gallery gave him his first major New York solo show, sparking the worldwide recognition his art deserves.

In the fourteen paintings selected by gallerist Casey Kaplan for this exhibition, the artist favored a palette of lavender, mint, Adriatic blues, and fluorescent pinks, expressed through recursive slashes, zigzags, and loops. You can trace Griffa’s line to just about anywhere, from the Roman frescoes of his childhood memory to the Vienna Secession and nearly every other movement that rolled through the first half of the past century. The chromatic glissando of Quindici colori (Fifteen Colors), 1999, and the stormily schematic Numerazione doppia (Double Numbering), 1996, each with scalloped brushstrokes and outgrowths of electric blue, strike a Matissean balance between sparseness and profusion—the eye never lands anywhere for long. This sense of orderly chaos is also evident in Finale rosa (Final Pink), 1996: With only a bouncing red line, some splashes of bubble gum, and four pillars of diagonal strokes in lilac, lemon, fuchsia, and pale lime, the artist confects a mood of giddy incomprehension. Like most of the works on display, it didn’t look like anything—it was about its own possibility. This left little, or maybe too much, room for language. Note that Griffa rejects the word abstraction: “My painting is real!” he once explained.

In the 1990s, Griffa began to incorporate mathematical systems into his art; this breakthrough allowed him to deepen his connection with physics, spirituality, and the Renaissance, specifically through his use of the Fibonacci sequence. Like Howardena Pindell, another painter for whom the cosmos is muse, Griffa adopts grids and numbers to imply structure where none exists, and in fact many of the pieces here felt ordered less by math than by music. Kaplan explained that, when working, Griffa sets his supports on the floor, painting to whatever’s playing in the background, be it Mozart or jazz. Perhaps he had John Cage (another influence) in mind when he composed Polittico arabesco con linee orizzontali (Arabesque Polyptych with Horizontal Lines), 1997, whose lilac trail somersaults over ten horizontal lines that together resemble empty tablature. According to Griffa, this loop signifies “linear time and circular time, because it goes backwards while moving further forward.” On the cusp of Griffa’s permanent present tense, we find ourselves much like his paintings—elated, alive, and profoundly undone.