Text by Francesca Pola
Skira Rizzoli, Robilant+Voena, 2014
Hardback, 222 pages
Agostino Bonalumi on Paolo Scheggi
July 1976, in Paolo Scheggi, exhib. cat., Bologna, Galleria d’Arte Moderna, 6 October–10 November, 1976
Artists in postwar Italy immersed themselves in the search for new modes of expression that could reflect their new reality, and the means with which to achieve this. The artistic sphere became a sort of grand laboratory, experimenting with new industrial materials and radical methods to disrupt and even destroy the picture plane. This was the challenge that both Agostino Bonalumi and Paolo Scheggi took on from the end of the 1950s, following the path established by Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri.
In this essay, first published in the catalogue for a 1976 exhibition of Scheggi’s work, Bonalumi sets out his fellow artist’s enquiring spirit and his constant determination to innovate. Never settling for a banal mirroring of reality, Scheggi threw himself into a continually evolving project to make dynamic and inventive works which were engaged in a reflection on art itself.
For Paolo Scheggi, art always meant research: the survey we carry out on the reality which surrounds us.
From his very first experiences, at a time when art, with the rise Art Informel, had distanced itself from this enquiring approach, in an undifferentiated overlapping of convention (abstraction) and naturalism, Scheggi understood that the artwork had to be driven by—and originate in—a precise intention, in a constant effort of utmost rigour.
On his arrival in Milan, it was natural that he should position himself in the midst of the atmosphere of artistic inquiry which in this city, earlier than anywhere else in Italy, was being developed by a few young artists in opposition to Art Informel. Through friendship and an affinity of interests, he connected in particular with Alviani, Bonalumi, Castellani and Manzoni.
For these artists, as for Scheggi, the mirroring of reality in art could not result in the creation of works which were the visualisation of a poetic idea of reality, which, in order to be read as such, had to be reduced to somehow conventional images of naturalness, and whose making offered no opportunity to investigate structural laws. The motives for these laws can only be in the work itself, becoming ‘objective’ and therefore unavoidable, since the image can achieve unity and therefore become legible as experience only by making its own structuring explicit. Structural laws rendered objective in this way cannot be avoided or betrayed without dissolving that unifying tension between the image conceived by the artist and the image resulting from the means used to create the work (signs, colour, materials, technique), fragmented into the different ‘appearances’ of those same ‘means’.
It is clear that, more than for any other ‘position’ regarding art, the image must be conceived through the means that come together to realise it.
Means which, in order to no longer be the ‘malleable’ means of ‘painting’ – receptive, that is, to the fiction of presumed laws and of any old equilibrium – cannot be ‘given’. That is, they cannot be considered as lying outside mirrored reality or mirroring, but rather as belonging to it and, at the same time, as being part of reality. These means are not only indispensable for giving an ‘appearance’ to a problematic—of art—but are also an inseparable moment and element of that problematic.
It appears evident from this that the constant striving for utmost rigour is not, for artists like Scheggi, reducible to a mere ‘trait’ or bravura—an almost narcissistic exercise of intelligence and aesthetic purity. Its fading away would entail the collapse of the position assumed in relation to the problems of artistic mirroring.
However, key to this position is the danger of restricting concentration to the confines of the operation performed by the artist. Such an operation will therefore risk becoming separated inside the artistic specific (an a posteriori reading in this context will still be possible), no longer receiving stimulus to evolve, it will also become untouchable by the impulses lying outside the specific and acting upon it (fashions, changes in taste).
This danger may also get worse, further restricting the ‘concentration’, which is reflected, in a limiting way, within an individual artwork. In this case the activity of the artist over a span of time will either turn into a virtually useless repetition of a ‘basic image’ (roughly understood as ‘style’) in works where marginal variants will be possible, but which will remain only such and will not represent a shift; or, the artist will proceed with works that differ from each other but, as they are sealed inside themselves—and, for this reason they will appear to have a beauty of perfection within themselves—they will be separate moments detached from each other. In no way can this amount to an ‘operation’, nor to research.
In the first case, then, there will be no dynamism in the relationship between the conceived image, expressive means and the resulting image, as the means are ‘given’ once and for all, just like the problem from which the image or intentionality stems.
Following on from this is the impossibility of chance; and it is evident how much this flattens the problematic.
Scheggi’s awareness of the constant danger of sterilisation is clear from the very outset of his work; however—and this is equally evident—he eluded the mechanics which should have imprisoned him, just like many others, although perhaps in a different way. For him this situation, which manifested as a ‘point of no return’ was not, and would never be, an abandoning of research. That point was not yet present in his first works of the so-called ‘objectual’ period—as was the case for other artists working in the same field—but instead came at the end of that period.
This is shown by the value of the path, or the research, that he was able to maintain in his work up to that point (1968). One need only think of the first ‘intersurfaces’, calibrated on the edge of a freedom still far from being conditioned, despite great efforts, and the final ones, where the nature of that intense effort had evolved and now imposed itself though a rigid programme.
That path can be considered as a kind of twisting movement within an area of experience (his own) which produced organically, in itself, the tendency to intense effort and an essential nature and, through that twisting motion, the tendency to grow in constantly tightening spirals as if towards the point of a cone. A point or—precisely—the ‘point of no return’: repeatable, but unbeatable.
Withdrawing from the interplay of these forces would have entailed a constant reinvention of that effort and essential nature; the destruction of the ‘basic image’ (not of style, which remains separate).
To sum up. While some of the artists working in the field of ‘objectual painting’ (Dorfles) like Scheggi, though perhaps preceding him by a few years, sought to achieve a concentration that lay exclusively within the work of art, which would soon acquire the force of peremptory rejection, defeating any attempt to exercise some degree of intentionality that could provoke oscillations, and hence movement and a sense of research. They thus found themselves constrained to repeat that ‘basic image’, which might represent a perfect and complete beauty, but, precisely for this reason, was closed to any productive susceptibility. He, on the other hand, was able to salvage the margins of movement in the opposition between the tendency to become weighed down by the static nature of the basic image and the essentially dynamic and dialectic nature of research.
He lacked, however, the will to depart from this ‘opposition’, rendered constant due to the acceptance of the ‘basic image’ (which was given, as we have seen, by non-transgressable laws regarding the combining of means, materials and technique, assumed once and for all), thus preventing the possibility of rebuilding ‘oppositions’ that are continually other and continually elsewhere.
Some argue that the art of today is also a ‘reflection on art’; but ever since the process of the objectivization of art began, ever since, that is, art took itself as one of its reasons for being, it has always been a reflection on art. Art, even when it presents itself in ‘objects’, is a reflection on itself.
The object is nothing more than the necessary annotation of a moment, which is an arrival at a ‘critical point’ in such a reflection.
Gnoseological and epistemological.
Scheggi was certainly conscious of this concept.
He was profoundly aware that art is a participant in the reality mirrored in artistic mirroring. In art, the art problem is one that intertwines any problematic with itself. It was precisely this awareness that gave Scheggi the necessary lucidity to understand with rigorous specificity that he had reached, at a certain stage in his research, the ‘point of no return’. The gravity of his task prevented him from lingering, reflecting narcissistically, which could have resulted in a potentially infinite number of beautiful, yet barren works of art.
From that moment (1968), Scheggi’s work entered a new season —with renewed commitment and perhaps richer in concepts.