Italian Artist Agostino Bonalumi's Manipulative Canvases Unveiled

Manipulative Canvas, Rebecca Anne Proctor, Agostino Bonalumi
Agostino Osio, © Alto Piano

Blue ablitable (Inhabitable blue). 1967. Shaped canvas and vinyl tempera. variable dimensions.

Milan’s Palazzo Reale offers the first major retrospective of Italian avant-garde artist Agostino Bonalumi. Rebecca Anne Proctor reviews the artist’s manipulation of his canvases to create a heightened state of vision

Something appears to be moving inside the canvas. As if a limb were inside trying to come out, there’s a pushing of the colour forward and back and to either side so that it seems as if something or someone were trying to escape. The feeling aroused from such a sight is awe kindled with angst—we empathise with that which lies beneath the surface, seemingly trapped or perhaps not as it explores the canvas and the paint, extending each to their limits of form and space.

Each work by the latte Italian avant-garde artist Agostino Bonalumi (1935-2013) evokes these sensations. The plasticity of the artist’s canvas in his so-called object paintings contributed to the birth of irregularly shaped canvases in the Post War period. Bonalumi’s estroflessioni (extroflexions)—intricately stretched vibrantly coloured canvases—suggest a force pushing out from beneath. The artist’s magnificently contorted works are now on view in Bonalumi’s first and most comprehensive retrospective at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, assembling approximately 120 works by the artist, ranging from his debut in 1958 with Enrico Castellani and Piero Manzoni, until his death in 2013.

A leading figure of the Italian avant-garde, Bonalumi’s manipulative canvases, contorted and stretched before our eyes, contributed to the birth of irregularly shaped canvases during the Post-War period. Despite the at times uncomfortable contorsions of his art, simplicity is in full reign and that’s what you find as you walk through the numerous rooms where his work is currently on display. “My generation lived through the academy of the Arte Informel, when it was triumphant, and at a certain point that expressiveness which was purely appearance and not form, was not enough,” the artist once said. Three-times exhibited at the Venice Biennale, the artist and his peers Enrico Castellani and Piero Manzoni were inspired by Lucio Fontana’s sliced canvases. Bonalumi’s intricate monochromatic works suggesting a force pushing out from underneath, elaborated on Fontana’s pierced and sliced canvases, taking his ideology to the extreme.

Agostino Bonalumi's Manipulative Canvas

Agostino Bonalumi. Bianco (White). 1969.  Rosso (Red). 1969. Fibreglass and enamel. Both: 180x180x90cm; Bianco (White). 1974.Shaped canvas and vinyl tempera. 270x400 cm

Bonalumi also followed the ideas of the short-lived Azimuth of Milan in 1959-60, which famously nullified all the premises of Italian painting. Similar to Minimalism, the group believed that a work of art must have minimal content in order for it to become one with the objects that inhabit our lives. Others have looked at Bonalumi’s oeuvre seeing muted resemblances to Abstract Expressionism—the movement of his canvases and the subtle interplay of expressive detail on each work that can be viewed upon closer inspection. Bonalumi’s work is geometrical, minimal and lyrical all at once. And surprisingly, the coldness found in purely minimalistic art isn’t here. Rather there is a warmth, playfulness and joy that spurts forth from Bonalumi’s colourfully contorted canvases.

Manipulative Canvas

Rosso (Red). 1974. Shaped canvas and water enamel. 140x140cm

Curated by Marco Meneguzzo and promoted by the Comune di Milano – Cultura, Palazzo Reale, Museo del Novecento in collaboration with the Archivio Bonalumi, the first room holds the artist’s large-scale juicy blue Inhabitable Blue (environmental artwork) (1967), which wraps itself around the space so that you too feel part of the work. Subsequent rooms reveal a series of seminal, mostly large-scale, artworks spanning his career. The works examine the artist’s connections with other European art movements, his wide use of materials and his constant research into the manipulation of space and form. Of note is the artist’s massive White Modular Structure (1970), created for the 35th Venice Biennale. The installation coils itself around the room, moving from the ceiling to the floor, like a gentle caterpillar, except for its sharply protruding edges that risk slicing open anyone who comes near. And it was in this precise spot that due to an unfortunate illness caused the artist’s long-time assistant to perish next to this shining white structure.

As the exhibition progresses a lightness ensues. While there’s always an uncertain shape with Bonalumi, his work is as much about light as it is about space, and how the light reflects and unfolds the work. As the show nears its end, the works from the latter half of Bonalumi’s career reveal a lightness, freedom, and peace—almost as if they were floating. The creation of new shapes and ways of seeing was also for Bonalumi and his peers a way of beholding society in a new light. His is an art reminiscent of a desire to create a new order and after viewing his art our eyes are sharpened. 


Bonalumi 1958-2013 is on until 30 September at the Palazzo Reale in Milan

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Manipulative Canvas, Rebecca Anne Proctor, Agostino Bonalumi
Agostino Osio, © Alto Piano

Blue ablitable (Inhabitable blue). 1967. Shaped canvas and vinyl tempera. variable dimensions.