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artnet Asks: Optical-Kinetic Artist Alberto Biasi

April 29, 2015

FEATURED BY ARTNET

You might not be familiar with the work of Alberto Biasi, though he’s appeared at Venice Biennales and in shows at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, but whet your appetite at New York’s De Buck Gallery which hosts “Unlimited Perception,” his first solo exhibition in New York since 1971. There, challenge your senses with the Italian artists’ op art creations, and see works dating back to the mid-1970s.

Biasi was the founder of a radical group in the 1960’s called Gruppo Enne, which was significantly influenced by Dada and would participate in several Venice Biennales under Biasi’s leadership. That all came after a humble upbringing in Padua, Italy, where, on a farm, a young Biasi discovered perforated sheets made by silkworms, serving as the critical inspiration behind his “Wefts” series and a major stimulus for his artistic development.

Biasi sat down with artnet News to discuss a U.S.-Soviet standoff at the 1964 Venice Biennale, the influence of Greek philosophers on his work, and what he gets up to when he’s not in the studio.

The artistic consortium you founded in 1960, Gruppo Enne, favored collective creativity over the individual pursuit of art. The first works to come out of this group weren’t even individually signed, but rather marked with the group’s initials. Can you talk to us about the impetus for this communal practice?
It was an ideology spreading throughout Europe at the time. People began looking at art not in its traditional sense but in a more modern way. Art became more of an educational concept, rather than a concept of individual expression. Our first group exhibition was closed off. No one was actually invited to come see it. We even wrote a manifesto, but we didn’t exhibit it. Our creative contemporaries were guys like the Beatles, and artistic creativity felt like a group endeavor more than an individual effort.

The group believed in an idea emerging at the time, advanced by philosopher Dino Formaggio, that anything people called art could be considered art. Where do you stand on this claim today?
That’s the least controversial definition of art. People decide what art is and only art that we consciously define can be truly valuable.

Art historian Erwin Panofsky’s book Perspective as Symbolic Formwas crucial for you. It put forth the idea that perspective betrays an egocentric conception of the world because it is tied to one man’s point of view. You hold, on the contrary, that perspective is formed out of multiple viewpoints. How do you feel you have advanced this notion in your work?
Futurism and Cubism were already challenging this notion. But Futurism, for example, represented movement by recreating every frame of that movement, step by step. The problem with that approach is that it’s only a representation of what you see. I sought to pin down what was behind that movement. So I linked movement back to the ancient Greek notion of the kinetic. Heraclitus put forth the theory of panta rhei, which says that “all entities move and nothing remains still,” while another Greek philosopher, Parmenides, argued that everything is fixed and static. Though my pieces appear to move, they are in fact static. I felt that the dichotomy brought to life by these two philosophers was converging in my work.

You’ve participated in two Venice Biennales and three Rome Quadrennials. Your 1965 exhibition “The Responsive Eye” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art was met with tremendous critical success. What would you consider your greatest career milestone?
They say that I have had three lives as an artist. One as a solo artist from 1959 to 1960, exhibiting alongside the Azimuth group, a second in the 1960s with Gruppo Enne, and a third life, again as a solo artist. In that first stage of my career, I wasn’t satisfied. I found out that only one person had collected the work I produced between 1959 and 1960. No one else really appreciated it [laughs]. In my second life, with Gruppo Enne, I was extremely proud when we received the first prize at the San Marino Biennale in 1963.

My biggest disappointment, however, came at the 1964 Venice Biennale. Gruppo Enne was invited, but the international jury didn’t award anyone for painting in the Italian section. Instead, the award went to Robert Rauschenberg and the American Pop artists. Leo Castelli, the famous Italian-born gallerist, arrived in Venice with his American artists and inaugurated a special exhibition of their work at the American consulate in Venice before the Biennale officially opened. The exhibition immediately swept away the critics and conquered the international jury. Castelli didn’t intentionally take the spotlight away from the Italians—we were just collateral damage. He actually wanted to oppose the Soviets, who exhibited a lot of work at their pavilion that year, by turning everyone’s attention away from the Soviets and toward the Americans. In the end, the Italians paid the highest price.

This actually marked the beginning of Gruppo Enne’s decline, because the Italian press, who were already privileging American art, began referring to our kinetic art as the art of “little machines.” Our group dissolved shortly thereafter. We were very poor. We were not influential and no one supported us. Unlike the American or English artists, who had help from their governments or other organizations, the Italians didn’t receive aid from the state.

During the period of Gruppo Enne, you described yourself as an “artistic operator.” Can you elaborate? Is this in the social or political sense?
Today, I would amend the statement: I was a visual operator, in the political sense. At the time I began practicing, some of us were left-wing, and others were considered more European or international. A group of artists emerged at the time who adhered to the “Nueva Tendencia.” They were based in Zagreb, Croatia, during General Tito’s reign over Eastern Europe. They were part of the Non-Alignment movement, neither capitalist nor communist. At that moment, there was space to think about a collective language that could be understood across nations. Their vision was that there should not be boundaries between states. And actually, you did feel that there was a possibility to create something transnational. That’s why the visual part was more important that the individual part, because vision can be understood by many people, whereas, when you’re expressing yourself and your personal perspective, you enter the realm of individuality. Instead, we were looking for something that was common—shared.

I once got into an argument with another artist, Manfredo Massironi, over a piece of plaster that had fallen from the ceiling of his studio. The slab of plaster showed two sides, one smooth and perfect, the other cracked and rugged. Our discussion soon evolved into which side was more important—the exposed side or the concealed one? We concluded that art has the function to reveal what usually you cannot see.

Speaking of Manfredo Massironi, on a visit with him to the Yves Klein exhibition at the Apollinaire Gallery in Milan in the late 1950s, you were told you needed to move to Milan in order to pursue art seriously. You countered that Italy consisted of multiple artistic centers and that your hometown of Padua was equally important. Do you still hold that belief?
I don’t believe that an artist should be constrained to any one place. It doesn’t matter at all where artists live. They are not intrinsically attached to the places where they happen to live. People choose where to live for reasons of love, family, material objects in a studio, etc. Me, I picked the place where I was born and had grown up.

At one point I was tempted to leave Padua. I had met this English journalist who invited me to live with her in London. Both of my sons are born in London, which incidentally is no coincidence [laughs]. Even though I wasn’t an incredibly successful artist at the time, I was still a celebrated graphic designer and teacher. I didn’t want to leave Italy.

Can you discuss the influence of Rafael Soto and Lucio Fontana on your work?
Soto influenced me more than any other artist. Fontana was a major inspiration in my early years. His rejection of traditional painting really struck me. What I got from Fontana was the rejection of painting and the valorization of the gesture. His influence pushed me to distort the canvas. It gave me permission to destroy it, cut it, and poke it. But then I thought to myself, what am I to do with the leftover debris? So I started building my series the Torsions, and re-composed the canvas itself.

What I took from Soto was the more visual approach. I layer on stripes and levels on my canvases, so that when you move, the canvas changes dimensions and size. But Soto, unlike me, doesn’t create geometric shapes. I try to give a geometric shape to this visual conception. Toni Costa also developed the concept of Torsions, but he repeats one shape.

It’s important to take the art market into account: if an artist repeats himself, he will be successful, but if he goes in different directions, then he will usually vanish.

When not in the studio, what do you like to do?
When I’m not in the studio, I want to go back to the studio [laughs]. No, I’m a common, simple man. I like beautiful women…and I also grow salad and zucchinis in my garden. So those are my hobbies: women and gardening.

Biasi’s exhibition “Unlimited Perception” is on view at De Buck Gallery, 545 West 23rd Street, New York, through May 2. 

Interview by Daria Daniel