Almost a foreword

by Martina Corgnati

In a group of several paintings of his, collectively called Oltre la soglia (Beyond the Threshold) and started after 2002, Agostino Ferrari decided to deceptively break through the canvas’ surface, disclosing “another”, further, dimension, the almost tangible presence of a physical space – heralded by the three-dimensional and almost complacent curls of a painted surface folding and crumpling on itself – and, at the same time, the utter absence of space, the stillness of a space sucked into the dull and impassable blackness of this totally other dimension.

This, which we are going to discuss more extensively later on, is singularly alike what Andrea Mantegna did in the frescoes that are, maybe, his masterpiece, certainly his more renown word, i.e. those in the Bridal Chamber, with their masterful trompe l’œil crowning. Its perspective œil de bœuf, wide open, almost like a well, on the dizzy depths of the sky, around which putti and young women, peacocks and white clouds appear and look down, is a further dimension too, a statement of space, dialectically brought into the more easily understandable and definite pattern of the whole; and, at the same time, an impossibility, a vertigo of the representation, showing exactly what perspective representation cannot be, or rather cannot frame within settled paradigms: the infinity, the cloud, the a-dimensional space of sky.

“One cannot but admit that, since the beginning, the perspectiva artificialis has been faced, like geometry, with the question of infinity”, says Hubert Damisch.

Mantegna’s sky, relentlessly evading the compasses and the setsquare, only yelding to the brush, to the pictorial and chromatic evocation, stands out, with reference to Agostino Ferrari’s blackness, as a logical and awfully striking – I’d almost say “magnetic” – antecedent: both are “master signifiers”, as Lacan would say, the unfathomable sunk into painting, bewildering and deranging its patterns, in the same way as the occurrence of death or an event we are unable to control disrupts our daily life. That’s the reason why Agostino Ferrari, with that sound, almost existentialist awareness peculiar to him, defined this blackness as: “…all that I don’t know about Man and his/her life. To me, a black surface embodies all that exists beyond the time accident of Man’s life, before birth and after death, emptiness and darkness, our thoughts’ limitedness compared with the boundless universe of all that we don’t know anything about”.

Maybe similar thoughts were already drifting through Mantegna’s wonderfully blue sliver of infinity, that whirlpool of Absolute. Anyway, Agostino Ferrari has pondered about it, suggests it as a possibility, anticipating, maybe, further pictorial perspectives. That’s the reason why, in order to reconnect diachronic ties reaching back in art history and to trace back distant, yet significant elective affinities, the exhibition this book refers to takes place just in Mantua and in the very “Casa del Mantegna”. After the long and quite proper scrutiny of the “modern” nature of Ferrari’s work, of his consistent, enduring and stringent stand on avantgardes and post-avantgardes, starting with Fontana and Manzoni, maybe it’s high time today to widen our horizon and go in search of remoter roots, classical, or even archetypal, primeval or prehistoric. Pertaining, I mean to say, to the absolute, primary purpose of painting and art.

Fragments of an amourous journey

Is the universe tending towards order or disorder? Every minute we witness this silent, ferocious struggle, through the disorder that relentlessly builds up outside the bounds of our efforts to shape our environment and our life, but also through the transient triumphs of beauty, soaring from nature and thought, as in the growth of a tree or the pattern of a garden, the bold architecture of a gothic cathedral or the naming of things happening every time, all over again, in every little child’s brain. Who knows whether the galaxies, hurling themselves through their endless and imperceptible trajectories, will dissipate their awesome energy into the cosmos’ nothingness, where only some useless neutrin drifts about; or whether from the gigantic concentration and overexcited implosion of all the world’s matter and energy, a rythmic dance of gravity and electromagnetism, of electric charges and masses is instead going to issue, which, moving through the millennia, will defeat entropy and coalesce into a new harmonious and coherent universe?

In Agostino Ferrari’s sign and space configurations, both these possibilities are suggested and pointed out, especially in his Frammenti (Fragments), dating back to the mid-Nineties. While being wide open to the future, in a way these works sum up the artist’s previous course, owing to their main, fecund feature, that of a sign that is a propeller of itself and of its inner becoming, and to the irresistible dynamic force of the forms inhabiting them (the circle, the triangle, the square, originating from the cycle Segno, forma, colore – Sign, form, colour – of the Seventies). They seem to expand gradually all over the surface and beyond it, exactly like cosmic particles moving towards infinity, impelled, as it were, by some primeval Big Bang.

But something of the sort, i.e. the dialectic presence of opposites – the inavoidable predicament of all actions, thoughts and time of ours – seems to be suggested in the intriguing Palinsesti (Palimpsests)too, where the disordered swarming of signs of different form, thickness, denseness and colour builds up a compact, and in some way, coherent and harmonic texture, malgré tout, in spite of the inner differences and of the distinctiveness of each sign. And again, quite recently, do not the works of the Oltre la soglia (Beyond the Threshold) cycle seem to intimate an interplay between Known and Unknown, a black thickness sucking light and any existing difference between things into itself and, at the same time, a patterning of the signs on the surface in visible and, in some way, inhabitable forms, quite clear and organised?

The whole, extraordinary and absolutely consistent course of Agostino Ferrari’s work, spanning by now half a century, might be interpreted as an intelligent and dynamic interaction between these two prime causes: Order, in his case, even rigour, and Chaos, all that (that space, those moments, those cases) our rationality is unable to master in certain circumstances, when things get a bit out of control and drift along in the entropy’s flow that irresistibly carries them and us towards absolute disorder.

The artist, though, even before the founding of the Cenobio in 1962 (together with Arturo Vermi, Ettore Sordini, Angelo Verga and Ugo La Pietra), understood sign to be an exceptional means for investigating the boundless space of potentialities disclosed by these inexhaustible dialectics: a versatile and dynamic, a flexible and sensitive sign, able to record, like a thermometer, both the temperature of contemporary culture and of Ferrari himself. In other words, in sign Ferrari has found the means of ever being himself, independent and free, and at the same time of being within history’s flux, of being deeply and consistently involved with his times.

Looking for a moment at his work as a whole – without broaching the question of the differences, although great and striking, between one cycle and the others – it is self-evident that form issues from sign, space issues from form and into space seeps time: all of them, in the end, a priori of our existence. In this respect, his work is also a summa of his thought, a sort of unintentional philosophical treaty, absolutely devoid, though, of pedantry or dullness. By this, I mean that, in his work, each painting or drawing can be enjoyed in itself, just for its sheer pictorial and aesthetic qualities and doesn’t need a complex legend or conceptual apparatus in order to be “understood”, as it happens instead for that branch of “mathematic art” that, stemming from German Constructivism and Bauhaus, reaches as far as Sol LeWitt’s and Donald Judd’s American Minimalism, even though, at certain stages, Ferrari’s work shows quite a few affinities with it.

In fact, while always striving to thoroughly “think” things out, Ferrari always shows a peculiar and, I’d like to say, kindly disposition of temper too, that prevents him from ever losing sight of real circumstances and, if I may be allowed to say so, of the impurities of experience. He gives himself up to the asimmetry, the matter and even the body of sign, which quite often turns into the independent propeller of its own flowing and of the resulting space, and at times, like in some wonderful Tavole (Tables) and Eventi-scrittura (Events-writing) of the Eighties, even duplicates itself, casting a kind of shadow.

More maybe than anything else, the wonderful originality of this thoroughly distances Agostino Ferrari’s Scritture (Writings) from all forms and expressions of Art & Language or of concrete poetry. Can concepts cast shadows? On the other hand, Ferrari’s sign, in its countless morphological, dynamic, physical and technical renderings, never oversteps the signifier’s threshold, never goes beyond the ornamented barrier of aesthetic and formal practice to become significance. This is the main point: the artist intimates the generative murmur of things, the music of the spheres and certainly evokes, at times, the natural movements of a writing hand (which we have to imagine right-handed and Indo-European), from left to right, from top to bottom, which doesn’t write anything, though, doesn’t convey any definite meaning.

His sign, of which we are now going to track genesis, history and mutations, was born, in fact, not out of a concretist and definite act, as Gillo Dorfles would have said, like Athena out of Zeus’ head, but through a softer and more natural process of simplification and abstraction of the suburban landscapes of 1960-61. Immediately after them, the newcomer displays the scope of his vitality and versatility by contending for a decade with elective affinities and even, maybe, a variety of loves (I don’t think the word “influences” applies in Ferrari’s case), that never succeed, though, in overcoming his basically and always independent and self-generative nature (he’s never swept off his feet). Ferrari moves about, in fact, in a rich and complex environment, where there coexhist Fontana’s ground-breaking and neat experimentation of the Tagli, the radical analytics of Manzoni’s Linea, the enlightening experimentation on form and volume by Castellani, Bonalumi and, I deem essential to add, Dadamaino too, the one, among the Milanese artists, heading with the greatest determination towards sign. Hers is a small sign, oriented, obsessive, greedily swallowing space, that reaches its first stage of maturity in 1973 with the Alfabeto della mente and then keeps following its exemplary course through Fatti della vita and Passo passo.

And then there are the Roman artists: Gastone Novelli, always rightly mentioned in connection with Ferrari, but I’d say also Carla Accardi and, mainly, Antonio Sanfilippo, whose unreadable “writings”, still in the Fifties, show unique and exclusive depth and spatiality, intrinsic in the pictorial “fact” and free from the impulsive and often blind gestural automatisms of Informal or action painting.

It’s on this thin edge that Ferrari moves: investigating the genesis of sign as a separate phenomenon, but also valuing its symbolic significance, its susceptibility to inter-pose, to mediate between artist and world: “…sign which is my life’s trail, the intermediate between my own existence and the surrounding reality and which, to quote Janus’ sentence, is biographical of iself, is memory, but also the erasure of all this”, writes he.

I find quite intriguing how, in the following lines of this enlightening text, rightly quoted by most of his reviewers, Ferrari dwells not on the first stage, that of sign moving towards significance, but on the second, the loss of this quality. “Sign bears inside itself the potentiality of rebelling against its very self, of becoming indecipherable, like engravings in a remote and forgotten language on ancient stone slabs.”

Bearing all this in mind, it’s not inappropriate to look at these stages of Ferrari’s work as at an archeological “excavation” into the first act of human significance, excavation striving to bring to light the moment preceeding the establishing of the ordered praxis we call alphabet. The artist – in this painter to the core – is mainly interested in the encounter of Humankind with this potentiality, or need, on wich civilizations are built.

Luciano Caramel is certainly right in maintaining that Ferrari’s sign “eludes a truly semiotic reading” and keeps within a “mainly graphic-pictorial pale”, yet I would like to stress once again Ferrari’s interest in the mystery of sign, in its unfathomable formal independence and in its auroral expressive value, the outcome of wich isn’t simply the upholding of the pictorial value of an artist’s experience.

Anyway, the graffito graphemes on a chromatic background of the early Sixties – a sort of “automatic writing” that, inquiring into the basic data of painting, is at the same time a trial of the spatial, aesthetic and creative potentialities of sign – are later on followed by the Teatri del segno (Sign Theatres) and the Forme totali (Whole forms). Cycles sprung from the “cooling” Caramel punctiliously remarks upon, an issue, maybe, of the artist’s encounter with American Minimalism and Pop Art during his stay in New York, where he went twice, in 1964 and in 1965.

Both in the Forme (Forms), understandably so much appreciated by Fontana, (even though a short time later, Ferrari came to look at them as a dead end) and in the delicate Teatri (Theatres)– close, in some respects, to some refined compositions of the Gruppo T or of kynetic or programmed art – there is a sort of annihilation of subjectivity (especially of the distinctive, calligraphic element of sign) in favour of a rigid analytic dimension, leading Ferrari to thus objectively sum up his experiences until that moment: “Towards the end of 1967 I resume my research on sign”, writes he. “In the paintings of that period there existed four elements representing different kinds of sign: the symbolic sign (drawn on a transparent surface), the pictorial sign (drawn on a white surface), the positive physical sign (built in relief on the surface with painted steel wires) and the negative physical sign (incisions made on the wooden background panel)”.

In spite of the patent arbitrariness of these distinctions (especially between symbolic sign and pictorial sign), it is unquestionable that this “teatro” means to Agostino Ferrari what the Verifiche (Verifications) meant to Ugo Mulas, not by accident almost in those very years: a kind of “try-out” on the meaning and value of their work; carried out for years “in the dark” by Mulas, and with lucid awareness by Ferrari, but certainly without yet articulating the whole grammar of his, by now, defined language in a sum-up chart that, while being such, were also an independent creation, a work of art.

Yet, to partly correct what has just been said, I find significant the fact of the artist’s calling these compositions in four clearly articulated stages – all of them the same from top to bottom and from left to right – not “tabelle” (charts), but precisely “teatri” (theatres), thus quoting both Fontana and Melotti and giving sign the possibility of being not just a “patient” dissected on an anatomy table, but the leading character in the “staging” of form, in a sort of “creation” of a world with global assumptions, that, a little later, will come fully into life with a luxuriant richness.

And, after the cycle of Segno, forma, colore of the Seventies, the “theatre” concept finds its more spectacular, accomplished and interactive form in the Autoritratto (Selfportrait) of 1975. The outcome of a complex project, lining up, in a spiral, 14 wooden panels, and leading from “matrix forms” to colours – the latter being, according to Ferrari, “partial aspects” of form itself – the Autoritratto, with its symbolic-existential stages of “DESIRE-ENERGY-GERMINATION-CHOICE-TRANSFORMATION-ACHIEVEMENT” is, more than ever, an “open work”, able to interact with the observer, but also a unitary “sign”, owing to the spiralling layout of the assembled panels: the spiral is a “primary” and dynamic sign par excellence, and it’s not by chance that Robert Smithson used it in 1970 for Spiral Jetty and Richard Serra too, quite recently, for his magnificent installations, each made of a single, huge, folded and twisted steel plate.

As far as I know, though, Agostino Ferrari was the first, in Italy, to build a walk-in spiral sculpture: for the visitor, to “see” it is a sort of initiation trip, a kind of descent into the elementary origins of primary sign (the spiral is, par excellence, a generative element of form and, at the same time, the quintessence of a little child’s first doodling on a surface) and a gradual progression through a series of logical and conceptual steps, laid down by the artist in a panel after another and ending up with the final “catharsis” (ACHIEVEMENT).

In a way, the Autoritratto is a climax: the artist will never go back to the installation concept again, and will only concern himself with surface or, however, well defined space, where the action on sign and of sign will display itself in an extensive range of possibilities, the plastic ones included; as a matter of fact, the “negative” dimension resurfaces in the Segni-impronta (Signs-imprint), runnels dug in the sand glued on a cardboard surface. But before taking into account all these stages, we need to dwell a little more on Ferrari’s handling of colour, especially in the Seventies, when, almost of a sudden, it becomes the focus of his interest: “…assuming a colour-light-white travelling through an empty space to be the only existing form in that space, by breaking down this white form through a prism I get the whole colour spectrum, ranging from red to purple. I therefore maintain that each single colour is a partial aspect of form”.

First of all, what needs pointing out is the originality of this perspective: what strikes me most is this notion of the white light beam as sign, i. e. form, determining space and thus becoming the starting point for an analytical reading of it. This way, the artist is able to consider colour not as an a-priori and somehow independent element, in contrast with form and sign, but as an attribute of the latter and, at the same time, a mode (one among several) in which it displays itself. Hence the connection of yellow and triangle (pyramid), red and circle (sphere), blue and square (cube). Connections that obviously remind us of Kandinsky’s “method”, but that, two times out of three, contradict it: in fact, in his Spiritual in Art, the master of Abstractism couples square and red together (regarding them, if I may so roughly summarize his point, as being “earthly” attributes) and circle and blue together (“heavenly” attributes).

It may be added, though, that Ferrari is not very interested in the “spiritual” aspects of colours, but mainly in the psychological ones. His intention is to (arbitrarily, as for most alphabets) establish the “alphabet” of a basic structuralism, as Aldo Passoni describes it, with the intention, maybe, of turning it into his own means of expression, in order to articulate that symbolic “discourse” that for some years is the focus of his interest and is only set aside at the beginning of the Eighties.

The question of symbol, though, will continue to be a propelling force in his research on sign, driving it towards ever more fruitful and in-depth perspectives: “Our ability of transforming the accidental elements of outside reality into symbols is not something we acquired through the long progress of civilization, but rather what we can surely regard as inherent in our own nature”, writes the artist9. Convinced, as Lacan was, that Man is essentially a “symbolic animal”, i.e. that our humanity began where and when symbolisation started, Ferrari tries, in his own way, to highlight its whole operating process, that chiefly and indefatigably aims at giving meaning to the world. Sign is, in this, an extraordinary and essential tool: it is thanks to sign that meaning, through the constant exercise of human symbolisation, acquires a definite and transmissible form. By means of, and through, a fertile and self-generative sign, new frontiers of symbolisation can be attained. As the Eventi (Events) show: we are dealing here with a series of paintings displaying, even in their name, the almost passive attitude of the artist towards his work and its indipendently shaping itself: “… sign is absolutely self-sufficient… it is a sign as dynamic as a gesture. It is also sheer writing, a purely physical event. It’s purpose is to fulfil itself, to describe itself into space, to express itself as phenomenon”, maintains Carmelo Strano about these works10. And the artist, commenting, at the beginning of the Nineties, on the Segni ravvicinati (Closing-up signs), adds: “Now is the work itself in its making that lends me ideas on how to carry it out, or suggestions on how to make the following one: in a way, it is as if the process of thinking started within the painting”.

In fact, starting from this time, the attention paid by Agostino Ferrari to the phenomenal dimension of sign keeps growing: as shown by his gradual giving up of, or distancing from, the analytical scope and, on the other hand, by the growing implication of phenomenal reality, and even of emotions, feelings and sensations. Indeed, one might say that these works kind of resonate or vibrate with the emotions expressed by the, at times wavering, progress of sign, by its inscrutable directions and colours, by its dialectic and shifting interplay with the surface – especially in his Esterno-Interno (Outside-Inside) of 1984, reminding us so much of Bruno Munari’s Negativi-Positivi in their form and space configurations – and, last but not least, by its materiality: few other artists have striven so much to give the sign a “body” of such “real” depth and thickness as to be able to cast a kind of “shadow”, as already mentioned, or of self-refraction, and therefore to move with a rythm through time and space, i.e. a sign endowed with the power of inner change. As Ferrari confirms: “It is through its variation, that sign is able to convey the perception of time to me”.

And here the last actor of the artist’s epistemological theatre comes into play: time. Ferrari lays hold of it in its almost natural passing from a sign into another, an unceasing process coming from the past and carrying in itself a potentiality of future. “Indeed, a sign of the present always has the memory of a sign of the past in itself, and both will be present in the signs of a time still to come”. In a way, this calls another Augustine to mind, the saint of Hippo: “What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know. Yet I say with confidence that I know that if nothing passed away, there would be no past time; and if nothing were still coming, there would be no future time; and if there were nothing at all, there would be no present time. But, then, how is it that there are the two times, past and future, when even the past is now no longer and the future is now not yet? But if the present were always present, and did not pass into past time, it obviously would not be time but eternity. If, then, time present – if it be time – comes into existence only because it passes into time past, how can we say that even this is, since the cause of its being is that it will cease to be? Thus, can we not truly say that time is only as it tends toward nonbeing?”

Time tends towards nonbeing, by this causing the inherent transience of all things, and yet it exists in our subjective perception, i.e. what Augustine calls mind. “For the mind expects, it attends, and it remembers; so that what it expects passes into what it remembers by way of what it attends to… still there is already in the mind the expectation of things still future… still there is in the mind the memory of things past. Who denies that time present has no length, since it passes away in a moment? Yet, our attention has a continuity and it is through this that what is present may proceed to become absent. Therefore, future time, which is nonexistent, is not long; but ‘a long future’ is ‘a long expectation of the future’. Nor is time past, which is now no longer, long; a ‘long past’ is ‘a long memory of the past’.”

With a degree of temerity one might be tempted into saying that, to Agostino Ferrari, sign is almost the equivalent of mind for his great namesake: sign’s “extension” is memory itself, it is essential to the continuity of signs’ life, which mirrors, as it is increasingly evident, the artist’s. It’s striking, in fact, how this long amorous journey of his, absolutely coherent but apparently uninvolved in existential issues, is intimately interwoven with autobiographical elements, with exquisitely human values and implications. As the two following and amazing stages – Palinsesti and Maternità/Paternità – will show.

In the former cycle, Ferrari’s intention is to somehow “record” the background noise of our mind, the statics, the wanderings, the free-associations. The work develops, then, out of superimpositions and layers of different and unhomogeneous size, body and flow, giving the impression of floating one on top of the other, but without interfering with or destroying each other.

This investigation on the simultaneity of thoughts and phenomena inhabiting us, of which the artist attempts a possible and very intriguing description, could be compared, mutatis mutandis, to Boccioni’s “simultaneism”, where the “natural” vision of things is superseded by a “real” one: i.e. not only a retinal, but also an imaginary vision, compounded by memories, thoughts, emotions and accidental intrusions.

Needless to say, what we are implying, here, is only a sort of affinity in method and purpose. Just a little later, in fact, Ferrari moves on into something different, i.e. the Frammenti (Fragments) and the already mentioned Maternità (Maternity), where the overall sign configuration is reversed into its “negative” within the central core of the painting. Painting within painting – the “small” one enclosed within and inverted in the “big” one – these paintings draw, maybe unawares, on one of Henry Moore’s most remarkable plastic idea (Reclining Mother and Child, and, in particular, Internal/External Form 1981-1982) of form within form, where the generative element is not a solid (positive) form, but an empty, womb-like concavity. In the external portion of the painting, Ferrari conjures up an illusion of volumes (in the Maternità: in the Paternità, it is exactly the opposite), while the internal one bears the sign code, the “bar code”, as it were, originating that particular configuration, or in other words, its DNA. Moore sees the mother-void as an actively propelling, generating force and the son-solid as a generated matter, the result of a moulding process. Agostino Ferrari reaches a similar result, starting, though, from a different mental and operational process, a mise en abîme of the painting itself, highlighting its synthesis or quintessential core. For both, though, it is the centre, the core that justifies, that lends meaning (Ferrari) or lends visibility (Moore) to the outside, the void.

Once again, quite an original outcome, confirming how, to Ferrari, surface is never a colorfield, an indistinct field where an element has the same value as another, but, instead, is always proceeding from a centre (Maternità), a direction (Eventi), a point (Frammenti).

“In Ferrari, surface itself… is action, changeableness, a now closer, now farther, always uncertain and enigmatic evanescence of space. Surface and space are different things to him: the first being able to bring forth the second; the second, free to choose the time for asserting itself, is only allowed to decide whether to assent or not to the sign’s principle of existence: just a wrong gesture and everything would collapse!”

At the end of this, in a way of speaking, grand tour, we come back to present time, and to the latest and sensuous adventures of a wiggling, wandering sign that seems to glide in between “inside” and “outside” and through the dark threshold of the Unknown, reemerging from it with unalloyed, unbounded energy.

More than ever, Agostino Ferrari highlights the physical reality of this sign, of its shadow, of its moving through different kinds of space, deceptively and even sensually opening up one onto the other. Again, the artist stands up to the great art history and some of its protagonists, first of all Fontana, but also Mantegna and himself; achieving once again a “whole form”, in which all the actors of his staging come into play with always different and impromptu balancing acts: colour, surface, space, time and, mainly, sign. First, last and already moving ahead on to the next act.

Translation by Clara Zanon