Critical Biography

by Mariacristina Maccarinelli

Agostino Ferrari was born in Milan on 9 November, 1938.

Attracted to the art world since childhood, in spite of his following a science oriented course of studies, he starts painting in 1959; that very year he meets Remo Brindisi, who welcomes him to work in his studio.

His first exhibition, introduced by a review of Giorgio Kaisserlian, takes place in 1961 at the Galleria Pater of Milan.

The works of his first years, which he names Natura Paesaggio Circostante, have as their subject the industrial landscape of suburban Milan in the late Fifties; even though non-iconic and with an Informal streak, they show a strong naturalistic bent.

Paramount is his meeting Arturo Vermi (with whom he has made friends early on), Angelo Verga, Ettore Sordini, Ugo La Pietra and Alberto Lùcia. In 1962, they form a group called “Cenobio”, a name reminiscent of monastic commitment, implying that the artists of the group “share the same aesthetic values”. Although short-lived, the group bears nevertheless an important witness to these same values within the lively and multifaceted art life of Milan in those days; to Ferrari, it represents groundwork for the beginning of his research on sign, to be developed in his work in the decades to come.

According to a later “reading” of the founders themselves, Cenobio’s aim was “to rescue the art of painting”, to uphold it against Piero Manzoni’s radical and existential stand, the forthcoming taste for “events” and what later would come to be known as “installations”. The way forwards is a minimal usage of the painted sign, an effort to bring painting back to a “degree zero”, to a primeval moment, before sign changed into a symbol or a word.

The poetics of the group are described by Lùcia as the recognition of a creative sensitiveness defined by the following five characters: sharp intellect, finely attuned feelings, intuition, learned insight, common sense, and as the artists’ awareness of the sheer impracticability of radically new inventions. This short art venture ends around the beginning of 1964, but the partners will keep in touch, some more, some less, in the years to come.

In 1963, Ferrari’s sign turns into a dynamic, polychromatic non-significant writing. In the years 1962 to 1964, described by the artist as his Segno-Scrittura (Sign-Writing) period,, the focus is not on writing as a means of codified, and then recognizable, communication, but on a writing that becomes art, achieving a value not because of worded meanings, but because of its sheer visuality, its reproducing emotional symbols. These paintings show Ferrari’s will to spin a tale of everyday life, to express a poetic vision by means not of words, but of a writing which is an amalgam of signs, emotions, feelings, visual cross-references meant to echo deeply in the observer’s mind.

In 1964-1965, he travels twice to New York and is introduced to the pop-art milieu, meeting Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Jasper Jones, Billy Apple. Branching out in a new field of research, he starts the Labirinti (Labyrinth) series, works in which he wills himself to “forsake” narrative paintings, storytelling, in order to pay more attention to the description of plastic concepts. The American encounters, although quite distant from Ferrari’s aesthetics, influence his sign, which then becomes more and more plastic.

The years 1966 and 1967 are marked by the beginning of a new series, the Teatro del Segno (Sign Theatre), where an often form-shifting sign plays a role of absolute premincence; these works overcome the bidimensionality of conventional painting and become painting-objects. The artist aims at giving a more physical image of sign, assumes sign to have objective qualities. In the Teatro del Segno, in fact, four elements of a different physical nature are present: the painted sign, drawn on a white surface; the symbolic sign, painted on a transparent surface; the physically positive sign, made of steel wire, or the likes, drawn across the painted surface; the physically negative sign, lines cutting through the painted wooden surface. Almost contemporary are the works named Forma Totale (Whole Form), paintings breaking away from the canvas’ or panel’s boundaries, holding a dialogue, both within and without, between the fragment and the whole form and striking such a harmonic balance between forms, painted sign and the only two colours in the paintings (white and light blue) as to give out an overall feeling of warmth, owing to the rythm of the work. The painter’s is a plastic research, as stated, in 1967, by Lucio Fontana too, in his foreword to the catalogue of one of Ferrari’s exhibitions.

In the early Seventies, the artist starts a research on colours, later made each one to correspond to different signs and forms. In this new pursuit, it is the emotional side of colours to be thoroughly investigated. Ferrari records the different stages of his work through a series of writings, which is, to him, an integral part of its development and priceless to those whishing to understand in depth the theoretical concepts leading him finally to the making of the Autoritratto (Self-portrait), climax and, at the same time, synthesis of a five years’ work. In 1972, Ferrari exhibits his works, named Segno-Forma-Colore (Sign-Form-Colour); that same year, at the Galleria San Fermo, and in 1974, at the Museo della Scienza e della Tecnica of Milan, he presents the Segno-Forma-Colore setting, within 20 milioni di anni luce (Twenty million light-years) space by Arturo Vermi. Even though obviously taking into account the experience of those twentieth century’s artists that, especially within an abstract context, had already broached the subject, Ferrari’s enquiry into the optical/visual perception of colour, its connection with form and its psycho-emotional tinge is carried out in a personal and original way.

His endeavours to find out, during the period 1972-1975, his own psychological relation to colours leads, in 1975, to a large-sized work: the Autoritratto, his one and only installation, shown the following year in a one-man exhibition at the Palazzo dei Diamanti, in Ferrara. From 1976 to 1978, he carries out the Alfabeto (Alphabet), a series summing up the Self-portrait concepts.

In 1978, the wish to express himself through the sign resurfaces, as he considers it the means best suited to the task of “faithfully mirroring his moods”. Thus the Giardini (Gardens) and the Ricordi (Memories) come into existence: works alive with sign-signals and joyful colours, stemming from the attempt to achieve a non-committed sign painting. The urge of the artist to go back to sign and painting must not be seen as a regression, but as an unexpected and unplanned turning point of his artistic research.

After this experience, the artist is driven to “refound”  the sign, which slowly takes up again the form of a writing, now intended, though, as memory or reminiscence. Since 1983, sign plays indisputably the leading role in the Eventi (Events), works where, through his writing, the artist doesn’t aim at telling a story, but at “freezing” himself on a “time-page symbol”. Here, sign is absolutely free from superstructures and expresses itself wholly, through dynamic movements all over the painting’s surface. Drawn as a linear writing, it has, though, a screaming intensity. The material coating the canvas’ surface is Otranto’s black sand, which allows the painter to enhance the sign’s theatricality and, up to this date, is an essential factor in his work. In these works, deeply imbued with the artist’s lyricism, sign follows its course within the painting’s space and beyond.

In 1995, Ferrari takes part in a series of four revival exhibitions of the “Cenobio” group: at Palazzo Martinengo, in Brescia; at the Galleria Peccolo, in Leghorn; at the Artestudio, in Milan and at the Studio Delise, in Portogruaro. In 1996, at the Galleria Lorenzelli, in Milan, Ferrari’s Frammenti (Fragments) are for the first time on display. In them, sign’s linearity has given way to chaos: forms meet and clash freely within the canvas’ boundaries. Writing breaks up in all directions.

Later on, there is a change in the works’ structure and the artist “conceives” a new balance between the space movements: the Maternità (Maternity) are born. In them, Ferrari reasserts a creative order, revolving around a central core – a source, a matrix – where the sign content, imprinting of itself the whole painting, is to be found. In the Maternità series, the forms’ arrangement and the light and shade effects born of the contrast between black and golden colours, give the observer the impression that, in spite of its finiteness, each painting refers to something outside itself, has a momentum reaching far beyond the canvas’ edges, is part of a project and a story Ferrari keeps writing throughout his works.

The present days’ work of the artist focuses on a series of paintings bearing the name Oltre la soglia (Beyond the threshold), consisting of a part where the sign narrative unfolds and of a black surface where the narrative breaks up or changes. The linearity of the story breaks up abruptly, as it were, and seems to be hanging between conscious and unconscious, between light and darkness, between the reality of the past and the unfathomableness of a future yet to be disclosed. In Ferrari’s maturity, his work clearly aims at conjuring up an inner and more intimist atmosphere. The threshold so plainly discernible between the two different planes of the paintings gives its name to the series. Deeply rooted in the tradition and in the act of painting, Ferrari is yet able to produce wonderfully modern works, proving art, and painting in particular, to be still one of the most powerful and striking means available to Mankind for the enquiry into and the depiction of their own nature.

In 2005, Ferrari is invited to participate in the Quadriennale of Rome, within the Contemporary Art section and on this occasion he exhibited a big sized painting (1,60 by 3,60 m) from the Oltre la soglia series, characterized by a haunting dark opening at their centre, an absolute blackness which, in the artist’s words, is “all that exists beyond the time accident of Man’s life, before birth and after death (…), our thoughts’ limitedness compared with the boundless universe of all that we don’t know nothing about”.

Also conceptually belonging to this cycle are the three big murals commissioned in 2007 to Ferrari by the Verona building corporation Valdadige Costruzioni and the Milan Land Group (Landscape Architecure) for Vimodrone Borgoverde square.
Still in 2007, a comprehensive retrospective takes place at the Galleria Centro Steccata in Parma.

A still more extensive survey of Agostino Ferrari’s artistic course on the part of art critic and historian Martina Corgnati, highlighting its profound consistency all through its different stages, is the 2010 exhibition at the Casa del Mantegna, in Mantua. In this historical and fascinating setting the Autoritratto (Self-portrait) spiral is once again shown in its third-dimensional monumentality, together with the new cycle Interno/Esterno (Inside/Outside) first paintings, where the unfathomable blackness of the previous series turns into a new writing, a retrieved sign, a renewed trust in Man’s cognitive abilities, in his unrelenting curiosity.

In 2011 the Fundación Cultural Frax (L’Alfás del Pi, Alicante) hosts a vast anthology of the artist’s works, the first ever in Iberia, to great critical and public acclaim.

In 2012, the Centre National d’Art Vivant de Tunis, at Le Belvédère (Tunisia) hosts the Segni d’Incontro/Signes de Rencontre exhibition.

In 2013, the Regione Lombardia pays tribute to his work with the SEGNO Frammenti di un percorso exhibition at the Exhibition Venue of Palazzo Lombardia; still in 2013, the Galleria Gruppo Credito Valtellinese of Milan exhibits an important anthology of the Gruppo del Cenobio works, titled Nel segno del segno, dopo l’informale.

In 2014, the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Tirana pays tribute to him by the exhibition CONFINI: linguaggi, spazi, cose persone, also hosted afterwards by the Istituti Italiani di Cultura of Zagreb, Cologne and Strasbourg. Still in 2014, he participates in the important group exhibition Nati nel ’30. Milano e la generazione di Piero Manzoni, at the Palazzo della Permanente, Milan.

Agostino Ferrari lives and works in Milan