The undivided space of painting

by Luciano Caramel

“In developing my research, I rather focus my attention on sign, which is life’s trail, the intermediate between my own existence and the surrounding reality.” Written by Agostino Ferrari for the Events series, this is the first remark the reader finds alongside the selection of paintings, dating from 1984 onwards, displayed in this book. An incipit consonant with the artist’s entire work of the last twenty-three years (almost a quarter of a century), which is marked by such an intrinsic coherence, in spite of the variety to be found within its operational hypothesis and their results, on a language level so intimately connected with life and both the cultural and existential context, as to be always lively and stimulating, striving for art to be not just a self-centered purpose, but an increasingly determinant discourse with the public. An instance of all this is the monumental work on the walls of Piazza Borgoverde, in Vimodrone, on the outskirts of Milan – a non-location, to quote the now trite, but still pertinent and graphic description of Marc Augé – by which an aesthetic import has been given to an area which had none, and which actually was, and, sadly, still partly is, absolutely nondescript.

Indeed, the relinquishing of a self-reflective attitude is quite visible and strong in these mature stages of Ferrari’s work, and exemplary in the truest meaning of the word, as it stems – not just, as always in Agostino, from a clearsighted critical awareness – but from an energy deeply-rooted in consciousness, unfolding itself in the work of art, and not just through thought, theory or behaviour. The artist himself is clearly aware of this, for, in introducing the painting series named Closing-up sign (1986-1989), he states that “it’s from this moment”, which he deems “extraordinary” for his research, that “a sort of fusion of two elements, until then experienced as well defined, quite different and apart, takes place”: his “being” and his “doing”. Yet, if it’s true that before, as Ferrari goes on saying, “sign was a tool to cross over from one dimension into the other, it was there to be contrasted with forms, to oppose them or accept them, and the canvas was a surface on which” to build “a story” the artist was aware of, but “from the outside”, there isn’t the slightest doubt that, since its beginning, Ferrari’s painting hinted at sensibilities and yearnings, far beyond a mere analitical speculation, which foreshadowed and foretold the latest exploits, as in 1991, at the outset of Ferrari’s new course, I argued in an essay which I refer to here and take some concepts from, as I deem them useful to the understanding of Ferrari’s whole artistic work and of its multifaceted complexity.


As all his contemporary fellow artists, Ferrari started working at a time (late Fifties-early Sixties) when the Italian art milieu was still influenced by Informal – a broad concept, as it is well known: not a movement, not even a coherent trend, and yet undeniably marked by non-specific, but very recognizable and defined links – that by then had lost its momentum, while new trends were superseding it, leaving its, at times uttermost, subjectivism, its direct, immediate and, at most times, authomatic expressiveness behind, with a view to the retrieval of some objectivity in the proceedings, even of a tangible objectuality, and an urgent stress on communication. The wish to go beyond it, impelled by the decaying of matter, sign and gesture into randomness, slatterny shallowness and, contrary to its assumptions, mannerism, in the works of Informal masters, was soon to come out – in the works of the most motivated and bold artists – with unheard of, and sometimes radical, propositions, still, though, in the wake of Informal.

As it happened in Milan, Ferrari’s hometown, with an acceleration soon leading some artists – mainly Enrico Castellani, an early friend of Agostino, and Piero Manzoni – to the uttermost denial, of painting itself, and, on another, parallel ground and at about the same time, the neoconstructivists of Gruppo T too. The purpose was to reach a kind of zeroing and from there start again to build up the “communicative role”, jeopardized by Informal, Gillo Dorfles wrote about on the first issue of Azimuth, the magazine edited by Castellani and Manzoni, main interpreter of that artistic climate, issued the very year (1959) Ferrari became a professional painter.

On it were pictures of works of art going a way or another beyond the Informal or even the Overseas Action painting – beyond and yet in their wake – and a few articles, among which, headlined as of a programme, Guido Ballo’s Beyond Painting, on Fontana and Spatialism, and the one, already mentioned, by Dorfles, where the painter and art critic, stating the onsetting of “an ever faster art consumption”, argued the need for it “to retrieve its semantic nature, to become language and discourse”, plainly contending against the airtight withdrawal into subjectivity of Informal art, its total refusal or little ability to communicate, as it confined itself within the cryptic self-reflection of the author’s emotions in the painting, without any real connection with the public. This latter expostulation was indeed endorsed by young Ferrari too and was to be at the core of the New Art Concept, the sole subject of Azimuth’s second and last issue, published in 1960, on which the work of Udo Kultermann – who was to hold an exhibition focused on those very subjects, Monocrome Malerei, in Leverkusen, that very year – featured prominently and with deep relevance.

In his article, arguing against Informal, the art critic maintained that the new artists were trying to “mechanize the matter, the elements of making themselves, in order to give them an intense tangibility of effects, thus turning the painting into a dynamic structure” and that “the new art of painting means to objectify the action’s tools, in such a way that the constellation and the true nature of the very forming matter become a starting point and an effectual module, and a real and objective structure replaces the hazy trail of self-centered forms of expression”.

The “new art of painting” that, not differently from Castellani and Manzoni, Kultermann was advocating and promoting was in fact concerned with values and meanings that went beyond painting itself, even when, apparently, they seemed still grounded on painting, and was to be the subject of very impassioned debates in the Milanese art milieu Ferrari haunted. In them he takes part and to them he reacts, with conscious and deliberate autonomy, by research and work of a “different” brand: first of all, still within the art of painting’s boundaries, and, secondly, heading into quite another direction from that of his friends and collegues, Castellani, for a start, as it is plainly visible in Periferia (Suburbia), of that very year, shown on these pages.

The irreconcilable divide between Ferrari’s position and the New Art Concept didn’t lie only in his being at odds with their pre-emptive refusal of painting, but, and here is where his autonomy and originality most clearly stand out, in his practice of a “new painting” that was painting still, that would go on questioning art conventions, but from within. Even more prominent in his work, is the will to preserve that bond between art and life, feeling and making, hence between man, artist and work of art, Informal hailed in by overthrowing that immoderate emphasis on “plastic values” – sappy with Idealism (of the philosophic sort) – that, in the wake of the Futurist avant-garde crisis, had prevailed for several decades in Italy – even in the works of some abstract painters of the Thirties and of the second Postwar period – and had thoroughly refuted art’s involvement in the existential turmoil, in the worldly affairs, while advocating an abstract “purity”, whether be it representational or not, that not even the ideological impetus of Corrente and the crash against war’s and Resistence’s harsh reality had succedeed in turning into a means of expressing contemporary life. While Informal, to those who didn’t misinterpret it or just brushed past it, was a tidal wave, what with its in-depth plunge into matter, its temporally inspired spatiality, its drive for sign and gesture, which, even though being close to his friends of “Azimuth & Azimuth” (the first is the name of the movement, the second, that of the related art gallery), Ferrari doesn’t relinquish, but rather cools down, always by means of the pygments’ materiality (here is faithfulness to painting, partly, at least, owing to the persistence of Informal precepts). This was apparent in the works of 1960, as in those of the following year (cfr, for instance, Listening to Dallapiccola, shown on these pages): black surfaces, which Ferrari engraves with a spatula so as “to create quite vibrant graffiti”; about them, years later (around 1991), the artist will write: “Now, as I look at them, I understand that my interest in sign started right then”. As we are well aware of, quite his main subject up to these days, and the following year already taking up the leading role in the works of that stage of his research named Sign writing, 1962-1965, which we shall turn our attention to presently. But not before restating once more, in order to avoid any misunderstanding, the significance, the exact bearings, hence the extent, of the painter’s connection with Informal and, although there is no need to prove it, how thoroughly alien to the manneristic and repetitive reception of so many contemporaries of his (and not only) they are. And, also, how they are to be read in subtle ways – clearly shown by the paintings of 1961, unvaluable to understand, in retrospect, those of 1959 and 1960 – in their fruitful closeness to the solidly structured chromatic bands of Chighine’s Informal of the late Fifties – but yet heading towards a thoroughly different direction – and in their suggestions and references to the masters of European Informal of the time, such as Fautrier, Hartung, Tapies or Burri (quite different the relationship with Fontana, prominent in Ferrari’s artistic life, as in that of many other Milanese artists, such as Manzoni and Castellani themselves and, on another level, Gianni Colombo), and may be to the abstract expressionism of the States, already known in Italy since a decade and half.

Yet, the age lag is quite apparent, since what for the masters was just a part of their lives, for Ferrari was already history, to which, as a twenty years’ old novice, he was giving more than casual attention, attracted by something that wasn’t yet clear to him, but that he intelligently appreciated was consonant with his still undeveloped, yet somehow already active, disposition. This, I believe, is the meaning of the stark statement written in 1979 by Ferrari on his first monograph, prefaced by Aldo Passoni, stating: “The Informal art of those years didn’t influence my research”, since, at the time, his “main effort was to set tonal relations between the foreground masses and the background, whithin what usually was a highly simplified landscape or industrial scenery of Milanese suburbia”. A statement on just a formal and analytical practice not to be taken literally: Ferrari’s aim is rather that of distancing himself from an Informal run wild in sign as in gestural expressiveness – in a way anticipating his already quoted note introducing the Closing-up Sign, where he mentions the achievement of a fusion in his research between “being” and “doing” – not in order to contradict or extenuate its meaning, but rather in order to free it from all pollution and strengthen its unifying power in his work, rooted, I still believe, in an understanding of Informal art that goes back to the years of his youth.

As Ferrari wrote in that outstanding short note introducing the Events paintings, “a sign of the present always bears, within itself, the memory of a sign of the past” and this applies, too, to the latter, much fruitful seasons of his work this book is concerned with.

Sign, writing and painting

The oils, temperas, mixed technics of the just mentioned Sign Writing cycle belong still to the prehistory of the Ferrari this book is dealing with, but already foreshadow his purposes, both concerning the meaning of sign and its heteronomy, coming by now into the foreground with a clear poetic consciousness. This is proven once again by an early text of the artist, dating back to 1979, where he states, in an clear and assertive way, that “it was at that period that I confronted for the first time what will be the leading theme of my research up to now: sign”, which “at the beginning [in the already mentioned early experiences of 1961] I achieved scratching with a spatula the painted surface so as to bare the underlying canvas” and “later on, turns into a writing, which becomes the main feature of the work. By this writing I tried to describe environmental situation, frames of mind or memories”. Because, as he further detailed in some other notes of the same period, published in the 1991 monograph: “The whole tangible world can be subjected to an extreme simplification of sign and organized in terms of elementary symbols. This simplification becomes a form or writing when it is used to express, besides contingent or environmental situations, also emotional states”.

There is no doubt that, in the ripening of Ferrari’s purpose and its unfolding in painting, an important role was played by the close friendship and the exchange of ideas with Vermi, with whom and with Ettore Sordini and Angelo Verga, Ferrari founds, in 1962, the Gruppo del Cenobio, soon joined by Ugo La Pietra too, with the aim to “start, through a minimal sign process, a research bringing back vitality into painting”. Sign and painting, then, for a new art of painting, which, under Fontana’s sway, the associates to the Cenobio put forth with a more cogent meaning. Representation’s values are not denied, but restricted within both a more elementary and a more comprehensive range, implying the thorough renounciation of all that was representational or figurative, however free and emotionally motivated, in a way similar to that of Castellani and Manzoni and thoroughly different from those trying, in Milan too, a new figuration, soon crossbred with pop influence. Yet rewriting the language rules still within that field of achievement of oneself beyond oneself that the action of painting and the painted canvas itself represent: the latter, surely an object, but a privileged object, as it were, able of itself to oppose the banalization of a compromised objectification with the scenarios and the physical urgency of everyday life, and, of course, bound to require, of the very achievements mostly involved with existential, psychological and bodily drives, a detachement, a subsidence, an otherness, or, as Cesari Brandi would have said, a “bystander attitude”, suitable for a less contingent making or saying.

This is the originality of the Gruppo del Cenobio in the follow-up of Azimuth, so to speak: in their going beyond the tabula rasa of extreme experiences – in itself, just an iconoclast and neo-avant-garde phase of art’s constant evolving – such as Manzoni’s Achromes, Klein’s Monochromes, Oskar Holwek’s still monochromatic Reliefbilder or Castellani’s Surfaces.

Close, in this respect, to the painters and sculptors of Gruppo Uno – born at Termoli, in 1962, from the meeting of Gastone Biggi with Nicola Carrino, Nato Frasca, Achille Pace, Pasquale Santoro and Giuseppe Uncini – in their effort to retrieve and refound painting, Ferrari and the other members of the Cenobio took stock of these experiences, but saw them as already outdated. They felt alien, once again in unison with the Romans of Gruppo Uno, to the contemporary Programmed Art too, their main concern being research in a primary area, well upstream of any technological subject, even though, on a theoretical ground, they didn’t rule out – as Ferrari’s work hadn’t formerly ruled out emptiness, “infinity” and the very “communicative role” of Azimuth – the stimulating perceptive complexity offered by the coexistence and interaction of rule and chance, or, rather, of chance within rule, i.e. by non-calculated yet foreseeable variations within a systemic project, as the one concerned with building object-machines of Programmed Art was bound to be. Their lack of interest in real kinetic art was owing to the convinction of the limits of the programmed machine’s perceptive mechanism, since it was just a “given”, in spite of the variety of its dynamics, being, therefore, “closed”, unable, as opposed to painting, to activate, as they wanted, any autonomous participation.

Turning back to Ferrari now, since these early sign and writing works, sign is to him, with reference to Peirce’s well known tripartition, neither an index nor an icon, i.e. it has no relation of contiguity or similarity with its referent, but cannot be properly classified as a symbol either, in spite of the polisemantic meaning this word is loaded with, and not only in everyday language. Therefore, it eludes a truly semiotic reading, whether it be semantic, syntactic or pragmatic. In general terms, one might refer to it as to a signifying system, not differently from how one would do if, after discarding the downgrading of sign to signal because of its scant coding, one were to speculate on its communication level and, therefore, on the way it might be received and understood by the public. As I already argued in the 1991 essay, irrespective of how it may be termed, the register of Ferrari’s “sign writing” is mainly graphical-pictorial. As I wrote then, his aim “to describe environmental conditions, frames of mind and memories” is still the same of his former works. A “diagnosis” confirmed also by the “reading” of the 1962-1963 paintings given by the same author, who, introducing these oil or tempera writings on canvas or board, wrote, in 1979: “Around this time, my paintings undergo quite a change, the central masses and the backgrounds tone down and lose the plastic tangibility of the previous year, and take up atmospheric colours”. As I pointed out in that very review, to the artist the painted canvas (cfr. on these pages Pagina, Incontro, Racconto breve, all dated 1963) is a page with well defined margins, within which the brush leaves quick polychromatic trails, some large, some minute, following a typically writing mode. Signs become peculiar “words”, written with an elementary and repetitive handwriting and developing according to rythms set more by the page lay-out (i.e. by still pictorial concerns) than by any intended meaning – i. e. any conventionally coded significance – yet conveying quite a strong emotional significance.

The Sign Theatre

In order to bring to the fore the “roots”, already visible in Ferrari’s early work, of his “thorough” commitment to painting in latter years, I have on purpose put a lighter stress on the artist’s statement!8 about his using the sign in a more detached and analytical way prior to a “climatic moment” of his research, in the mid-Eigthies, with the fusion between his “being” and his “doing”. There is no doubt, though, that the artist always aimed at a formal exactitude in his work, in a way disconnecting himself from his own subjectivity, which we endeavoured to “rediscover”. In his paintings of the early Sixties, the relations between backgrounds and forms and those between sign and background colouring were already well balanced, as were those of the “Diaries” in the period of the Cenobio. After his travels to New York of the years 1964 and 1965 – where he had found the Pop Art interesting, although outside his scope, but had also been able to notice the outset of a minimalist cooling – in his paintings (which, as he himself aknowledges, had “changed”), “sign, previously a writing, took up a more plastic value, on a par with colour and form”. As in works such as In the Space, Going in, Mechanical Moon, Labyrinth, Deep in the Blue, Throughout the Blue, where sign, although free and loose, isn’t vibrant anymore, as isn’t the background itself, still and with a steady light, and the still perceptible narrative strain is coupled with analytical purposes, which, though, do not contrast the achievements of his former work, in which an overbearing emotional freedom, conjuring up private memories and recording them in a kind of diary sheets, went however always hand in hand with a reflective bent, bound to become stronger in the following years, as sign takes up an objective existence, losing its writing role, marginalizing and overruling, yet not altogether effacing, the effusive mood of the former works.

The complexity of the relations between the broad linear rythms running across the surface and the surface itself, conversing with irregular elliptic and concentric forms expanding from a central core, grows in the mid-Sixties, along with a deepening of the analysis, which becomes systematic and programmed, bestowing an articulate unity on whole cycles. Along this line of self-reflective enquiry, in 1965-1966, Ferrari – with an unheard of coherence and an ahead-of-time (as far as Italy was concerned) attunement to the unfolding conceptual trend – brings forth a consistent phenomenology of sign, as he states that “signs may be expressed in different ways” and “that the relation arising between signs of a different nature and symbolic signs is quite interesting”. “The drawn sign, if we consider it symbolic”, he went on, “can be put into a relation with the positive physical sign and the negative physical sign: this, within the context of the inner space (i.e. the one existing between sign and sign) and of the outer space, enclosing the observer too, I’ve called Sign theatre”, a work series of that very year. In this series, the artist goes on writing, “signs were of a different physical nature”, namely “the symbolic sign, painted on a transparent surface”; “the pictorial sign”, drawn “on a white surface”; “the physically positive sign”, made of “steel wires, lying across the painted surface” and “the physically negative sign, lines cutting through the painted surface”. All of them – as I remarked in the already mentioned essay of 1991, were I dwelt extensively on these developments – Agostino links, compares, trying not only to build a sort of object semiotics (a quite difficult achievement, as it is well known, mainly because of the specificness of the object message, and one the art historians’ attention, especially Corrado Maltese’s, was focused on too, at the time), but to spark off the observer’s reaction, thus emphasizing the always existing dialectics between work of art and public, here primarily important in order to counterbalance the overbearing role of plastic factors in the artist’s work. Such a relation between signs and their objectification in space, together with the perceptive-psychological involvement of the observer it implied, went quite in the opposite direction of a just formal, self-absorbed plasticity, but led to a dynamics of meanings and symbols. In fact, these become, in the course of time, more and more relavant in Ferrari’s work, not, though, by means of superimposing value on value, but starting from within the signifiers, i.e. still from sign, form and colour.

“My work’s aim is an enquiry into the representational archetypes of Mankind’s primary emotions”, stated the artist in his notes, firstly published in 1979 and several other times afterwards with reference to his latter years’ achievements too; these words are still topical, hence their quotation here, since the 1991 essay is by now out of print. Ferrari went on saying: “The ability to transform the accidental elements of the surrounding reality into symbols is not something we have acquired over the course of civilization, but something we have good reasons to believe inherent in our nature. Man, as others have neatly put it, is a symbolic animal. Investigating in this direction, therefore, means trying to recover primary human emotions, so as to be able, on the basis of these, to attempt a cultural operation taking into account Man in his wholeness and complexity. Each colour is imbued with a manifold significance, closely connected with the natural world and the magic bond man has always felt with it, and it is a symbol infused with strong emotional resonances”.

Certainly, in Agostino’s analysis of those years, the attention on form was paramount too: in the very years of the Sign Theatre, in the series Whole Form – concerned with the relational nature of forms, a central theme in the work of the last decades – introducing which, in 1967, Lucio Fontana, always a benevolent patron of the young Milanese artists’ work, described Ferrari as “involved in a plastic research. His plastic hypothesis is to achieve a pictorial relation between a fragment, seen as the starting concept, and the whole form, in which the originary concept is finally embodied. After defining the pictorial content of the work through an embryonic concept, he follows the form’s evolution through a succession of interdependent variations. The work’s completion is achieved when, subjectively, the pictorial values of the “fragment” and the plastic ones of the “whole form” are seen as thoroughly balanced”.

This enquiry into form, developed between 1967 and 1969, implied a signifying element too (and it was Ferrari’s express desire to have the above quoted explanatory remarks about archetypes and symbols printed alongside the pictures of that very series), not differently from the cycle Sign Form Colour, 1971-1975, although the latter was mainly concerned with the different psychological reactions aroused by each colour and the colour’s relation with form and sign, with a new radical drive leading to the minimality of monochrome. Not differently from the Self-portrait (years 1975 to 1978), where the enquiry becomes autobiographical, and the Alphabet, final achievement of Ferrari’s strict analytical observance. The artist himself – at the end of 1978, back from another trip to the States (to Dallas, this time) – is well aware that specific research of his has reached its conclusion.

Sign and Event

Here is the tidal change of Ferrari’s research, his turning back to the expressive sign, leading, in the years from 1983 to 1990, to Events, Closing-up Sign, Palimpsests, Fragments, Maternity and Paternity, and, of late, to Beyond the Threshold, last episode, for now, of a still ongoing and engaging story, recorded in detail on this book. The artist turns to sign again, but not, as he warns us, to the “thousands of existing signs day by day stripped of their original meaning in order to be consumed as symbols for ‘social’ usage”, but to the “sign, which is my life’s trail, the intermediate between my existence and the surrounding reality”. Statements so full of energy, so strongly rejecting escapism, so alive with commitment and so open to one’s consciousness and to the others’ live presence that we already quoted at the beginning of this text, in order to open at once a long ranging perspective allowing us to better understand the latter developments, marked by liberty (but not unruliness), attunement with present times and openness to the future ones, but also by memories and remembrances, allowing the artist to relive, through recollection, the past, to take stock of it, but not to get rid of it, on the contrary, rather opening up new ways by means of all there is in it. His dissatisfaction with the systemic analysis of the Sixties and Seventies cycles, not a disowning of rationality and of the awareness that the past still lives in the present, has led Ferrari to a self-analysis focused on the artist’s course brought to bear on the fullness of existential involvement. Its outset is recorded in the final lines of the book published in 1979 by Politi, which is an unusual as well as a precious report on that journey of self discovery.

In it, a Ferrari just in his forties writes: “In 1977, my research came to a conclusion: I had started out, in the years 1962-63, from an emotionally expressed sign and now, through the different stages of the Sign Theatre, the Whole Form, the relations of acceptance of Sign – Form – Colour, I had reached the Self-Portrait and finally the Alphabet. Thus, trying to analyse the work of the last fifteen years, I’d say that, in the early paintings of this period, the emotional aspect was predominant, while later on, concept was most important. […] In the last two years, through a number of intensely emotional experiences, a strong wish of expressing myself through sign once again has resurfaced, as sign fits more closely my frame of mind. […] This last year, I’ve felt the need to express in a lyrical way such of my everyday life’s emotions as I’m able to filter and express poetically, without wondering, as yet, to what possible development this could lead in the future. Thus, [in the years 1978 to 1980] I’ve painted works with titles such as Garden, Waiting, Meeting, Red Balloon etc., reminiscent of some of 1962. I have no idea whether this “refoundation” is going to be the outset of a new cycle, hence of a new adventure within the realm of expressive possibilities, or a temporary phenomenon, bound to peter out together with the emotional drives giving rise to it; anyway, I will not waste time wondering about its outcome, I’d rather go back, right now, to painting my Gardens”. Light and poetic Gardens, teeming with a thick and joyful swarm of minute and polychromatic signs, within the bright textures of a “noncommittal sign painting”, seen, if one correctly reads these sentences, as a waiting period, while being a tidal change. Marked, among other thinks, by the comeback of writing, so thick, at times as to cover up the whole background, and, in the following years 1980-1981, playing the leading role in multicoloured paintings with titles bearing witness to the fascination of memories (Stepping into…, Remembrance, Retrieved Page, First Page, Present Past33) and in some very striking folded monochromatic pages (Page 1 and Page 2), where “colours disappear, leaving in their wake a sign still understood as writing [a painting of 1981 bears quite simkply this very title], this time, though, as memory or remembrance”.

Such “refoundation”, which – between 1978 and 1980 – was preceded by and then contemporary to the Contaminations, was, as Ferrari remarks, an answer to his “wish-need to express myself once again through pure sign, which best fits my frames of mind” and balances itself between serenity and uncertainty, lyricism and obsession, reality and dream. A transitional stage brought to a sudden close by the irrepressible outset of Events, opening a new season, rich in inventions and suggestions. Sign, which “is life’s trail”, unfolds itself freely in space, surfaces from or flounders into something unintelligible, prompting emotions and thoughts.

Several factors bring about such new ease in Agostino’s work, which stems mainly from a drive to get rid of strict codes but marginally subjected to a formalized planning. The first one of them is the preminent role played in his paintings (alongside the acrylic paint) by black sand, which confers a densely physical effect to the images owing to the light playing on their ridges, with clear and strong contrasts. Another factor, linked to the first, is a stronger stress – after many years of mental conceptualizing – on manual skill, since the matter at hand requires an elaborate and complex proceeding. A third element is the peremptory presence of large signs, giving out the effect of a highly dynamic movement in space because of their free tracing, their different directions and frequent changes in dimension too. All this, the outcome of an automatic gestural expressiveness flowing onto the canvas, born of the encounter with it and of the signs’ ongoing development, within a continuum, which is not semantic, but energetic. “Now it’s 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 that I haven’t as yet begun”, states the artist in his note referring to the cycle of Closing-up Sign, of which Events is basically a prosecution. “Now I’m past any dichotomy between being and doing, as if my present work had caused me to achieve a higher degree of wholeness between the inside and the outside”, says Ferrari, apparently reliving – in the act of taking possession of the canvas’ surface by drawing signs and writings on it, thus changing the space it represents – the unifying tension of subject, gesture and matter, hence of event, life and painting, of Informal.

Still in his notes on Events, quoting the art critic Janus, Ferrari writes that the sign he is interested in is “biography itself and memory too, but also the erasure of all that” and “bears inside itself the possibility of rebelling against its very self, of becoming indecipherable, like engravings in a faraway and forgotten language on ancient stone slabs”. Then adding: “This is sign reverting to its primeval source, when nothing existed yet in the mind of Makind”. A sign, then, well grounded in time, yet open to the future, as its roots are in the present, but without any indulgence in primitivism or primevalism nostalgia. So that, in the overlaying of different types of writing, “coinciding in time and space”, of the Palimpsests (1990-1993), the painter sees “Man in his wholeness and peculiarity”, the author’s aim being “not to portray, but to freeze-frame” himself “on a time-page”. These paintings, owing to their different plans and the different shapes and dimensions of the writing, convey the feeling of a superimposition of times and situations, in a pictorial-spatial integrality that affords one the experience of space’s temporality. Furtherly stressed in the Fragments (1995 to 1998) by the “portraying of an inclusive space”, where, according to the artist’s own description, “signs […] break up and move about in all directions on the painting’s surface, like an outburst of sign splinters carrying with them parts, shattered too, of the form, so as to picture, on the canvas, a chaotic universe of thoroughly disjointed language hypothesis”, giving one the impression “of submerging in a chaos which isn’t just two-dimensional, but stretches (optically) into the third dimension, because of the form fragments floating in space among the sign fragments”.

A centrifugal explosion enhancing the formal potential of space structure, and the significance of sign fragmentation too, thus questioning, or rather disarticulating, the linear writing’s well tempered rythms, in order to achieve fusional unity through that very fragmented articulation, without any complacency, which would allay Ferrari’s very wish to hold fast to life and experience, now compelling, not just argued for. As opposed to the “cage” of contrived symbolism, within which “signs are simplifyed and disciplined”, thus “divesting them inevitably of their emotional content”, in order to reappropriate “the value of one’s body and one’s emotions”, as Agostino already argued in the Seventies, reproving our living the “social and natural realities of our planet as virtual realities”, this way “unable to be aware of our breathing, of our heart beating and our blood circulating: in a word, of the fact that we have a body too”.

Being and Doing, Beyond the Threshold

Around the mid-Nineties, the overbearing centrifugal tension and the underlying reference to primeval chaos of the Fragments – with paintings bearing titles such as N.E.S.O., namely North East South West, still carrying a sense of direction then, where “form fragments floating in space among the sign” seem to stretch “into the third dimension” – strike up a balance with the opposing centripetal forces, hence with the centre, as it was already crearly visible in a big painting of 1995, Fragments within a red circle, displayed with other painting of the Fragments series in the one-man exhibition at the Galleria Lorenzelli of Milan, where also a painting of 1993 was on show: Black Maternity, an almost five meter long rectangular surface, where winding horizontal signs seem to enter from one end and exit from the opposite one. In the centre, a smaller rectangular shape, crossed by minute signs mirroring, in the negative, those running outside it, focuses the attention of the public on itself, in a sort of centripetal contraction, which, superimposed on the larger underlying texture, gives the observer the impression of a double reality: that of the underlying matrix unrestrained flow and that of its enclosed fruit. This explains the name Maternity given, in the years from 1999 to 2002, to a new cycle of paintings, forecasted by this large painting in the 1996 Fragments exhibition. Not in a fully formed way as yet, the consciousness of a new theoretical and expressive development was slowly taking shape, as witnessed by a letter Ferrari wrote to me at the end of 1998 – concerning the new critical review I was then writing for his exhibition Tales – Fragments – Maternities at the Galleria Colomba, in Lugano, on March 1999, where the whole series was to be on display for the first time (I had already written a paper on his work for the Lorenzelli exhibition). “The Fragments series”, wrote the artist, who was going, in the years to come, to express this very concept with the same or, at times, slightly different words, recorded also on these pages, “was a new experience, or rather a new research strain and, as always, in setting out for cosmos, I start from chaos. In this instance, too, Fragments meant chaos, i.e. non-significant signs, different from one another, and forms heading into different directions on the painted surface. Later on, I tried to counterbalance these movements, giving the work a centre”.

The Maternities of the years around 2000, as I remarked in the catalogue of the 1999 exhibition, have a quite grater complexity than the Palimpsests of 1993. First of all, the larger and less crowded sign writing is not, not even irregularly, linear, and is heading in different directions, as the forms are, and the latter, contrary to those of Fragments, are carrying signs within, like “containers”. But the paintings’ main feature is the recurring, now fully intentional, of the central rectangular shape, holding within itself, still in negative and on a smaller scale, the sign “lay-out” of the entire work, like a sort of bidimensional project, bound to develop and grow in scale on the canvas surface surrounding this same project-matrix-genome, even though within the scope of a painting’s make-believe. Thus, going back to the already quoted letter, it is possible to “read the new painting in two different ways: the inner (central) part displays bidimensionally the whole sign matter of the painting and the spaces inbetween the different signs turn themselves into different, non linear signs; on the outer part, the same signs are shown on a much larger scale and seem to acquire some sort of three-dimensional quality, owing to the shadows, while the black spaces inbetween the signs represent the void”. The painting, this way, “is made up by a flat inner section, containing all the data, a sort of systemic hypothesis, as it were, and an outer, predominantly plastic one”. Not just that, though, as the inner, miniaturized section can be seen, alternatively, as superimposed on the larger, three-dimensional sign-forms, thus partly concealed, or lying at the painting’s bottom, almost as a “black hole”. This very section, though, in the Paternity paintings becomes light in colour, positive and threedimensional, while it is the outer section’s turn to show flat, negative, bidimensional shapes on a black background. In such metamorphic dialectics between inside and outside; between space turning into sign or becoming space again, but changing direction and position; between chaos and order or viceversa, the confrontation and coexistence of centrifugal and centripetal forces is tantamount to the presence-outset of implosion within explosion, and viceversa, and is a long way forward from the mainly formal dimension, the conceptual stiffness, the hierarchical sequences underlying the 1967 Whole Form, transcended not just by the “different formal approach” mentioned by Agostino in his note concerning the Maternity cycle, but by Ferrari’s level of “awareness “ today. Hence the different results, reaching their climax outside his workshop and painting confines, in the community space, as witnessed by his latest, very large murals in Vimodrone, an exceptional specimen of the art of painting’s still great signifying power. At their very centre, a striking opening of absolute blackness, Beyond the Threshold, as the title goes. The unconscious and the unknowable, the depth of man and of cosmos? The mystery of what lies in wait for us after life? Or of what was in the beginning, unknowable by scientist or believer, and by Mankind and Cosmos as well? The paintings don’t provide an answer, they just give rise to questions, reflections, meditations, and may be to anxiety. “There is, on one side, my awareness of reality, which I portray as I always did, developing a theme with signs and forms: this is the threshold of emotions that are familiar to me” and “on the other side, there is all I don’t know about Man and life”, explains the artist in the note concerning this series, going on to add that “a black surface embodies all that exists beyond the time accident of a man’s life, before birth and after death, emptiness and darkness, our thoughts’ limitedness compared with the boundless universe of all we don’t know anything about” and concluding: “So, when, in the painting, reality breaks against this threshold, the narration fades out, comes to an end or disappears”.

To be true, the opening “beyond the threshold” isn’t always black, in the large number of paintings Ferrari has by now devoted to this theme, although that fathomless darkness is certainly prevalent. But in every instance, the lacerated margins of the surface opening into the “beyond” have an intense dramatic quality, furtherly enhanced in the work of Vimodrone by its monumental scale and by its being repeated on three sides of the square, thus lending it a peculiar atmosphere of open enclosure, to which the public reacts strongly, as I was well aware myself and was immediately apparent in the words and gestures and on the features of the public attending the work’s unveiling. An achievement Agostino has been strongly committed to, deep-rooted in the far past, a tribute not only to the artist’s youthful admiration for Fontana’s cuttings, but, in a broader sense, to that “intimation of a mysterious and unutterable something in the forms surfacing from a taut background” Giorgio Kaisserlian referred to, back in 1961, at the outset of Ferrari’s artistic career, and, with reference to the very subject of the “threshold”, to the paintings Time’s door and Great door of 1981, both black with the thickness of writing; all of them, alive with the bodily awareness of an act of painting emotionally charged by memories.

Translation by Clara Zanon