Milan | Italy
3 December 2015 > 7 February 2016
Question. Take nothing at face value. Nothing is ever quite what it seems, especially in terms of art. Even Kazimir Malevich’s groundbreaking and uncompromising Black Square, 1915 – the first non-objective or abstract painting – was this year, when Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery examined it for the first time with x-rays, discovered to have two earlier paintings hidden beneath it’s surface.
While historical precedents occur in Byzantine art – two-sided icons bearing representations of the virgin and child on one side and the crucifixion on the other – and elsewhere, perhaps the multi-facetted Marcel Duchamp (1887 > 1968) was one of the earliest modern artists to play with the concept of recto/verso, in which the flip-side of a piece of art is given equal and serious consideration, along with the front. By 1915, he had already conceived of and started working on his complex, monumental work, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even / The Large Glass, (1915 > 23), a free-standing glass construction, almost three metres tall by two wide, which was specifically intended to be viewed from both sides.
Malevich (1879 > 1935) had said, ‘It is from zero, in zero, that the true movement of being begins,’ and it was the Zero group of post-World War II, originally European, artists, who would seek to annihilate all forms of representation within art. To celebrate the possibilities inherent in ‘nothingness’, and attempting to penetrate the mysterious concept of the fourth dimension, they began examining the canvas itself and the frame around which it was stretched, with a view toward breaking through its confines. Lucio Fontana would famously slash his canvases, while other Zero artists would turn them to face the wall so as to better appreciate their construction, and to suggest that what happens on the hidden, or reverse side of a work of art is just as worthy of consideration as what happens on the more normally exposed ‘front’.
Leading exponent of arte povera in the late 1960s, Italian painter and sculptor, Giulio Paolini (b 1940), who trained as a graphic designer and countered what he considered to be the ‘picturesqueness’ of France’s art informel, abstract art movement of the 1940s and 50s, by concentrating on the basic components of painting – canvas, frame, paint of a single colour – or even the abolition of paint in favour of a completely bare surface. And, in the year that pop artist Roy Lichtenstein produced his own stripped-down recto / verso paintings, the cataclysmic events of May 1968 in Paris implanted the idea in a generation of French youth that it was their task to dismantle every form of received structure, including those in contemporary art. They were to embark on a radical deconstruction of accepted mediums. The support/surfaces group of artists, that emerged in France, that included, among others, founder member Daniel Dezeuze (b 1942), rejecting the often unwieldy, modular constructions of American minimalism – the established avant garde art of the period – sought lightness and physical freedom. They considered the portability of art and the use of basic and cheap materials, such as strips of newspaper, bed-sheets, dish-cloths and scraps of canvas they used to make it, as important, which led some to re-assess the simplicity of the canvas-based painting. However, by 1970, they were insisting that painting could ‘exist only through the systematic elimination of all subjective practice,’ via the rejection of the brush, but, interestingly, not the painting. In some of the resulting works, the picture plane vanished completely, and all that remained was the support material.
Recto Verso, at Fondazione Prada presents artworks by artists from different generations and across a range of genres, all of which consciously push the hidden concealed or forgotten phenomenon of ‘the back’ firmly into the foreground.
All images courtesy Fondazione Prada
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