‘My work has never been about indulging a material for the sake of it. It’s the result of an active interest in materials themselves, the intelligence of materials’.
(Bonalumi, quoted in C. Basualdo, ‘Agostino Bonalumi: Form and Appearance’, pp. 9-11, in F. Pola, Agostino Bonalumi: All the Shapes of Space, 1958-1976, Milan, 2013, p. 9)
Agostino Bonalumi's Grigio presents the viewer with a contemporary variation upon the theme of the diptych. In this monochrome painting from 1969, Bonalumi has created a work that takes elements from the language of traditional painting and re-configures them, re-contextualising them, resulting in a new entity. The use of the grey colour that dominates this work, which is a little over a metre and a half wide, lends it a deliberately inscrutable air, while possibly invoking steel and industry. Certainly, there is a technological sheen to this work, an effect that is heightened by the vinyl tempera that has been used to give it its colour.
In a sense, the interlocking grey canvases mark Bonalumi's riposte to the religious diptychs of days of yore, works which retained a high importance within the millennia-long canon of Italian art. It was against the backdrop of this intimidating range of precedents that artists such as Bonalumi, as well as his contemporaries Paolo Scheggi and Enrico Castellani, were removing the clutter of figuration from the picture surface and radically reconsidering the entire nature of painting itself. In this way, they found an elegant solution to the quandary caused by the fearsome weight of the legacy of Italian art into which they were moving. Here, rather than, say, an Annunciation, Bonalumi has taken to pieces the entire visual language of painting and has focussed on its sheer materiality. Illusion has been banished. Instead, we are confronted with a work of unimpeachable honesty. Any sense of perspectival depth within this canvas is given by the shaped nature of the surface. Any evocation or association summonsed is achieved with a rigorous economy of means. Narrative has been eschewed, condemned as a distraction. Instead, there is an object that has its own autonomy.
Grigio is a perfect example of the 'Object-Paintings' that critic Gillo Dorfles hailed in the mid-1960s, identifying Bonalumi, along with Enrico Castellani and Paolo Scheggi, as the main protagonists. Dorfles identified these artists as functioning at an axis between the polar opposites existing in the currents of the avant garde present at the time:
'On the one hand, painting tends to invade the field of industrial design, to aim at absolute programming and processes permitting replication in series of identical items. On the other, a deep-seated desire exists - and will certainly exist for a long time to come - to preserve for visual art, or at least a sector of it, the unique and precious character that can be conferred by the manual touch alone. It is the latter that informs the work of a number of young artists active in Milan and distinguished for some years now by their precise striving for compositional finesse and purity. Regardless of any grouping based on arbitrary or commercial motivations, I find the young artists Bonalumi, Castellani and Scheggi... very interesting indeed because of their position on the watershed between those making use of traditional media... and those referred to above: the die-hard Programme artists, the "industrial designers of useless objects", the Op and Kinetic artists' (Dorfles, quoted in Elementi Spaziali: Bonalumi, Castellani, Dadamaino, Scheggi, exh. cat., Milan, 2011, p. 62).
That balance between the conspicuously man-made, and indeed hand-made, and the finesse of proto-Minimalism is clear to see in Grigio and is emphasised in the use of canvas itself, a material that has a tactile quality, even through the vinyl tempera used upon its surface. Even if Bonalumi tried to conceal the traces of brushstrokes, there is nonetheless present a sense of his direct intervention in the creation of this crisp yet undulating work, this 'Object-Painting'.
Bonalumi's monochrome reinventions of painted canvas dated from the late 1950s onwards. In this, he had begun working in this vein at the same time as two other Italian artists of the period, Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni. Indeed, some of Bonalumi's earlier works had shared with Manzoni a vivid sense of materiality, invoked through the use of found and re-tasked materials that were often encrusted into the surface. By contrast, Grigio shares the serene simplicity and near-calligraphic grace of Fontana's Attese or his 'Tagli', his slashed canvases. Indeed, even the fine gap that marks the abutting of the two shaped canvas elements recalls the single slashes of Fontana's works from the late 1950s and the 1960s. Fontana, who had died only a year before Grigio was painted, appears possibly to have inspired the work.
While Fontana's slashes were exercises in eloquent simplicity, Bonalumi's Grigio also features the gentle undulations from the surface. Unlike Fontana, Bonalumi seems little interested in the space behind his canvas, and more focussed on penetrating the space before it - the space inhabited by the viewer. At the same time, the notion of Spatial Art, inspired in part by the age of nascent space travel in which both artists were living, may have informed the aesthetic of Grigio. It has a pared-back aesthetic that recalls, perhaps, the exteriors of the rockets and other technological machinery associated with space launches. Similarly, it recalls the riveted steel plates used in heavy industry and in shipbuilding. In short, Grigio involves an aesthetic that is perfectly poised to communicate with an age of technology, be it space-bound or earth-bound.