‘The circle sometimes stood perpendicular to the surface of the work-object, emerging from the inside outwards, accentuating the effect of tension that you can always perceive in my works and that, while it is in the opposition offered by the canvas surface to internal thrusts and pressures, takes on the character of a psychological tension because of the morphism, an intrusion of naturalness, that crops up in the abstraction. A tension that in the abstraction is once again a symbolic impulse, in other words the naturalness that is the nature of the work, as well as its mere objectivity’ (A. Bonalumi, ‘Text 1996’, in A. Fiz et al. (eds.), Bonalumi, exh. cat., Museo delle Arti di Catanzaro, Catanzaro, 2014, p. 222).
Nero was painted in 1965 and is one of the shaped canvases with which the Italian artist Agostino Bonalumi made his name. This work dates from one of the great highpoints of his career, when he was exhibiting internationally, sometimes in one-man shows and sometimes alongside contemporaries such as his friends and fellow artists Enrico Castellani and Piero Manzoni. It is a tribute to the importance of Bonalumi's work that he has recently been the subject of a number of retrospectives and publications, not least since his death in 2013. This has afforded the art world a chance to reappraise the innovative and stylish works of this trailblazing figure. With its sheer monolithic palette, near-clinical precision and obtruding forms, Nero combines many of the elements that were key to Bonalumi's impact in Italy and upon the wider international scene, when he was exhibiting in a range of nations and, the following year, showing at the Venice Biennale. He was a part of an international vanguard, showing alongside the artists associated with the Zero movement as well as his own compatriots.
Nero is monochrome, and therefore taps into an aesthetic that was shared by Manzoni, by Yves Klein, and by Lucio Fontana, among others. In Bonalumi's work, this monochrome is disrupted by the surface effects: the canvas is both indented and bulges out, with two circles, one above the other, in apparent tension. While the one protrudes curvaceously into the third dimension, giving a sense of the spherical, the other remains flatter, with what appear to be two punctures at the centre. There is a deliberate contrast between these two circular forms, each given volume in different ways, each upsetting the sense of the traditional picture plane. They are accentuated by the emphatic symmetry of Nero, a characteristic of Bonalumi's works during the early part of the 1960s but which was soon supplanted by an interest in more irregular forms.
The sculptural qualities of Nero ensure that there is an intriguing play of light across its monochrome surface, adding a sensual element of articulation to its appearance. In this way, Bonalumi reveals the extent to which he was taking concepts regarding space and the picture plane and allowing them to invade the viewer's sphere, seeping into the surrounding environment. In this way, as Germano Celant would explain in 1966, 'spatial models, understood as processes of the intentionalisation of form, which after having gone beyond the ontological sphere are able to assert themselves in the sphere of reality' (Celant, quoted in F. Pola, Agostino Bonalumi: All the Shapes of Space, 1958-1976, Milan, 2013, p. 78).
Celant's statement reveals the intellectual backdrop that defined this crucial moment in post-war European history, especially in Italy. Bonalumi had come to the fore of the art scene there in the late 1950s, when many of his works were marked by his involvement with Informel. His interest in playing with the traditional nature of painting was already in evidence in the multi-media works he created at that time, where he often attached various objects and elements to the canvas.
As was the case with a number of Bonalumi's contemporaries, for instance Manzoni and Castellani, the Spatial art championed and pioneered by Fontana had served as a springboard for further probing of the entire nature of painting. This was all the more the case when Bonalumi, on the cusp of the 1960s, abandoned the clutter of his Informel-infused works and instead turned towards the rigour of monochrome, and of materials. Now, he used the traditional elements of painting in order to disrupt its very nature. Bonalumi explained that he appreciated, 'the ductility offered by certain media. At the end of the day, mine are sculptural suggestions. I could obviously make them using a wide range of materials, but I would end up creating a new type of problem, specifically technological, which I do not currently feel to be prevalent' (Bonalumi, quoted in ibid., p. 61).
The crisp aesthetic of Nero, with its elegant symmetry, is all the more striking because of the self-imposed economy of Bonalumi's palette of materials. With these, he has managed to make a work that appears almost scientific in its precision. It deliberately plays with notions of the handmade and the manufactured in its aesthetic. This is a reflection of Bonalumi's impressive versatility in creating his 'extroflected' canvases. They invoke the age of science yet are tethered to the millennia of artistic tradition of his native Italy. With these elements, he has managed to create a work that tackles a different aspect of space from that of Fontana's works. Absent is the invocation of the infinite; instead, Nero exudes itself, leaking from the wall and into the surrounding area, which it comes to occupy and therefore define. In 1966, the year after Nero was painted, the critic Gillo Dorfles wrote about Bonalumi, Castellani and Paolo Scheggi (as well as their mentor, Fontana) on the occasion of the exhibition "Pittura-Oggetto" a Milano in terms which clearly apply here:
'They all adopt an approach that we could describe as "objectual painting", the "painting as object", the painting as constituting an integral element of habitable space, which can therefore serve to modulate a dimensional situation or also simply as an exquisite plastic-chromatic element arising from the encounter of forms and colours, albeit always as the result of painstaking structural design developed in advance' (G. Dorfles, '"Object-Painting" in Milan', 1966, reproduced, E. Forin, Elementi Spaziali: Bonalumi, Castellani, Dadamaino, Scheggi, exh. cat., Milan, 2011, p. 62).