‘Beauty has to be experienced, not described’
Based on the dialectic between volume, masses and tensions, Agostino Bonalumi’s Ambiente Bianco from 1967 is a seminal example of the artist’s explorations of the sensorial experience of a work of art. A founding member of the journal Azimuth, along with Enrico Castellani and Piero Manzoni, Bonalumi was at the forefront of Italian avant-garde art during the 1960s. His explorations of the shaped canvas and his attempts to marry traditional painting with new conceptions of space and form were strongly influenced by Lucio Fontana, and visits to Fontana’s studios helped the young artist to shape his iconic and distinct visual idiom. Bonalumi pushed Fontana’s investigations regarding the ‘spatial concept’ and the transcendence of the two-dimensionality of the surface to new extremes, introducing frames and geometric structures to the picture plane, which, when placed against the backs of the canvases, caused them to stretch and deform. Describing these works as ‘estroflessioni’ or ‘extroflections,’ Bonalumi began extending the picture plane into the space of the viewer, challenging the traditional conceptions of the painting as a window on the world. Utilising canvases with specially malleable qualities, Bonalumi’s ‘painting-objects,’ were no longer just a supporting surface for painterly applications; rather, they were a formal phenomenon in their own right.
In the closing years of the 1960s, Bonalumi began to push these ideas further, creating larger and ever-more protruding canvases which inserted themselves more and more into the space of the viewer. These experiments culminated in a series of ‘environments’ or installations, in which Bonalumi constructed large scale works which existed as their own unique space which the viewer was invited to enter. The first of these was the renowned Blu abitabile (1967), created for the exhibition ‘Lo Spazio dell’immagine’ at the Palazzo Trinci in Foligno, in which a number of Italian artists were invited to execute ‘a plastic spatial environment’ within the gallery space. This extraordinary event included installations by Castellani, Paolo Scheggi, Gianni Colombo and, perhaps most importantly, Fontana, whose pioneering Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (Spatial Environment with Black Light) from 1949 was included in the display. Bonalumi’s contribution was a walk-through environment with an internal diameter and height of around three metres, constructed on a circular plan and characterised by a series of ascending extroflections created by the sixteen separate elements of which it was constructed. Viewers were invited to enter the space, at which point they would find themselves enveloped by the expansive blue stretched canvases, that seemed to wrap around them. The sensorial impact of this constructed environment was further enhanced by the artist’s choice of flooring, and by the fact that the entrance disappeared once the viewer reached the centre, creating the impression of an entirely enclosed space. Although now considered a ground-breaking extension of Bonalumi’s practice, the artist himself saw this work as a direct continuation of his previous experiments with the shaped canvases, containing the same constants and concepts as his previous work but expanded and executed on a larger scale.
Created just a few months after this important show, Ambiente Bianco continued and expanded on the ideas proposed in Bonalumi’s experimental installation in Foligno, taking the same train of thought as Blu abitabile and developing it as he examined the potentialities of an immersive installation in an existing space. The work was created for Bonalumi’s first solo-show in America, held in the Autumn of 1967 at the Galeria Bonino in New York. This show, which featured a series of artworks executed in either black or white (with the exception of a single piece in blue), was greeted by enthusiastic reviews when it opened, with Arts Magazine praising the ‘restrained forcefulness and dramatic simplicity’ of Bonalumi’s creations, while Time pronounced that ‘the shaped canvas had never been so expertly crafted or seductively stretched’ (both quoted in F. Pola, ‘Bonalumi: All the Shapes of Space 1958-1976’, in F. Pola, Agostino Bonalumi: All the Shapes of Space, 1958-1976, Milan, 2013, pp. 118-119). At the heart of Ambiente Bianco is a large white wall, extending almost five metres in length, across which a series of ambiguous geometric shapes press against the canvas from behind, stretching the fabric to push the picture plane forward into the viewer’s space. These projections appear in a regulated, rhythmic cascade across the length of the wall, their positions gradually decreasing in height as they progress from left to right.
Executed using vinyl paint, which held greater flexibility than traditional pigments, the canvases appear distorted in an almost identical manner, their surfaces extended in a delicate balance of tensions. Straddling the boundary between the visible and the invisible, Ambiente Bianco retains a sense of inherent mystery, as the shapes that push against the surface of the canvas remain just beyond our sight. They are at once revealed to us by the impression they leave on the fabric, and concealed by the monochrome skin that stretches over their forms and covers them. Thus, their presence creates a constantly frustrated sense of expectation, as if they may burst forward into our space at any moment, breaking the surface of the canvas and revealing themselves to us in their entirety.
Alternately contracting and expanding into the space of the viewer, Ambiente Bianco disrupts the traditional experience of the artwork, creating an active space in which the viewer is an involved participant. The dynamic experience of the installation was further enhanced by the inclusion of a soft, plastic floor in the space, which shifted and moved under viewers’ feet as they entered the room. Describing the impact of this addition, Bonalumi explained: ‘… the effect was one of surprise, rather like in Foligno. Under your feet was something organic that reacted to your steps, a sort of physical “blurring”’ between the wall before them and the space below (Bonalumi, quoted in F. Pola, ‘Beauty has to be experienced, not described: A conversation with Agostino Bonalumi,’ in ibid, pp. 195-196). This combination of the soft, moving elements underfoot and the stretched soft canvases in front of the eye increased the sensorial impact of the installation, physically affecting the viewer as they encountered the artwork and creating a completely immersive viewing experience. By making the space into the protagonist in this way, Bonalumi highlights the physical and psychological experience of viewing an artwork. As he explained, ‘In bringing perception into focus, order can become disorder, and vice versa, within an overall symmetry that remains intact’ (Bonalumi, quoted in F. Pola, op. cit., p. 174). In the original installation, Ambiente Bianco contained a seventh white panel, which was placed at the far left corner of the gallery wall and remained completely devoid of extroflections. This was used to ensure the work filled the full expanse of the gallery walls, completing the impression of a contained, artistic environment. After the exhibition ended, the artist modified the sculpture, removing this panel when he installed the work in the current owner’s home.
As with each piece included in the Galeria Bonino exhibition, Ambiente Bianco demonstrates Bonalumi’s growing interest in the impact of light on his ‘painted-objects’ and environmental spaces, as shadows, luminosity and the role they played in the viewer’s perception of his artworks became a central theme of his production. From his earliest iterations of the ‘extroflections’, Bonalumi had explored and played with the qualities of saturated monochromatic colour, creating his shaped canvases on a homogenous, flat pigment, the simplicity of which highlighted the subtle projections as they pushed against the canvas. According to the artist, the colour of the finished piece had always emerged at the very point of its conception: ‘For me, every work (even now) is already conceived in a certain colour: we could say that it is born coloured’ (Bonalumi, quoted in F. Pola, op. cit., p. 190). In the present work, the play of light and shadow is enhanced by the brilliance of its white colouring. The special substructures that lend the work its plastic relief capture the light that is projected on to it, generating a series of deep shadows which shift and move according to the viewer’s position before the work. In this way, Bonalumi once again highlights and draws attention to the manner in which the viewer’s physical experience of an artwork can shape and dramatically alter their perception of it.