Azimuth&Azimut;, the first New Tendencies exhibition, Gorgona
Published in: Exat-51, Nove tendencije: umjetnost konstruktivnog pristupa, Horetzky, Zagreb, 2000.
Two issues of the magazine, Azimuth and twelve exhibitions at the Azimut Gallery sum up the activities of Piero Manzoni and Enrico Castellani in Milan, at the end of 1959 and in the first half of 1960. Towards the end of the Art informel period these two artists engaged in promoting a 'new artistic conception'” (La nuova concezione artistica), as it was named in the key exhibition (Breier-Castellani-Holweck-Klein-Mack-Manzoni-Mavignier), organised by these two artists. Today , the artistic and cultural climate is fundamentally different, yet the episode of Azimuth&Azimut; remains an important chapter of Italian, as well as of European, art of the time. It is particularly interesting to us, because it immediately preceded the first New Tendencies exhibition in Zagreb, in August 1961 and was ideologically and organisationally related to the emergence and activities of the group Gorgona.
For a moment, we should return to the artistic situation at the end of the 1950’s and try to grasp the symptoms of the crisis in Art informel. This marked an entire decade, but had lost its innovative qualities, by the time the decade was out. We should also recognise that, at the time, a new generation of artists set themselves the task of superseding Art informel. While many artists strove to achieve this, the Manzoni & Castellani twosome, were intent on that aim and manner of overcoming the crisis in their own way: the magazine, Azimuth and the Azimut Gallery were instrumental in realising this task. The first issue of Azimuth already represented an attempt to break up with Art Informel, and this was reinforced, in some of the written contributions, as well as in the illustrated material. This was particularly evident in Vincenzo Agnetti's text, Non commettere atti impuri ('Don't Commit Impure Acts!'), and Albino Galvano Le tigri impagliate ('Stuffed Tigers'), and the reproductions of works by Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Fontana, Yves Klein, Rotella, Mack and Piene, as well as Manzoni and Castellani themselves. Still, for all that, they could not completely block out the influence of Art informel. However, a few months later, many things became clearer when the second issue of Azimuth was published, in January 1960. This appeared on the occasion of the previously mentioned exhibition, La nuova concezione artistica and featured theoretical and poetic texts by Castellani (Continuitá e nuovo [ 'Continuity and Novelty']), Manzoni (Libera dimensione ['Free Dimension']) and Otto Piene (L ‘oscurita e la luce ['Darkness and Light']), as well as by Udo Kultermann (Una nuova concezione di pittura ['A New Conception of Painting']), in addition to reproductions of some works by Yves Klein, Mack, Piene, Mavignier, Manzoni, Castellani, and others. The content precisely spelt out the basic interest of the group of artists gathered around Azimuth. It was in monochrome and achromatic painting, concentration on elementary methods of working and rejection of whatever could not be verified, visually or tactilely. In his text Continuitá e nuovo, Castellani clearly stated the objective of these new artistic bearings:
'We are not interested in expressing subjective reactions to facts and feelings. We want our language to be steady and complete and therefore we eliminate the vehicles (composition, colour) sufficing for a limited language, a metaphor, or a parable... The only language possessing elementary entities of a line, an infinite repetitive rhythm of monochrome surfaces is needed to give the works concreteness and infinity, and to enable us to survive the time conjugation, which is the justification of our spiritual existence.'
What was the origin of this idea? We should remember that Milan of the 'fifties was the residence of Lucio Fontana and the centre of his activity. His art, like his personality, was very attractive to the generation to which Manzoni and Castellani belonged. In The White Manifesto (Manifesto Blanco) of 1945, Fontana had already spoken of spazialismo, a kind of ‘spatial concept’, aspiring to expand significantly beyond the confines of the painted plane, or the volume of a sculpture mounted on a base. His perforated canvases (Concetti spaziali ['Spatial Concepts']) and gashed terracotta spheres (Nature ['Natures']), besides being plastic facts in their own right, were signs indicating that space could expand around a work of art, to the extent of enveloping the entire environment, in which the artist acted and existed. From Fontana, Castellani took over the recognition that that an image was not a ‘screen’ but a subject, an object, and a concrete thing. Nothing was presented or shown in a painting; something went on in it, as it was an actual body, in the real space. Manzoni wanted the same in his Achromes, but did not stop there. He knew that by going beyond painting he would reach the environment, and that an environment surrounding artistic activity was a kind of behaviour that could be elevated to an artistic act. The experiences of Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists were built into the core of these operations, but to Manzoni, their real, and closer, source (as an obsession with going beyond the point at which Fontana had stopped in his venture. In short, Manzoni viewed Fontana as a respected predecessor, but one he sought to outmaster by any means. If Fontana was a predecessor, Yves Klein was an elder contemporary to Manzoni, and a rival he wanted to compete with. As is well known, Yves Klein had one of his most provocative exhibitions in Milan, and Manzoni had certainly had the opportunity to see it. In January 1957, Yves Klein displayed eleven paintings in the Gallery Apollinaire, owned by Guido Le Noci: they were the same size and colour (International Klein Blue), but the artist offered them for sale at different prices, because he reportedly invested different amounts of spiritual energy in making each of them. This was a great challenge to Manzoni. He answered Klein’s ultramarine monochromes with his white 'Achromes' In their choices of total surface in either one colour (Yves Klein) or no colour at all (Manzoni), the two artists were very close, in a way; however, they also differed In a number of essential respects. Yves Klein was an artist, who believed in the power of the language of symbols (the symbolism of blue and gold, the symbolism of fire, etc.); he was an artist of esoteric rituals, a judo champion, a follower of Zen... Manzoni, quite to the contrary, did not create any kind of mystical aura around his personality. Instead of partaking in some secret rituals, he executed his works with a strong demystifying charge, sensing that the very status of art had become debatable at that historic moment, and that it was led into crisis by the continual changes of technique and procedure. In Manzoni’s enterprises (starting with his famous tins filled with the artist’s excrement), he separate the aesthetic from the artistic. This was certainly not about aesthetic values; it was about an act that had (or might have had) the qualities of artistic intent, at the same time as radically questioning it. While Yves Klein strove to mythologise his own artistic personality, Manzoni strove to demythologise his and not to terminate the notion and phenomenology of art.
Those attributes of Manzoni's character, such as irony, provocation, constant changes of mood and rapid coolings off, were so different from the serious, methodical Castellani, who instinctively turned to whatever was enduring within a framework of unwavering commitment. It is hard to decide, from a distance, what it was that brought those two together. It is true that Fontana was a predecessor to both of them, but at first Castellani was also attracted by Mark Tobey’s ‘white writing’. In 1959, he produced oils and gouaches, their entire surfaces were written over with Identical, or very similar, signs, which fell in with the poetics of the continuum that characterised the beginning of his move away from the informel.. When speaking of the aesthetics of ‘continuity’ (del continuo), Argan emphasised – on the occasion of his 1961 exhibition, Continuity – that
'the specifically analytical aspect of this exploration ought to be viewed in the painting marked by the surface as a space of infinite dimensions and directions, of relations without limits of the accordingly non-limiting interior dimensions, of the value of colour without "a figure" that is separated from the colourisation of an object.'
Castellani’s next step was completely to remove layers of matter, abandon the plane of a flat surface and stretch the canvas by means of a special procedure that gave it the configuration of a gentle relief, which modulated the light., in a way that could be monitored Soon, this configuration was ordered into a structure of quite regular spaced bumps and dents. The continuous, rhythmic repetition of these undulations on the stretched monochrome canvases (painted red, blue and, most often, white) formed the basis for the kind of paintings and objects that Castellani consistently worked on, from 1960 onwards.
The ever-restless Manzoni, who was inclined to test whatever was testable in art, and the contemplative Castellani, focused on an area that showed up their extreme differences to the best advantage and was capable of bringing together a diverse group of artists around the initiatives of Azimuth&Azimut;. We have already been taken a look at the contents of the magazine Azimuth. As far as the gallery was concerned, twelve exhibitions were mounted at the Azimut Gallery at Via Clerici 12, in Milan, over a period of little over six months. In addition to the participants in the exhibition, La nuova concezione artistica ['The New Artistic Conception'], many other artists exhibited there, including those who were soon to band together in groups such as Miriorama (later Gruppo T) in Milan, Gruppo N in Padua, Zero in Düsseldorf, Motus (later GRAV) in Paris and artists who were close to them, such as Enzo Mari, Dadamaino, and others. Another figure, who often appeared at the Azimut exhibitions, was Almir Mavignier, who was at the time in close contact with Manzoni and Castellani. He had attended the Ulm School of Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung) between 1953 and 1958, and became acquainted with Max Bense, who was his link to kindred circles in Latin America. All this leads one to the conclusion that the circle of artists gathered around Azimuth&Azimut; in Milan, at the beginning of the 1960’s, formed an axis for mounting the first New Tendencies exhibition at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, in 1961. In a sense, that exhibition can be considered as an outcome of the activities and contacts inspired within Azimuth&Azimut;.
Not only the ideas and aspirations, but also the composition of participants and the character of most of the works displayed at the first New Tendencies exhibition in Zagreb, were identical to those of Azimuth&Azimut;. Side by side with Manzoni and Castellani, there were Mavignier, members of the Zero Group (Mack, Piene, Uecker), members of the Paris-based GRAV (Le Parc, Morellet, Stein), and the Italian Gruppo T and Gruppo N. It was later confirmed by Gianni Colombo, a member of the Gruppo T, that the Italian participants in the first Zagreb New Tendencies exhibition were selected by Manzoni. The issue of artistic language also helped to cement the connection between Azimuth&Azimut; and New Tendencies. A number of exhibits at the first Zagreb show came from the field of monochrome and achromatic painting, and of paintings and objects that displayed spiritual and metaphysical, rather than programmatic, kinetic or neo-constructivist qualities. It was not until the next phase, with the second exhibition in 1963, that the movement New Tendencies movement began to direct its aspirations towards the realisation of a well-defined unity of style and ideology. Until then, it had been dominated by s vast spectrum of the putative solutions to the post-informel and with the aesthetics of the continuum, as applied and stimulated by Manzoni and Castellani through the activities of their magazine-and-gallery circle, Azimuth&Azimut;.
At the same time as the first New Tendencies exhibition, a group going by the name of Gorgona was at work in Zagreb. Numerous details confirm the connections between Gorgona. coming into existence and the beginnings of New Tendencies. To start with, Radoslav Putar and Matko Meštrović, who wrote introductions to the first exhibition catalogue, also belonged to the circle around Gorgona. Knifer, as a member of Gorgona, was the only local participant – apart from the former EXAT-51 artist, Ivan Picelj – in the 1961 exhibition. Two of the foreign participants, Dorazio and Morellet, also exhibited at Studio G, the exhibition space maintained by the Gorgona group. Gorgona dedicated the 9th issue of their anti-magazine of the same name to Dieter Roth, who was also a participant in the 1961 New Tendencies exhibition. Manzoni’s and Castellani's participation in the first New Tendencies show and Manzoni’s projects for the anti-magazine, Gorgona, bear witness to the frequent contacts and connections between Azimuth&Azimut; and the events in Zagreb. This was only to be expected from the sloe spiritual affinities that enabled these two artists, working in tandem, to make such a substantial contribution to the complex evolution of the European art scene around the time of the post-Art informel era, in the early 1960’s.