« The rules of the game by Antonio Recalcati »
I have recently asked myself what makes an artist’s success or failure and what determines his fame, or his fall into oblivion. In many cases, the artist makes
a thunderous but rather brief appearance on the scene, only to disappear and be forgotten without a trace. This interruption may often take place during one’s lifetime, such as is the case of Rim baud, or can be caused by the artist’s sudden demise, which is the case of many great and beloved figures. James Dean,
Domenico Gnoli, Raymond Radiguet, Gerard Philipe, Carlo Michelstaedter and
Pino Pascali are only a few of the names that come to mind. I think of them knowing the impact their short lives and the brief existence of their intense research had on many a mind, how they became so dear to their admirers as if carriers of some divine message, and how their work was elevated to the highest form of feeling. This is the underlining motif of Mimnermus’s famous verse: « He dies young who is dearest to heaven », and, we may add, also becomes dear to all of us.
What is less common and more unusual, is the case of the artist who, after a long meditative pause and a period of virtual silence after his first brilliant appearance, finds, as he reaches màturity, à new overwhelming impulse to create, thus rekindling new fires which revive the first one. It is very difficult to fi’nd this drive and its search requires a great deal of courage. As is seen by the passing of the seasons, there is something frightening, almost traumatic, in every rebirth. Even though we should be in the habit of witnessing this phenomenon, it leaves us perennially amazed and invariably catches us off guard. We couldn’t remember a winter so cold, or such a mild spring, or such a hot summer. The same is true when we experi’ence rebirth in art. It is in these unexpected events that the artist’s experience continues on the path which had previously been interrupted.
Antonio Recalcati was considered a myth in the now remote 1960′s. His youth coincided with an impetuous and ardent revolution, or rather with the invention of figurative language.
In the early 60 ‘s, when some important aspects of Pop Art were beginning to make themselves heard, his « imprints» were a new idea, a veritable formal
invention. As early as 1964, Renata Barilli was able to write in one of his summari’es : « A very important change is taking place in modern art. It seemed as if its path were destined to progressively detach itself from the most common aspects of things and figures, and move toward new heights of pure abstraction. But there was a sudden change of course which now seems to be steeri’ng towards a new, more trite and vulgar reality. If at first it gave the impression of wanting to move away in unlimited directions, it now seems to want to converge on itself asymtotically, which in geometric terms means to stretch to the point of making any residual distance disappear and fi’nally join the object in question … Faithful to this change are the paintings of Recalcati, full of window frames, seri’es of floors ans landscapes with neat and polished details. The most common visual concepts such as a « house »,
a « room », a « window», the most simple concepts which are part of the heritage of the man on the street and whi’ch had been systematically repressed by modern art,
are once again beginning to impose thei’r allure and attract the artists which has strayed too far. We are now witnessing a « great comeback ». Is that event now taking place so long awaited by generations and generations of spectators deeply rooted i’n
« common sense» and invariably dismayed by contemporary experi’ments, but confident that in the not so distant future, there would be a return to good and solid everyday concepts? In reality, it is not really a pure and simple « return» to the common notions upon which the naturalistic universe was based Even when today’s painter seems to want to revive these concepts (in Recalcati’s case, the notion of
« landscape », « dress », or « window»), upon closer analysis we realize that he has approached them from a new perspective and from unusual angles. A diaphragm or piece of glass has been raised between the reality conceived by the man of common sense and the reality which is offered to him by today ‘s painters. Naturally, this piece of glass guarantees the possibility of a relationship between the two representations. Our piece of glass becomes a metaphor representing the basic act of enteri’ng into a modern relationship with reality. In phenomenological terms, this act is known as
« epochè », or the suspension of all pre-conceived or prejudiCial ideas. This defi’nition should be already well known, but for the sake of clarity, I will repeat it. The theory does not by any means challenge the certainty that a solid, massive world does, in reality, exist: a world which cannot be reduced to a fragment of our imagination or idealization. Ours is a world of substance, matter and flesh. The advantage of
« epochè » is that the world and reality are always considered from a particular point of view: an opaque, worldly mass plus a system of interpretation ».
A few years later, in 1968, Giovanni Testori’ wrote: « The conflict between the limits of an almost poster-like abstraction and those of an illustrative and illusory reality, are imperative for Recalcati, so that man -his imprint- can still roam the streets, wander about the heavens and witness the surrealistic twilight of the equatorial oranges, splitting and tearing, as if to remind us of their innocence. From the depths of Recalcati’s savagery, of his terror, of his madness, of his lack of hesitation or consideration, of his grandeur, comes a bleating plea of innocence. The agony and torment of his youth, so quickly consumed and incapable of believing in itself, makes the search for matUri’ty all the more difficult, espeCially when consideri’ng the inhuman conditions of today ‘s society. The incongruence and the fragile, yet endless equilibri’um of his painting deri’ve from this state of mind, and also explains the decisiveness and sense of defiance he feels towards the materials he uses. The artist, in doing so, has differentiated himself from his peers and has been elevated to a class by himself. Contrary to many artists of his time, he was able to expurgate all the remaining impurities in his art, thus transcending all the stylistic and anti-stylistic « impasses» to whom so many remain pitifully entangled ».
There was a long pause in Recalcati’s activity, and very limited advances in his research took place until 1975, when the Pompidou Centre re-proposed, with the clear awareness of his work, the « imprint» peri’od, entrusting i’ts presentati’on to Alain Jouffroy. Recalcati’s fame began to take shape, while at the same time, his painting continued to evolve since he certainly did not remain idle while in New
York. Duri’ng this decade, he developed a new and very precise attitude toward reality which culminated, at the beginning of the 1980′s (twenty years after the
« imprints ») in a series of great paintings, whose apparent theme seemed to be that of sporting events. This theme was evidently just a pretext. Like many of the best painters of his generation, some of whom died prematurely like Domenico Gnoli, and some of whom continued to paint with rigorous rational discipline like
Valerio Adami, Recalcati comes to terms with everyday events, apparently inadvertent, apparently insignificant. Recalcati is the fruit of an age which was that of James Joyce and which made everyday life an epic experience.
The windows of his big loft in the Village in New York overlook a basketball court, where everyday, consistently and repeatedly, he witnesses basketball games or training sessions. Recalcati’s eye looks out of the window of his apartment and grasps vaster horizons or simply just fragments of the court. Often the playing fi’eld and
the fi’eld of vision coincide. In the same obsessive way in which the basketball is dribbled repetitively, so the image, which becomes part of the painting, has a rhythm. This rhythm is determined by the wall of the opposite building, as if it were an insurmountable barrier. From the other side of the wall, we have to imagine the window Recalcati is looking out of, and determine this as the limit-point of our regard But, in reality, we almost regularly encounter another obstacle, another filter, another transparent and yet evident barrier: the fence which outlines the boundaries of the basketball court. It therefore can be said that, for Recalcati, everything occurs as if he were imprisoned between two walls where reality takes place. The fragments may change, but the obsessive and continuous rhythm remains the same. There is evidently no symbolic significance behind this, but rather a profound sense of space. The wall determines the limit of the distance and with a rigorous architectural rhythm, the episodes take place in front of it. The net is supported by irOn posts which frame the image and determine its balance. Large empty spaces beyond the net are interrupted in order to make room for the outlines of the players, perfectly inserted into a portion which cannot but be called architectonical. It is a continuous enhancement of perspective relations which permits the eye to come closer or to move further away.
This can, in fact, be referred to a veri’table poetry of the eye, which impassively records the body’s slow movements and the rhythm of the shadows and lights without any indulgence for photography, although it does deri’ve from photographic equipment. Recalcati’s new challenge consists in introducing an extra filter to what is already considered the purest of visions. In no way does the filter deform or obscure,
nor does it in any way restri’ct the image. The game is a very subtle one. The painting is in itself filter because of its chromatic specificity and its spot-technique, even if at ti’mes they seem to have been mechanized to the point of becoming non-painting. Recalcati has always liked ambiguity to the point that his experiments cannot be included in any preconceived category. They suggest Pop Art,
hyperrealism, photography, irony without being ironic and drama without being dramatic. These are the internal tests of his artistic language. When confronted with a photograph as antagonist, what can be more ambiguous than to replace the screen with the fence itself, not for the sake of pictorial effect (since it has been reproduced mechanically), but in order to provoke conceptual ambiguity? This new phase in Recalcati’s research is in many ways coherent with his earlier research, even if the image seems to be clearer and more fixed. In the various phases, as if confronted with blurred images (since sport necessarilY implies movement), we find the by now familiar « imprints» in the pants and tee shirts of the players or in the sudden turning of a head Paradoxically, these are moments in which Recalcati reverts to
a pronounced pictorialism by his transparency effect and his glazing technique.
The result is almost that of a photographic pri’nt, whose process moves from a positive to a negative print and not vice versa. Once again, Recalcati wants to abstain from making any judgement on reality or on the means used to express it. Recalcati is often transported by his nostalgia for painting, which leads him to over-indulge in this spot-technique. This, in a way, substitutes the screen when the fence is missing. But the novelty of his latest works lies in another nostalgia, that of fifteenth century Italian painting. In his fi’nest paintings, Recalcati goes back to a classic technique, almost reminiscent of Piero della Francesca, with his geometrically regulartubes supporting the net. An inscrutable geometry governs the different elements of the painting, in which man becomes essentially a means of measuring space. What is important is these pausing rhythms are the chromatic indications, especially the marked limits on the basketball court, the antirust red of the iron ring around the
net and its supporting structure, and the bright blue pants of the sweatsuits worn by the players. A certain gratification emerges from the geometric regularities imposed
by these visual limits, and it seems as if Recalcati fi’nds it necessary to distri’bute them over large surfaces. There is someting vain and useless in this grandeur, as if the artist were deliberately trying to broaden reality, to bring Piero della Francesca’s Flagellazione to life-size dimensions, and in so doing diminishes its significance rather than broadening it. Therefore, in many parts, the sharpness of the image is achieved through rapid painting, a technique often used in painting tubes so that they may be seen from a distance. This velocity exposes another one of the nostalgias Recalcati admits a weakness for: Velasquez’s Meninas.
In short, we can say that in these paintings, Recalcati wanted to present us his
« theology» of painting his « d’après » the ancient masters, interpreted in a modern light, or rather, the presentation of everyday life and repetitive actions, without recurring to any sacredness. But what remains part of the game is the ritual: the mask of the uniform, the rules indicated by the marked limits, in other words, « the rules of the game ». But at the end of this typical attempt at grandeur, there is an
admission of impotence, of lack of confidence in the results, an extreme virtuosity of mind. Recalcati pushes his research to the extreme. This research is parallel to the one undertaken by Domenico Gnoli. He wants to reach over the net and over the wall, and demolish all the barriers, as he had already attempted in 1978-1979, where emerging from the torn painting we see a hand holding out a brush or two hands trying to break it. Even at that time, the artist’s hands hinted at Las Meninas and at the illusionistic game which exchanges the painter with his subject. Recalcati beckons us, puts us in his place, and like in all his previous paintings, effaces himself at the end. He impels us to contemplate, transports us to the insidious frontiers of his doubts, and makes the very foundations of sight waver. Even if, on the surface,
his painting seems to be reproductive, simplistic and literal, it stimulates debate and raises a monument to the supreme vanity of the regard and its incapacity to see beyond objects. It seems as if Recalcati is telling us that the regard is an « imprint», that of our eye on objects. Recalcati tri’es to escape from what is pleasant and his message is always an extreme and complete one. What matters to him is not that of representing his regard in the paintings, but rather representing the regard which offers itself despite the presence of the painter. HiS oldest and most sensitive
exegetist, Alain Jouffroy, painfully, but truthfully outlined the condition of Recalcati’s painting, putting himself through the same interrogation mentioned at the beginning about the temporal limits of the life of art: « I know that for a long time Recalcati used, if not really abused, of this right on life or death which a painter has on his work. If I had been told between 1962 and 1963 that he had abandoned painting, I would not have been more surprised than if I had been told that he had taken his life. There are men, who at first glance, impress us with the idea that
« everything is possible». This notion becomes such an integral part of our attitude towards them that their every action, their every disappearance has the bizarre, indescri’bable beauty of an interrupted gesture … The individual capacity of thiS painter is extremely diffi’cult to grasp and to understand since each year he causes such brusque upheavals and makes such dramatic changes in his life and work, that one feels obliged, in the name of stylistic discipline, to maintain a certain reserve, a certain detachment. In fact, contrary to many Italian painters who may be noticed for a certain quickly attained formal perfection, Recalcati considered painting a battle impossible to win; a battle which with each new painting, he continues to lose. It is possible that for him, painting only serves as a pretext to reveal the unlimited capacity of thiS game or to expose the depth of the failure felt by the men who are not blinded by the world created by art ».
Recalcati has continued in his awareness and his current remarkable results demonstrate that he has not fi’nished fighting his battle. HiS tension cannot be tamed and his only victory lies in the continuation of his fight, even when it manifests itself in the ‘form of a game.
Translated from Italian by Marzia Molinari-Perini