Sculpture armchair 784
DOM, 17 APR
Palazzo della Triennale
May we sit on the Mona Lisa or on Michelangelo’s David?
No, we would be prevented from doing so, and rightly. And even if we could, it would be a senseless act, as the Mona Lisa and the David were not made for sitting on. It is true that somebody, perhaps with intellectual ambitions, could justify such a gesture as a desecrating provocation, also because of the specific value that may be attributed to the act of sitting in given cultural contexts (to do so on someone’s face, for example, constitutes a crime in Great Britain); but in this case the transgression would involve the sacredness commonly attributed to certain great masterpieces of art, breaking the rule which says that safeguarding goods that are considered of public interest cannot countenance uses of such kind. This would not concern, therefore, the question of whether those works of art have some vocation, be it even a well hidden one, for which they may act as seats.
The problem with Carlo Colombo’s “sculpture armchair”, one of ontology one might say, is that this is a work of art with a very strong predisposition of welcoming others’ behinds. Most people will say that there is no problem: things have changed since the times of the Mona Lisa and of the David. Today design has turned also objects born to perform practical functions into works of art, armchairs included. I take the liberty of contradicting such current opinion, also on the basis of my personal experience when I acted as expert witness in a lawsuit between two furniture producers. The first, specialised in design furniture, contested that the other firm, devoted to a decidedly more economic and popular production, had got away with copying one of their beds designed by a famous architect; since the bed had been mentioned in scientific publications and exposed in museums, they argued, it should be considered a work of art.
I challenged the idea that an object created for the commercial purpose of being a bed could be considered in the first instance a work of art in the same way as one would, for example Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed, which had also once been a bed but which now, tampered with by the artist and transformed into an object with an exclusively aesthetic function, is exposed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (it is hung on a wall, to prevent anyone from certain kinds of temptations) in the same reverential manner reserved to the Mona Lisa and the David. The judge agreed with me: we might argue about plagiarism, and therefore about the right to protect intellectual property rights, but not about the fact that a work of art has been copied. Therefore, if we were to recognise that Carlo Colombo’s armchair is art in so far as it is design, we would have to infer that it is not an object with a primarily aesthetic purpose. As I understand it, this is not Colombo’s aim, at least on this occasion. Of course Colombo is a designer by profession, and a well-known one at that: it would be almost automatic to frame his sculpture armchair in a given way, along the lines of what he has done before and continues to do habitually, also because at first sight the piece seems to have all the characteristics necessary for mass production. This time, however, Carlo Colombo wishes for our concentration – without wishing to deny the artistry in design – to shift from the designer bed to Rauschenberg’s Bed, to use the same measuring stick as we used above in discussing the lawsuit for which I served as expert witness; or, in other words, from the practical object, whose artistic purpose is ancillary, to that which, instead, is eminently aesthetic. As such, the second ought to be evaluated in terms pertaining to the critical discipline that consider them, and thus also my role in this context. Nothing could be easier, as the sculpture armchair’s references to contemporary art seem to me to be quite apparent. It is indeed a piece in which two natures that are in any case distinct, correspond perfectly to each other: one is more structural, with its tubular components, regularly replicated according to a modular principle forming a texture tending to the perfect cube, were it not altered by cuts made at different heights and with a curvilinear profile, corresponding to the seat’s cavity; the other, more visual, concerns the optical effect that such a plastic configuration involves, as if it were an autonomous device.
I would begin, for physiological reasons, from the visual aspect. 1965: in New York an international exhibition destined to make history is running at the previously mentioned MoMA: The Responsive Eye. It gathers together the best artistic research of the abstract circle which, using geometric seriality, or systematically reproducing regular forms that are opportunely recombined, aims at producing in onlookers the perception of certain effects, as if it were a test of experimental psychology, in the wake of what had been done time before by Marcel Duchamp with Anémic Cinéma (1926). It was this exhibition that consecrated the role of Victor Vasarely’s, emulator of Moholy-Nagy, as the leader of that which has since been called Op Art. Already in his series named Vega, of the second half of the 1950’s, Vasarely altered black-and white checkerboards so as to obtain an effect of emerging convex bodies or, on the contrary, of concave cavities sucking down. Such effects inevitably come to mind seeing Colombo’s sculpture armchair. Next to Vaserely, the English artist Bridget Riley stands out, she too was interested in two-colour works and in the effects of space bent in a curvilinear sense (Movement in Squares, 1961; Fission, 1963; Hesitate, 1964; Pause, 1964), even before she specialised in moiré, the image of interference. There is also a sculptural Op Art. It is promoted in particular by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam who, already in 1955, had endeavoured to gather around the Parisian exhibition Le Mouvement (Galerie Denise René), Vasarely and young representatives of South American sculpture, like the Venezuelan Jesús Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez, later followed by the Argentinian Julio Le Parc. These sculptors share a common grammar: compositions made up of regular sequences of tubular elements, prevalently arranged longitudinally, within which effects of mobility are conceived – Agam and Cruz-Diez often through the use of colour, the other two artists also making do without it – effects that modify the sensory impression of ensembles which would otherwise be perceived as uniform. Precisely as occurs within the structural nature of the sculpture armchair described above.
A last annotation: there is another artist who, on his own account, developed optical interests on the theme of the two-coloured chessboard in ways that parallel Vasarely and Riley, even years before them. It is Enzo Mari, who is considered by many – it is important for my argument to highlight this – the greatest among his generation of Italian designers. Mari’s optical interests never ceased to accompany him even in later years, translated in counterpart in his fruit basket Atollo (1965), as if it were a plastic correspondent of certain perceptive games. If we were to fill the Atollo’s crooked holes with pipes à la Soto, each of the same length, and cut them across following the curvilinear shape of its base, we would obtain an armature very similar to that on which Carlo Colombo’s work is based, almost as if it could serve to cover its own cavity. And thus the circle is closed.