By Valeria D’Urso
Marco Gastini was born in 1938 in Torino. Before attending art school, his training begins at the laboratory of his father, a marble cutter, where through daily practice he gains experience and familiarity with the materials and techniques of the craft.
Upon graduating from a fine arts high school, he continues his studies at the School of Painting of the Albertina Academy of Torino. Taking his first steps in the late Informal climate, he paints canvases characterized by abstract tones and a dense chromatic quality; later he moves on to an ever less material-laden painting, with female nudes and landscapes as subjects. The results are exhibited in 1967-68 in Parma, Rome, and Novara, presented by Paolo Fossati and Enrico Crispolti.
At the end of the 1960s, immersed in the fervent mood of Piedmont’s capital and actively involved in the instances of artistic and social renovation that animate the city, he develops an original research on painting, investigating those elements that determine its essential expressive degree: trace, spatial presence, and chromatic annihilation. During this period, a series of attempts and experimentations follow, expressing an almost frenetic artistic growth. From spray-painted canvases (Paesaggio), exhibited in the 1968 solo show at the Galleria “Il Punto” in Torino, he rapidly moves on to enamels and flocages on plexiglas, wood, and vedril (Linea d’aria), which the following year turn the rooms of the Salone Annunciata in Milan into a fluid environment, where painting penetrates the space thanks to an interplay of transparent supports.
The thin ‘skin’ of the painting gradually thickens into colored stains with a high percentage of metal; these stains coat glass, neon lights, and plexiglas little boxes; finally, stains of lead and antimony, conceived in 1969, are exhibited for the first time in 1970 on the walls of the Salone Annunciata, hinting at the potential infinity of the walls as a support, where painting is materialized as a physical fact (62 macchie).
This research, although coeval with- and loosely related to- radical experiences of minimal and conceptual art, remains, nevertheless, always centered on the pictorial medium – out of necessity, as Gastini himself claims, because painting for him is a channel of natural expression – and this is why the artist is included among the pioneers of the so-called “analytical painting” since the beginning of the Seventies.
This is the origin of artworks on walls, rigorous checkered grids and elementary plots in dust of cement, carbon, or conté (18 x 18 / 3 rossi + 1), ideally preceded by project plates in durcot on plexiglas (Progetto per parete); the artist, however, does not abandon canvases and intervenes upon them with thin marks that ascertain the nature of space, measuring it through geometries of clear and simple reading (Acrilico n. 5, 10/1, AYZ). The relation of ambiguity that links the support and the painting (in a broad sense) is always crucial, as it is easily deduced from the group of scratched plexiglas works where, on an invisible support, the outline of gesture gains visibility, reflects its own shadow, and hence reveals transparency.
The first sign of detachment from chromatic minimalism is the use of “pearl white” pigment, mother-of-pearl, that, from 1977, he applies on canvases, papers, or directly on walls with the help of the medium: this represents the exit from the “no color” phase, encompasses “all the colors”, confers a vibration upon the surface, and determines a perceptive swerve in the gaze of the observer. 1977 is for Gastini the year of his first solo show at the John Weber Gallery of New York (which follows the one at the Cirrus Gallery of Los Angeles), where the monumental work New York Project / 44 Units consists in canvases of different dimensions rhythmically placed along the length of a wall; it is accompanied by a book, New York Project / Ten Possibilities, in which the artist further develops the idea behind the piece, drawing ten different combinations of the canvases: the artist’s book is used as a means of reflection and in-depth examination of the projects.
Exhibiting in New York at the John Weber Gallery is a step in a path that in the Seventies leads Gastini to display his works at important foreign galleries: the collaboration with the galleries Argèes and Baronian in Brussels, Annemarie Verna in Zurich, D + C Mueller Roth in Stuttgart, and Walter Storms in Munich are particularly noteworthy. Furthermore, he takes part in different group shows that portrait the situation of Italian art.
In Italy, he exhibits his works in the main cities: at the Studio Grossetti in Milan, the galleries Primo Piano and Sperone in Rome, Il Banco in Brescia, and Christian Stein in Torino. The first monograph on Gastini is written in 1976 by Paolo Fossati and published by the same Christian Stein gallery, followed by the 1988 monograph published by Edizioni Essegi in Ravenna. Always in 1976, Gastini obtains a personal hall at the Biennale of Venice. Filiberto Menna reviews his solo show at the Galleria E Tre in Rome (1977) and Pier Giovanni Castagnoli that at the Studio G7 in Bologna (1979).
At the end of the decade, as was announced by the earlier adoption of stains, his painting has already moved from the surface of canvases, paper, and other materials, and has ‘conquered’ the walls, understood as limitless field of his action (Paesaggio II). In 1979, a turning point in Gastini’s work is marked by 11/24, which includes a tree trunk soaked in blends of lead and antimony. The natural element, alive and invigorating, radiates an energy — skillfully represented by the blends — that is transmitted to the canvas, and thus creates a field of tension; this environmental character, activated by the material, gives rise to an emotional and sensorial involvement that distances itself from a plain and minimal analysis of the relation between the support and the pictorial surface.
In L’ala della pittura, a dialectic is built between the thickened painting ‘in the center’ — on that portion of space which is the canvas — and the marks (stains, lines) that disperse, floating, all around it: in this case too, an energetic field is established and the observer, captured inside it, is induced to incessantly shift her gaze from the canvas to the surrounding pictorial space in an attempt to seize its dilation.
Starting from this moment, the most disparate materials enter Gastini’s lexicon: parchment, plastically hanging so as to generate subtle tension (Come di un respiro che preme nei polmoni, 1980); glass and metals like iron, copper, and tin (Sempre a…, e tutto è sempre ora, Increspa e scivola); organic elements like carbon and vegetables similar to carobs that, in their outline, look like charcoal-drawn commas (Dittico A, B). There are also used and consumed materials such as the wood of ‘ciarlate’, i.e., the rafters that support the roofs of mountain houses: indicators of tension, they impress the artist for their story, for being signs naturally shaped by time and the action of man (La luce si spoglia della sua veste). Furthermore, wooden materials also include little boxes, railroad ties, and planks tri-dimensionally assembled in a way to compose a screen, or alternatively, a retable (Il grande libro di Colmare, also transposed in the form of art book, where folds in the pages reflect those of the joints that hold the planks together); at times, a shelf (Scuri cacciati), an entire window (Nella finestra… l’entrare, forse), or a door become part of the painting. Similar mobile panels suggest the multiplication of the levels of reading and the surfaces of the painting, surfaces that are subject to being observed under an ever changing light.
In 1989, at the Martano gallery — with which Gastini collaborates on a regular basis — the exhibition L’è tut li ant el cel tells the ‘stories’ of Mombresto, a place to which the artist is emotionally attached. Driven by his ties with the local mountains, he begins to use the stones, in particular, the lose [stone tiles] that constitute the roofs of chalets (I segni delle lose si esaltano nel vento).
The materials that have been listed thus far are often offered all at the same time in his pieces without jeopardizing their overall cohesion: the result is a variegated and baroque overabundance of fragments, which with omnivorous curiosity are included through accumulation in the pictorial discourse, chosen not according to their symbolic values but by virtue of the evocative potential of their life-stories as well as their formal characteristics. In short, their inclusion depends on a sort of elective and emotional affinity with objects, in order to give them continuity in the painting. Despite insisting on the concreteness of materials, in fact, artistic work for Gastini arises from an idea, from a project often originating from a sensation, an emotion, or a life experience. Vice versa, it is also true that the work gives rise to an emotion. Hence, painting is, for Gastini, the emotion itself, halted in an unstable equilibrium.
Starting from the early-1980s, another very important factor is the reintegration of color: the complexity of the pictorial mixture increases, recovering a lively chromaticism; in the renewed materiality of the “mixed technique”, it is arduous to single out pigments and binders (Le tensioni esistono, vengono generate e si rigenerano in pittura I e II). Color, for the artist, is a synonym of immersion; it is what makes it possible for the observer to lose herself in the environment; it is that aspect of painting that opens itself to the spectator, to an encounter with her.
As regards the titles of the pieces, from the serial numbers and essential codes of the Seventies, he moves on to whole sentences, at times long and evocative, explaining what the painting does, ending with suspension points that, through language and thought, refer to a spatial suspension and give a lyrical connotation to the whole. If the adopted vocabulary, on the one hand, leads to an idea of lightness, on the other hand, it is very physical: touching, stinging, stalking, and so on, are some of the suggested sensations.
In the Eighties, the artistic fame of Gastini consolidates. In 1982, he participates for the second time at the Venice Biennale; the same year, the monograph by Tommasso Trini is published. Always in 1982, the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus of Munich hosts his first great retrospective, with Helmet Friedel as a curator; it is followed by the solo shows at the Galleria Civica of Modena (1983) — accompanied by a catalogue containing a critical text by Flaminio Gualdoni — and at the PAC of Milan.
This period is also characterized by big size productions: in 1987, at Castel Burio, La nave vichinga solca i filari — a site-specific outdoor installation holding an intense dialogue with the environment — glides like in a dream, its outline recalling that of the blackbirds at its back; the following year, at San Gimignano, in Piazza Pecori, a big-sized work is inspired by the children’s play in the streets (Il sogno respira nell’aìre). Pieces of monumental scale characterize also the following decade.
In continuity with what has been said thus far, the works of the Nineties stand out for their evident use of iron, under the form of rods and other elements of industrial waste recuperated in construction sites, which bear an echo of human work, of the force to which they have been subjected: it is exactly here that their intrinsic energy resides. The pieces of iron chase each other, at times, they give life to sculptures facing the canvas (Among the echoes), trace a path, a writing that crosses through and unifies the scattered elements of the composition, dictating a rhythm (Velato e ri-velato). This system of bounces and visual echoes recalls the dialectic between the space of the canvas and that of the painting: the canvases, decomposed on the wall, are recomposed according to a new order and balanced through the action of the pieces of irons (Senza titolo, 1998).
The presence of a musical echo is evident also in the Orangerie im Schlosspark Belvedere in Weimar, seat, in 1998, of a beautiful retrospective: the mounting has the character of a great and complex installation that unfolds in the environments of the orangery like a musical score (among the exhibited pieces, Partitura per otto tempi). In the musical metaphor, relations among such heterogeneous elements and materials are outlined in such way that they each conquer its own place and reach harmony amidst bounds and syncopes.
Besides the exhibition of Weimar, other noteworthy retrospectives are the one at the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna of Bologna, with a catalogue including a text by Castagnoli and a dialogue with the artist Mario Bertoni, the one at the Galleria Civica d’Arte Contemporanea of Trento, with Danilo Eccher as curator, and that at the Kunstverein of Frankfurt and San Gallo, by Peter Weiermair, Peter Kirchberg, and Roland Wäspe (1993); Scomessa is the title of the 1997 Siena exhibition, accompanied by installations that are perfectly integrated in the urban area (Panatenaiche).
La mano aperta della pittura, where iron pieces coil around canvases and grasp plasters and stones drawing wide spirals, inaugurates the following decade and the retrospective by Pier Giovanni Castagnoli and Helmut Friedel for the GAM of Torino (in the spaces of Promotrice di Belle Arti) and the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus of Munich (2001). In 2005, another retrospective is presented at the CAMeC of La Spezia and at the Kunsthalle of Göppingen by Bruno Corà and Werner Meyer. Gastini furthermore regularly holds solo shows at important Italian galleries: at the Galleria dell’Oca in Rome (2005), at the Otto Gallery in Bologna (2006), at the Galleria 2000 & Novecento in Reggio Emilia (2007), at the Galleria Giorgio Persano in Torino (2008), at the Galleria dello Scudo in Verona (2008-2009). He also tries his hand at installations, like in the church of San Giacomo in Treville (2005) and in the woods of Bossolasco (2008); in Torino, since 2009, a carpet of blue signs made with molded neon lights decorates the ceiling of the Galleria Subalpina for the Luci d’Artista initiative.
Since 2005, the artist returns to reflect, above all, on the space of single, large canvases. Hence, in numerous pieces the upper part of the canvas is occupied by a classical frieze (a hot and sensitive material like terracotta also makes its appearance), while in the lower part, a soft pictorial veil spreads in shades of white, studded with fine strokes, reminiscent of the works of the Seventies (Stoicheion, Arché, and later I tempi delle attese). As it was already the case in the past, canvases propose a counterpoint between fullness and emptiness, extreme lightness and extreme heaviness, and — obeying an inexplicable force — seem to hold themselves in the void, propped by an atmosphere that Fossati, in other pieces, defined as “fantastic” and that wraps the observer as well. In this phase, blue is the preeminent color, an ultramarine blue pigment distributed with a sponge, volatile and with a seductive tone, painted next to black: together, they break away from the mixture of whites smeared by hand and ideally push out toward the tri-dimensional elements, also present in the works. Indeed, the use of aluminum, melted in casts, is frequent, and so is that of slate and glass, materials that in the most recent pieces are snipped into the canvas and are at the same time protruding and penetrating. Painting is everywhere in space, but it is fixed in the picture in an instant of perception, immobilized by blades of stone that appear as recently thrown; it thickens in the zones of color and shadows of material; the aerial suspension of those withheld instants is in the titles invented by the artist, also in his last pieces: Nel volo… sospeso I and II (2010).