In the Studio with Giorgio Griffa

Words by

Maddalena Bonato

In the Studio with Giorgio Griffa

When did your passion for art begin? When and how did you start painting?  

I began painting as a child. My father entrusted me to a traditional painter who taught me according to his knowledge, focusing on landscapes, figures, fruits, and flowers. Around 1950, when I was 14 or 15 years old, I saw a painting by Mondrian that opened my eyes to painting and my own inadequacy. At the age of 23, after obtaining a law degree and working part-time in my father and brother's law firm, I returned to school. I spent 3 or 4 years at Filippo Scroppo's studio, a painter associated with the Concrete Art Movement (MAC), where I underwent a strictly figurative apprenticeship.

Could you describe your studio? What type of space is it, and what is your working method inside it?

My studio is a large space, approximately 11 meters by 6 meters and with big windows all one one side. On the floor, I spread out dust sheets on which I place the canvases, painting horizontally.

Giorgio Griffa, Studio view, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Archivio Giorgio Griffa.

You are one of the leading Italian abstract painters, and your works include not only lines, dots, and curves but also numbers and letters, in a pictorial language divided into cycles. How has the interaction of these symbols changed over time?

In Italy, the controversy between figurative and abstract art began with a 1948 article by the secretary of the Communist Party, condemning abstract art as degenerate. As a young artist, this controversy embarrassed me because I admired masters from both sides. Later, I became convinced that it was detrimental to Italian art and artists because it diverted attention from significant changes that were happening. I was a figurative painter, but at the 1964 Venice Biennale, I encountered Pop Art and began integrating my works with pop imagery. Gradually, the figures detached from my paintings, and I was left with no choice but to abandon them. It wasn't a late decision to embrace abstraction but a concrete result of my artistic process. I felt the need to simplify, and this is when I thought of Yves Klein's monochromes. Monochrome applications were soon followed by various repetitive signs, and that's how my painting was born between 1967 and 1968. Two main elements characterize it: the first is the “unfinished” motif, meaning that the action cannot be completed because life has moved on in the meantime; this thought comes from Zen. The second characteristic is the use of anonymous signs "that belong to everyone's hand"; this idea comes from the Vedas of India, where the artist must forget themselves. It's a fusion of my Western thought with Eastern philosophy.

And regarding the cycles of your art, could you list and describe them? How do they communicate?

Regarding the phases of my work, I can specify that there are 12 cycles. They don't follow a logical progression from one to the other; they are different paths on the same ground, sometimes intersecting, and at the same time, there are works that belong to more than one cycle. The "Segni Primari" (Primary Signs) were the initial configurations of a repeated sign. The "Contaminazioni" or "Connessioni" (Contaminations or Connections), which involve alternating different signs, date back to the 1970s. "Frammenti" (Fragments), small irregular canvases, "Segno e Campo" (Sign and Field) with color fields, "Alter Ego" with references to other works, and "Trasparenze" on canvas gauze are from the 1980s. "Tre linee con arabesco" (Three Lines with Arabesque) and "Numerazioni" (Numberings) emerged in the 1990s. The "Canone Aureo" (Golden Ratio) cycle was born in the 2000s. "Shaman," "Dilemma," and most recently "Océanie" are the latest cycles.

Speaking of abstract art, are there any artists who are particularly dear to you or who have influenced you?

There are undoubtedly many influences, but the dominant figure is Matisse. He taught me that, as gratifying as the artist's thoughts may be, the primacy always belongs to the painting itself. He sought primal purity, while I seek contaminations, yet I draw inspiration from his spirit constantly.

Giorgio Griffa, 'Tre Linee con Arabesco', 07/09/2023 - 05/10/2023, Photo by Robert Glowacki, Courtesy: MASSIMODECARLO.

When looking at your paintings, there are vivid references to geometry and mathematics, with nods to ancient philosophy. What have been the main sources of interdisciplinary inspiration, and how have you translated them into your paintings?

In my view, painting has always depicted the world according to the culture of its time, narrating it. The artist, who is neither a scientist nor a priest, draws from common knowledge. I believe there are no privileged disciplines except for personal sensibility. During the time of the Chauvet Cave, 35,000 years ago, long before disciplines were invented, painting was already present. I draw from everything I believe I understand and perhaps even what I don't fully grasp, whether it's poetry, mathematics, philosophy, or scientific dissemination.

Is there also a relationship with poetry? Do the thoughts/words you include in your canvases have a poetic meaning?

Since the time of Orpheus, poetry has always been present. I have created works by transcribing some beautiful thoughts by Agnes Martin or the last lines of Ezra Pound's Cantos. In the "Trasparenze" cycle, I worked on Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" and T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land”. I have also written words without identity in the "Shaman" cycle, precisely to enter the unknown where there are no identities indeed. In the "Dilemma" cycle, I used words that express opposites coexisting in reality. I believe all of this is connected to poetry.

You paint on raw canvases, which you leave "nude" and display in an essential manner. Is there a relationship between this approach and your artistic style?

In a hierarchical system, the artist is at the top, and the support is at the bottom. It must remain anonymous not to interfere. However, in a non-hierarchical system, even the basic canvas becomes a protagonist and can bring its ancestral memory, which is to be used and stored, folded and stretched; it becomes an active part of the artwork.

As you mentioned earlier, you approach the canvas by laying it on the ground. Have you always used this method? What do you achieve by painting in this way?

The horizontal canvas allows me to control the consistency of the paint so that its essence can operate in full, producing mixing, drying, and contamination between the colors. My hand merely sets the stage for this process.

Giorgio Griffa, Studio View, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Archivio Giorgio Griffa.

At your recent exhibition at Massimo de Carlo in London, there is a retrospective focused on the "three lines with arabesque" cycle. Could you tell us how this phase places into your artistic journey?

In that cycle, the goal was to create a society in which every singles, yet diverse, individual shared common characteristics, so represented by the three lines with arabesques. Identities were then fixed with a corresponding number within the cycle, with the first being 1, the second 2, and so on. There is also a registry in the form of a notebook where I record the birth date and characteristics for each work.

In fact, in your work, we often find numbers referring to the painted symbols or the sequence of works, as in the "three lines with arabesque" cycle. What does this specific arrangement mean to you? Is it aimed at the viewer's interpretation of the work, or is it more than that?

Numeration is the oldest way to establish order, going back to inscriptions of marks on bones even before numbers were invented. In my case, numbers can lead from the unknown to the known, as in the "Numerazioni" cycle, where they fix the order in which signs are placed on the canvas. They can also lead from the known to the unknown, as in the "Canone Aureo" cycle, where the golden ratio enters the unknown because it continues indefinitely, yet it doesn't grow; 1.6 will never become 1.7.

Giorgio Griffa, 'Tre Linee con Arabesco', 07/09/2023 - 05/10/2023, Photo by Robert Glowacki, Courtesy: MASSIMODECARLO.

In your opinion, what was the meaning of art in the socio-political context of the 1960s-70s, and what is its meaning now?

From the numerous facets of art, I tend to prioritize the aspect of knowledge. In that sense, I can say that in the common knowledge of that time, Newton's perfect mechanical universe was still in operation, albeit modified. Nowadays, science dissemination has led us into a quantum universe where everything is life, movement, variation, and complexity. Mechanical simplicity has given way to the elusive diversity of life. Everything is born and dies, from particles to stars. Life exists in both the organic and inorganic world.

Do you think it was easier to stand out in a creative context in the past compared to nowadays? How did you perceive the artistic environment, and how did interactions and contacts develop?

The Academy system seemed perfect, yet it broke down in the 19th century already. In a universe where everything is in constant motion and impossibly complex, it's challenging for me to pinpoint any fixed points regarding interactions and contacts.

When did you realize that your passion for painting would become your career?

I can't answer that. I might say that I see painting as life rather than a career.

What is your opinion regarding the younger generations?

They are facing a transformation that, in my opinion, will be at least as important as the invention of writing. So, good luck to them.

What advice would you give to a young artist?

Never stop studying.

Finally, could you recommend a book, a film, and a piece of art?

Book: "Kaddish" by Allen Ginsberg, Film: "Young Frankenstein," Artwork: "Océanie, le ciel, la mer" by Henri Matisse.

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