Giorgio Griffa

 - introduction -

Giorgio Griffa alla Galleria Martano (TO) 1985While GiORGIO GRIFFA has been in the vanguard of Italian art almost 20 years, he continues to be something of a «case apart», someone difficult to categorize, somewhat «out on a limb». Modest and unassuming, he has never been one to follow new fads or trends, or to compete with his contemporaries, but has kept himself always slightly apart, in contemplative study, in search of a renewed faith in the art form. This has enabled him to be topical without ever being typical: Indeed, rather than conform he has always gone «against the current» with aristocratic nonchalance. This is already noticeable in his first works between 1967 and 1968; a period when painting as an art form had «slipped frorn its pedestal» and was taking second place to less traditional and more spectacular forms of expression. It was a moment when «l'arte povera» was in its death throes and trying to survive in a kind of utopian «never-never land» but fighting a lost battle against a new burst of energy on the artistic scene; an energy at once vital and extrovert. In this context, Griff a chose to shut himself off in quiet communion with the stock-in-trade of the artist: his colours, his brushes, and the neutral space of the canvas, and to take stock of himself, of his materials and of his techniques. Thus it was in 1969 that he eventually decided to do away with the picture frame «in order to show my paintings in a way closer to the conditions I painted them in. » Right from the outset, Griffa showed this desire to shift the attention from the final result to the actual process of painting. He paid particular attention to preliminaries: the size of the canvas, the colours, the brushes; all of which he saw as the vital substructure of a work where the visible results were but indications of the complex operative process. So if we take a closer look at his seemingly non-conformist style, we see that actually it is deeply rooted in a cultural and historic context - that of the late 60's - and shows evidence of an enquiring, penetrative mind, as well as a keen, perceptive critical appreciation of a wide range of contemporary styles in both painting and in other forms of art and expression: from «1'arte povera» to Minimal art right down to Concept art. To paraphrase Kundera, we can say that faced with the contrasting «guiding values» of our existence - «lightness and heaviness» - Griffa opted for the elusive, unattainable yet discreet charm of the former. Instead of the flat, the heavy, the awkward the concrete encumbrance of traditional materials - he f avoured the flimsy iriconsistency of untreated canvas, and avoiding loud and harsh colours he turned to pastel shades, to beiges and halftones, imperceptibly blending in with each other and free of any strong diving line. All is muted, delicate, soft hues and hazy horizons. There emerges a kind of «poetry of the void» - of the undefined, the unfinished - part of an operative process which is left intentionally open and inconclusive. Ever openminded, and critical of those who weren't, he tended to advocate the «possibility of a work where the artist doesn't take the part of custodian of truth on others»(1). In keeping with this premise, he tends to shy away from imposing any meaning on his work and tries to get himself out of the way, by putting himself «on a plane with all the other elements that together combine in getting the paint on the canvas»(2). 
Griffa al lavoro The only concession he makes to «active intervention» is in his preliminary choice of painting materials where the adoption of a particular kind of canvas chosen according to size, thickness or suitability for the subject he has in mind, as well as the selection of colours and brushes, appear to be chosen subjectively. Even here, however, the choice is nonetheless objective as all will eventually be subject to the actual painting process - something to be decided on the spur of the moment as the surface responds to an idea to be developed as he goes along. Casting aside all conventional methods, the painter puts himself into a kind of suspended animation where he has no will to impose but Iets the brush guide his hand while he is immersed in applying the paint according to the receptivity and permeability of the canvas. This complete freedom from preconceived ideas and active expression as well as the vital importance given to basic materials has led to Griffa being labelled «pittura-pittura» or «pittura analitica», something of a leading trend in the first half of the 70's. For Griffa this is just another sweeping statement and in many interviews has tried to point out the key elements and key differences in his work. In a text published in 1973 he declares: «I do not do any research into my work, I do not examine or scrutinize, I do not search for objective connotations in my use of a colour or other materials, I do not take any active part, be it cold or objective. My work, after the initial choice is simple and straightforward. Brush, colour, hand, canvas, time, physical tiredness etc. all play their part in their contribution to the whole. I am a part of that whole - just another «tool» Iike others - no more, no less. The active part I play stops as soon as I have chosen my basic materials. I would like to point out, moreover, that the only definition I wilI accept and answer to, as regards my work, is that of painter and that I consider myself first and foremost as a painter and nothing'else»(3): Neither is Griffa bothered about the technicalities of space. Being a painter for him does not necessitate getting involved with the «polarity» of the «tableau» and with traditional values that demand an illusionistic or representative line. Here he casts aside all general and preconceived ideas about composition and sees «space» as nothing more or less than the space on the empty canvas. He hastens to say that he simply «wants to use all the means at his disposal exactly as they are with all their infinite possibilities of meaning and of discovery and knowledge. I cannot say: «I draw this Iine. I make this sign.» All I can say is that I'm merely a means to an end. I just put the paint on the canvas»(4). Forced to choose between «tableau» and «picture», between the actual and the metaphoric, Griffa would be more in favour of the «peinture», but with a marked difference as regards other painters from a more analytical background. What counts for him is not the verification of a «finished» product but rather the creative flow of the painting process, ever expanding and dynamic - a process which while it may be interrupted due to outside circumstances, must never be curtailed, never become a foregone conclusion, pre-packed and delivered, and thus irreversible. Once again, Griffa wants to get right away from all restrictions, from anything rigid, prescribed or authoritarian. He wants also to revalue the role of the observer, no longer a passive recipient of the message built into painting, but an important part of the process of reviewing and re-evaluating the meaning. For Griffa, the painting materials, the painting, the painter and the observer are all part of an unfinished whole which can only be eompleted when the observer brings his own individual experience to a viewing of the painting. Moreover, Griffa doesn't consider the space on the canvas as an entity in itself but as a physical fragment of indefinite space which is therefore indeterminate and unfinished. Griffa never sets out to «fill» his canvas - the work can be interrupted at any moment and never taken up again, or he may start at a certain point in time or space, to a particular situation, or is subject to personal whim as well as physical or mental tiredness. For a long period, especially at the beginning of his work, Griffa tended to work with horizontal lines or horizontal sequences reading from left to right and from top to bottom. Here he was motivated by the feminine and passive nature he found in the horizontal line, so easily submissive to the «ductus» of the hand. The horizontal line offered him infinite possibilities and there was a feeling of great freedom in these paintings. Whatever means he used to paint - be it lines or signs of symbols or colours - and whatever direction or sequence he chose to compose his subject, there was never the slightest hint of closure. All was open, like a sheet of music, the lines of colour traced by free hand; subtle designs sensitive to the merest touch, yet vibrating with energy, one after another in a poetic flow to be arrested now and then by a «caesura» suggesting a pause, a kind of silence, and with the occasional contrapuntal rhythm between one sign and another together with imperceptible modifications which, however, are never allowed to interrupt the overall flow of the «music». Every sign is unique and cannot be repeated - like the constant flow of life in which each act is irreversible in time. Griffa, like Heraclitus, feels this very strongly and is very conscious of the «unforgiving minute». «I don't have time to complete my work. I can't apply the paint to the canvas because in the meantime life has gone ahead of me. On the other hand, the painting is only a hint of my work. It would be arbitrary to assign to it a «finish» it does not have»(5). Time becomes memory, colour sedirnent, and the canvas bears frail wítness to the wealth of experience in the hand that leaves but the merest trace on it.
This strict relation between fragment, trace and memory can be seen again in Griffa's work. It serves to add new experiences and new prospects of research and discovery with the passage of time. One very important period in Griffa's itinerary is the work he accomplished between 1978 and 1980. This consists of a series of fragments - each of which stands on its own merit - placed one next to the other. How can we forget Dyonisos, a splendid contribution to the Biennale of Venice in 1980, where a whole portion was given over to an exhibition of his works, put together seemingly without rhyrne or reason - irrespective of form; material or type; a profusion of works each different from the other, and of such a poetic lightness, grace and fragile transparency of materials and joyous freshness of colour and theme that they give absolutely no sense of occlusion but become part of a more complex whole - free elements that at the same time form a common link and almost seem to represent fragments of a cohesive mind.
Dyonisos seems to «freeze» emblematically one exploratory phase in Griffa's career to give way to a newer, more articulate use of the painter's canvas. The works which were to follow reveal a constant stream of recurring figures in the decorative language of all time - an alphabet of signs and symbols drawn from the sedirnent of history, an anonymous heritage embedded in the collective memory. Greek and arabesque, angular and curved, snaky and meandering, undulating hieroglyphs removed from their original context and combining to form a new order, lined up on the canvas like heraldic coat-of-arms, a tapestry of cultures bearing witness to another point in time. Yet another arrangement of space on the canvas by «our poet of fragments». Co-ordinating blocks of colour and groups of figures juxtaposed one next to the other. One recalls a well-know axiom of Denis: «We must remember that painting - before becoming a war-horse, a naked woman, or whatever - is essentially a flat surface to which colours have to be applied according to a certain order»(6). A definition that Griffa can certainly subscribe to during any phase of his work but which takes on special significance when we consider the fact that Denis was specifically referring to the decorative picture: «the art of the Hindu, of the Assyrians; of the Egyptians, of the Greeks»(7). Keeping strictly to his principles, Griffa has no intention, even here, of putting his personal stamp on his subject or elaborating these signs in any way but continues to divest his brush of any expressivity, always bringing it back to the simple process of «getting the colour onto the canvas».
All the same, something has changed: his predilection towards a lack of motif, towards the void, has given way to a more structured use of the surface which now seems almost totally covered in colour, distributed according to scansion, to pause and to tonal counterpoint. A passage which starts on one note and then combines with other notes in a polyphonic crescendo. A «rhapsody» of colours spilling onto the canvas in a myriad hues, warm, soft and vibrant like the Mediterranean sun.
At first sight, it might seem strange that a painter of such subtle mentality as Griffa should arrive at the «discovery» of decorative painting - a category that has been the target of ferocious attacks on the part of the most intolerant of the rationalists and has been dismissed as «escapist art» or, even worse, as «superficially pretty» and therefore only fit for the in Giorgio Griffa al lavoro su "Gesso" 1969discriminate eye. However, we mustn't forget that Berenson - an authority on art - found great merit in the «more essential» values of decorative painting and predicted that it would «outlast the whims of taste and fashion»(8). Griffa considers it an ideal «language» for his painting, one whose only «raison d'étre» is to listen to its own voice and te talk for the sheer pleasure of talking, and nothing else. Here again, Griffa is swimming against the current for his contemporaries have completely the opposite view. However, he does find a «supporter» in the works of Matisse and it is Matisse himself who; like Denis, sees the need to «find, once again, purity of means», in other words «to get back to basics. That is, principles»(9).
In fact, Griffa feels very much in tune with Matisse and has chosen him as his mentor, as can be seen from the many declarations Griffa has made expressing his esteem for the French painter. It is also evident in his latest works many of which contain elements of Matisse's brush-work and technique: It can also be seen in the arrangements of objects and colours on the canvas with a montage of arabesques unfurling on a field of chromes. And it can be seen in Griffa's application of colours by layers. However, the density of colour so reached recalls more the subdued chromes of faded frescos rather than the sensual fire of Matisse's palette. Here we have another, strong recurring element in Griffa's work: - a link with the past. His canvas becomes a «melting pot» for past cultures: - signs, symbols, hieroglyphs echo down the centuries and in spite of Griffa's efforts to keep their role neutral on the canvas they set off a chain reaction in our memory and in our imagination. As Griffa would be the first to admit, they are no longer in mint condition but carry the sediment of time; yet they have not lost their basic function, their very essence: - the power to communicate. Even though Griffa continues to keep «out of the picture» refusing any interpretative role, the images still issue forth from the painting's very own being. So he leads us constantly to the threshold of new experience and endless possibilities of meaning. He stretehes his vision in every direction leaving us to make the connection. He arranges his signs in such a way that «they are no longer, or rather not yet; representations»(10). For Griffa, «the scope of art has never been that of direct knowledge; or mere representation, but rather that of metaphor and analogy»(11). But isn't this also the scope of poetry? Enough said: Silvana Sinisi


1) G. GRIFFA, Flash Art, no. 24, 1971
2) G. GRIFFA, La riflessione sulla pittura, catalogue of the Acireale exhibition, 1973 3) G. GRIFFA, Fuoricampo, no. 4, 1973
4) G. GRIFFA, catalogue of the Kunstraum exhibition, Munich, 1975 5) G: GRIFFA, op. cit.
6) M. DENIS, Du symbolisme au classicisme, Paris, 1964, p. 33 7) M: DENIS, op. cit.
8) B. BERENSON, 1 pittori italiani del Rinascimento, Florence, 1954, p..87
9) H. MATISSE, Scritti e pensieri sull'arte, Turin, 1970, p. 75. Filiberto Menna emphasized the analytical nature of the operation carried out by Matisse, whoees as the precursor of the metonymic trend in painting. In this regard, Menna wrote that: - «Matisse's painting has a 'de-sum he sblimating' function, in that it reduces the visual language to its basic elements: pure surface, even colouring, autonomous outlines, the texture of the canvas itself.~ (La linea analitica dell'arte moderna, Turin, 1980, p. 80) .
10) G. GRIFFA, Cani sciolti antichisti, Turin, 1980, p. 59
11) G. GRIFFA, catalogue of the Kunstraum exhibition, Munich, cit.

from "lieve replicante" by  Silvana Sinisi
Gallery Banchi Nuovi Roma 1987