Agostino Ferrari: Signs over time, Museum of the Twentieth Century

Agostino Ferrari. “At the end of 1962 I began to use the sign as nonsignificant writing… today there is still the awareness of reality, which I represent as I have always done, developing a theme with signs and forms. At the same time, there is everything I do not know about man and his life, a black surface that is beyond existence, before birth and after death, emptiness and darkness, the limitation of our thinking compared to the infinite- big mind. ”

For over half a century Agostino Ferrari has used the sign as an expressive tool capable of telling his personal emotions and his reactions to external reality but also as a figure of a language that participates in the contemporary mainstream, between post-informal, programmed art, minimal, pop and the various returns to painting. Painting that Agostino Ferrari never wanted to give up, like his companions who in 1962 founded the group of “Cenobio” (Angelo Verga, Ettore Sordini, Arturo Vermi and Ugo La Pietra), while reducing it to the minimum terms of a graphic phrasing of meaningful modules drawn in color, whose vague visual model were newspaper pages: a tactic to combine the chronicle of a restless and radical era with an intense sensitivity, the public with the private.

After the dissolution of the group and two stays in the USA, in the second half of the sixties Ferrari’s work acquires an object consistency, in parallel with the contemporary experiences of friends Agostino Bonalumi, Enrico Castellani and above all Dadamaino. The sign becomes an engraving practically practiced on the surface, a trace represented or a metallic wire in relief (in the cycle entitled “Theater of the sign”); research is also carried out on the form, obtained through a rigorous method, of a procedural character (“Total form”) which arouses the interest and appreciation of Lucio Fontana. Finally, after the sign, the shape and the space, the artist takes into consideration the color, investigated in relation to different geometric figures,

At the end of the seventies, a phase of rethinking and balancing called “re-foundation” led Ferrari to recover a more gestural sign that from that moment on it would never leave: illegible forms and handwriting, of different consistency, sometimes embellished by a thickness of black sand volcanic and brilliant, they multiply through new cycles that engage the artist for a few decades, from the “Events” to the “Palimpsests” to the “Maternity”, where a central pattern (matrix) is repeated in the outermost part of the picture, giving rise to a recovery with inverted tonal values; up to the recent “Beyond the threshold” and “Inside-outside”, characterized by the presence of a gash full of impenetrable black in which the sign is immersed or from which it emerges,

The exhibition. The anthology set up at the Museo del Novecento reconstructs the entire itinerary of the Milanese artist; in the first room nine works of large or very large format will be exhibited, milestones that mark the last part of the itinerary by Agostino Ferrari after the “re-foundation”: from the Palimpsests to the very recent Prosegni (Interior / Exterior), including an unpublished work, performed specifically for the occasion. The archive, on the other hand, will host a series of small pieces, examples of the first part of the itinerary, from the Tales of 1963 to the Theaters of the Sign, to the total Forms to the studies for Self-portrait (the Alphabet) and color analyzes. Many studies and papers, which offer, for the first time, a precious insight on the creative method and processes followed by the Milanese artist in his work. In total, a hundred original works will be exhibited. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog published by Nomos Edizioni and edited by Martina Corgnati

The general catalog. On the occasion of this exhibition, the general catalog of the work of Agostino Ferrari, edited by Martina Corgnati, published by Electa on the occasion of the artist’s 80th birthday, will be presented in the conference room of the Museo del Novecento on Thursday 27 September. About 2500 documented works, excluding multiples and projects, as well as critical texts and bio-bibliographic apparatus.

Agostino Ferrari (Milan, 9 November 1938) is an Italian painter. Attracted to art since childhood, in 1959 he met the painter Remo Brindisi, who invited him to work in his studio. In 1961, at the Pater gallery in Milan and with the presentation of the critic Giorgio Kaisserlian, he created his first exhibition. The works of this period are inspired by the Milanese industrial periphery of the late fifties and, although they are absolutely non-figurative and indeed affected by the lesson of informal art, they show an explicit naturalistic influence, which also transpires from the title chosen to group the tables and drawings of those years: Nature Surrounding Landscape. The long association with Ferrari gives an evolutionary leap in Ferrari paintingLucio Fontana, who does not translate into intimate adherence to the principles of Spatialism, but rather into a more generic reflective, latently philosophical depth of his artistic making which has remained intact, even between second thoughts and experiments, through the decades.

The Cenobio and the nonsignificant writing
Decisive for the subsequent developments of Agostino Ferrari’s artistic research is the meeting with Ugo La Pietra, Angelo Verga, Ettore Sordini, Alberto Lùcia (poet) and Arturo Vermi, which marks the birth, in 1962, of the Cenobio Group. The partnership is short-lived (despite the friendship and collaboration between the various components over the years), but it leaves a lasting trace in the effervescent Milanese scene of that period, and above all represents for Ferrari the beginning of the research on the sign, the guiding thread of all his artistic activity.

Through a minimal use of the sign, Cenobio has tried, in fact, to rethink painting, defending it both from the radically critical positions of Piero Manzoni and the growing public favor for an art conceived mainly as an event and installation. The poetics of the group are expressed in the attempt to bring painting back to a kind of “zero degree”, to an early moment, in which the sign has not yet become a symbol and a writing. In the wake of these intuitions, between 1962 and 1964, the sign of Ferrari turns into a sort of insignificant writing: it’s time for the series of works called Sign-Writing.

In 1966 he exhibited in New York, at the Eve Gallery. Subsequently, returned to Italy, elaborates object and procedural cycles dedicated to the ingredients of painting, sign, shape and color, real “staging” with a “basically plastic” character, as Lucio Fontana wrote in 1967.

The sign acquires a size plastic
Between 1964 and 1965 Ferrari made two long trips to New York, where he explored the environment of Pop Art and met artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Billy Apple, Jasper Johns. The series of Labyrinths, paintings focused on the description of plastic concepts, are affected by these experiences, although far from his vision. The search for the objectualization of the sign begins in 1966 through the works entitled Theater of the sign, a research that ends in 1976 with the series of Contaminations. They are paintings-objects that try to overcome the two-dimensionality of the canvas and to give a more physical, objective and material image of the sign. The works grouped under the title Forma Total are almost contemporary. These are compositions that break the perimeter boundaries of the canvas and which try to give the viewer an impression of harmony and balance by making the shapes, signs and almost exclusive use of white and blue colors dialogue.

Color and emotions: the Self-portrait
In the early seventies Agostino Ferrari concentrated his attention precisely on colors, putting them in close relationship with specific geometric signs and shapes, and trying to investigate their emotional aspects as well as their optical-perceptive qualities. This phase is linked to the works entitled Sign-Shape-Color, whose apex is represented by the creation, in 1975, of the self- portrait, installation (the only one ever made by Ferrari) of large dimensions with a spiral-like shape, exhibited since then in several venues and occasions (the most recent, in 2010, at the Casa del Mantegna in Mantua, in an exhaustive retrospective of the Artist curated by the art critic and historian Martina Corgnati).

The artistic production of this period is accompanied by short theoretical writings, in which the artist tries to systematize his experiences and ideas with greater rigor. Significant in this search for not only formal rigor is also the original attempt to “dialogue” with science, that is, with a world and a language that are commonly considered the antipodes of artistic practice: in 1974, at the National Museum of Science and Technology “Leonardo da Vinci” in Milan, Ferrari exhibits the works and reflections of the Sign-Shape-Color cycle within 20,000,000 light – years exhibition-event created by Arturo Vermi.

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This research led him, in 1975, to the Self-portrait, the only installation produced in all its creative itinerary, exhibited for the first time at the Art Fair of Bologna with the LP220 Gallery in Turin and, the following year, in the personal exhibition at Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara. In the following years, between 1976 and 1978, Ferrari performs the Alphabet, two series of six works which are the consequence of his studies of the Forma Forma Colore and which mark the synthesis of what is contained in the Self-portrait. In 1978, after a stay in Dallas where he exhibited the Alphabet at the Contemporary Art Gallery, the need to express himself with the pure sign re-emerges in him and enters a period of “re-foundation”. The use of volcanic sand begins almost simultaneously, which will remain a constant feature of his work until today.

The return to sign and linear writing
Starting from 1978 the expression focused on the sign re-emerges strongly in Ferrari’s works and since 1983 the sign returns to be the absolute protagonist in the Events series, paintings made by gluing black sand of volcanic origin on the canvas, a material that still today constitutes a characterizing element of his painting. They are works with a strong lyrical imprint, pre-eminent on speculative and conceptual traits, although present. In 1995, four exhibitions reminiscent of the activity carried out by the “Cenobio” group were held (at Palazzo Martinengo in Brescia, at the Galleria Peccolo in Livorno, at the Artestudio in Milan and at the Studio Delise in Portogruaro). In 1996, at the Lorenzelli Gallery in Milan, Ferrari presented the Frammenti, paintings united by the breaking of the linearity of the sign, broken this time in all directions, to meet and collide freely on the space of the canvas.

Agostino Ferrari has exhibited in hundreds of solo and group exhibitions in Italy and abroad. Among the most important are the solo exhibitions at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara (1976), at the Palazzo Braschi in Rome (1992), at the Casa del Mantegna in Mantua (2010), at the Fondacion Frax of Alfas del Pi (Alicante, Spain) (2011), at Palazzo Lombardia (2013).

A new compositional balance
With Maternità (1999-2007), the artist instead finds a different and more collected compositional balance: a central nucleus, intended as a matrix of the sign content, from which the whole picture flows, and a very clear insistence on the chiaroscuro born from contrast of black and gold. Conceptually and partly also chronologically (from 2003 to 2009) follow the works to which he gives the title of Beyond the threshold.

These canvases are composed of two parts: one dominated by writing and another represented by a black sand surface that seems to absorb, “swallow”, the “story”, almost canceling it out. Linear writing stops and seems suspended between the past (represented by writing) and the unknown of the future, subtending a more intimate and existential exploration, to which the title itself explicitly refers. In 2005, invited to the Rome Quadrennial, within the Contemporary Art section, Ferrari created a large work (1.60 mx 3.60 m) belonging to this series. Conceptually, this large cycle also includes the large murals that Ferrari painted in 2007 in Piazza Borgoverde di Vimodrone (MI), on three sides of a vast quadrangular body of water.

He won the Joan Mirò engraving award (1971) and the Bugatti-Segantini career award (2017). In 2007 he created some permanent public works in Piazza Borgoverde di Vimodrone, on behalf of the Land (Landscape Architecture) group in Milan. He has worked with leading galleries in Europe such as Franz Paludetto (Turin), Thomas Levy (Hamburg), Lorenzelli (Milan), Centro Steccata (Parma). Today it is represented by Ca ‘di Fra’. His works are among other things in the Manuli, Moratti and Rabolini collections.

Recent research
In 2010 Agostino Ferrari presents a new cycle, Internal / External, in which from the unfathomable and sometimes disturbing black area of the previous series comes new writing, the sign regains thickness and visibility, almost in a gesture of trust in the evolutionary abilities of Man, in his curiosity and ability to reinvent himself. It was also during these years that the artist paid new attention to the Mediterranean and the nations bordering it, despite the fact that in previous decades he had exhibited, as well as in Italy, mainly in central Europe (especially in the German area). In fact, in 2011 it was the first anthology in Iberian soil, at the Fundación Cultural Frax (L’Alfàs del Pi, Alicante); and in 2012 he was the first Italian artist to organize an exhibition, in collaboration with the local section of the Italian Cultural Institute, in Tunisia which sprang from the Arab spring. L’Signes de rencontre and held at the Center National d’Art Vivant de Tunis, was inaugurated by an unusual (for Agostino Ferrari) performance in the company of the well-known Tunisian artist and calligrapher Nja Mahdaoui, involving the audience.

Museum of the twentieth century in Milan
The Museo del Novecento in Milan is a permanent exhibition of 20th century works of art housed in the Palazzo dell’Arengario and the adjacent Royal Palace in Milan. The museum absorbed the collections of the previous Civic Museum of Contemporary Art (CIMAC) which was located on the second floor of the Royal Palace and which was closed in 1998.

The Museo del Novecento, located inside the Palazzo dell’Arengario in Piazza del Duomo, hosts a collection of over four thousand works that catalyze the development of 20th century Italian art.

The Museo del Novecento was established on 6 December 2010 with the goal of spreading knowledge of 20th century art and offering a more comprehensive insight into the collections that the city of Milan has inherited over time. Beside its core exhibition activity, the Museum is active in the conservation, investigation and promotion of 20th century Italian cultural and artistic heritage with the final aim of reaching an ever wider audience.

Apart from a single room housing works by foreign artists including Braque, Kandinsky, Klee, Léger, Matisse, Mondrian and Picasso, the majority of the works exhibited in the museum are by Italian artists. A major section is devoted to the Italian Futurists, with works by Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Fortunato Depero, Luigi Russolo, Gino Severini, Mario Sironi and Ardengo Soffici. Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s large canvas Il Quarto Stato (1902) is also exhibited in a room on its own.

Other sections of the museum are dedicated to individual artists such as Giorgio de Chirico, Lucio Fontana and Morandi. There are also sections devoted to art movements of the twentieth century, including Abstractionism, Arte Povera, the Novecento Italiano, Post-Impressionism and Realism, and to genres such as landscape and monumental art.