Giorgio Griffa at Casey Kaplan

Based in Turin, born in 1936, Giorgio Griffa continues to make paintings notable for their light-handed expressiveness. A friend of Arte Povera members when that group was active, Griffa leans toward a joyous simplicity in his art. Never formally trained, Griffa worked as a lawyer and as an artist before devoting himself full time to painting in the 1960s. Late in that decade, he turned away from realism toward the abstraction for which he is known. By not framing his paintings and simply attaching them to the wall by a nail, Griffa emphasizes the spontaneously oriented, ephemeral nature of his practice, a point of view in keeping with the Arte Povera outlook. This show of works emphasizes the lyric nature of his point of view; the simplicity of the often repetitive markings intimates the artist’s liking for subtle variations within a larger theme.
Abstraction of this sort has now become an international language--it would be hard to look at the paintings and pinpoint a geographical location for their making. But the sophistication and directness of this show point out how paradigms can internalize themselves in a style that is seemingly free, outside the boundaries of much lyric abstraction because of the seeming ease with which the paintings were made. As a result, we may find it hard to identify the artist as belonging to a particular group--indeed, if someone claimed that this was the art of a New York School painter, it would not be easy to deny his assertion. Yet, of course, Griffa belongs most particularly to the esthetic movements of Italy in the second half of the 20th century.

What is it about these paintings that make them so immediately attractive? The works in this show, all from the 1990s, evidence a light hand and a light palette. They are usually made up of simple, repetitive strokes, creating limited patterns that exist in close proximity to each other. The regular picture plane is usually not completely filled, so that the empty space further underscores Griffa’s belief that no painting is ever truly complete. Working in this way also places a responsibility on the audience, whose responses to the designs must finish the canvas so that the patterns are fulfilled, even if the paintings appear sparse. In the picture Tre linee con arabesco n. 108 (1991), several patterns stack up on top of each other: on the top, a series of light blue wave-like lines take up the upper half of the picture. Underneath are the three reddish straight lines, mentioned in the work’s title, that move across the picture plane horizontally. Underneath the lines, on the left, is a small rectangle of light blue, with a brownish-orange square supporting it from below, at the very bottom of the painting, again on the left. These stylistic devices seem to exist arbitrarily in relation to each other, but they create, in their entirety, a complex series of abstract relations that build into something structural, even if the elements are separate and discrete. Tre linee is a wonderful painting, devoted to a collection of stylistic effects, whose meaning is greater than the sum of its parts.

Like most of the paintings in the show, the work entitled Numerazione doppia (1996) consists of differing stylistic effects that cohere within the composition. In this painting, the top is covered with a band of blue, whose bottom edge is irregular and deepens toward the right.  Several reddish lines drop from the blue stripe above them, while off to the left we see a series of pink wavy lines. Two other sets of lines, both on the left side of the painting, create additional visual interest: a series of blue horizontal lines with curved ends on the right, and beneath them a group of vertical zig-zag lines that follow their way down to the bottom of the image. Numbers dot the landscape here;  maybe they are an offhand way of organizing the work of art, although it is hard to build genuine mathematical connections between the differing integers. The numbers may reflect Griffa’s ongoing interest in the golden mean, a numerical series of importance in the artist’s esthetic. The point is that the numbers regulate Griffa’s intuitive interests, as well as serving as visual symbols, stripped of scientific meaning, in their own right.

In the last painting to be mentioned, Finale Rosa (1996), Griffa resorts to his trademark simplicity to make a work of memorable patterning. Four columns of slanted lines--lavender, yellow, a light green, and light purple--stand on top of three billowing cloud shapes that are rose in color. It is a light-hearted work of art, in keeping with Griffa’s understanding that the fulfillment of space is something that can be attempted but never fully completed. The idea of deliberate incompletion in a painting is profoundly interesting in the sense that it always suggests the possibility of something to follow and therefore duration--a visual enrichment meant to come next and shape and fill the canas. It is also a way of suspending our thinking about more traditional concepts such as finish and completion, enabling a gifted painter like Griffa to explore the interstices between what is realized and what is not. 

The connection between these two states of achievement is time--time is what is needed to realize and then end the problem of the incomplete canvas. Yet it is also clear that Griffa’s work from the 1990s succeeds as fully realized art, just as the sequences available from painting to painting can be seen as an engaged series, that is, a stylistic continuity joining one work to a next. Griffa is an artist of conceptual probity, as well as being a painter intent on solving contemporary visual problems. Thus, this show illustrates, in exemplary fashion, the tension between the impulse to end something and the equally strong desire to keep it alive, via a lack of completion, for creative reasons. While the paintings’ visual style is not closely linked to the work of the Arte Povera artists, something of the latter’s belief in truth to materials emerges in Griffa’s art. Indeed, there is a modesty in the work that belies its achievement, so that simple things become grand. Also, Griffa’s conceptual underpinnings situate his work in a matrix of notable intelligence, especially in regard to historical organizing principles such as the golden mean. This would suggest--and it is true--that Griffa’s art takes place in a crossroads, where ideas and the signs representing them occur on equal footing.


- Jonathan Goodman, New York, July 6, 2020