Flying the flag of a new world

Two modern artists who embraced timeless qualities

Martin Holman
July 3, 2014

The careers of artists Dadamaino and James Lee Byars began in the late 1950s. There is no record that they met in life or that either was familiar with the other’s work before Byars died in 1997 and Dadamaino in 2004. But two exhibitions in Florence help to explain the strong posthumous interest in the art of two individuals similarly committed to radical modernity and their independence from the changing fashions of the art world.

 

Dadamaino was born Edoarda Maino in Milan in 1930. How she came by her one-word professional name is still a mystery: perhaps it was her first radical artwork. With no first name to specify her gender, it could belong to a man or a woman, and so liberated its holder at the start of her career from the swift chauvinist assumptions of an Italian art scene in which few women were represented in the top flight.

 

After studying pharmacy, Dadamaino chose to pursue her interest in painting. Her earliest canvases were small studies of flowers and still-life subjects. But, around 1958, her work took a fundamentally new direction when, tired of repeating established conventions, she cut large oval shapes from the bare canvas itself to reveal the space behind.

 

Her gesture represented a rebellion against tradition. It was not entirely unprecedented and Dadamaino herself paid tribute to the example of Lucio Fontana. One of the greatest figures in the recent Italian avant-garde, Fontana had advocated new forms of art to express a post-war world revealed by science. He had himself begun to punch holes through taut surfaces and applying fragments of glass, dramatic gestures reflected the energy of the times.

 

Working in Milan alongside young innovative artists like Piero Manzoni, Dadamaino sought a fresh start unencumbered by painterly marks, images or symbols weighty with their own heritage. Removing a portion of canvas revealed new dimensions, like light and shadow, which came into the void she created directly from the actual space around it. Indeed, that space seemed to funnel into and beyond the artwork itself.

 

New visual sensations interested Dadamaino, and by titling this first series of monochrome black or white canvases Volumi (Volumes) she drew her audience’s attention to unfamiliar experiences, such as the varied reflections made by blurred edges in interior spaces framed by the now visible architecture of wooden stretcher bars.

 

From being an allusive reflection of the world, her work had become an object in itself, minimal and absolute but sharpening perception while displaying its own properties. The artist’s next steps continued to move beyond painting to insert more openings, to focus on optical effects and use materials like clear plastic film, aluminium and Nylon thread that resonated with the current moment.

 

A feature of her work was its patient, meticulous construction, as if she was engaged in systematic experiments into optics or spatial awareness. She sought assistance from craftsmen to realise her plans, such as the complex projecting surfaces of relief panels composed of undulating grids of black and white blocks or coloured tilted squares. Standing in front of them or moving from side to side, the viewer sensed a disconcertingly shifting pattern within the stable construction. She liked to work with modules that offered permutations of sensual experience in a constant relationship with the body and sensibilities of the onlooker.

 

When Dadamaino returned to putting marks on paper or canvas, in ink or tempera, she did so on her own terms. In the 1970s she adopted a precise, abstract notation. Limited to vertical, horizontal and oblique dashes, it gradually grew away from geometric arrangements to be swept into teeming folds and billows that may resemble directional flows over time in meteorological charts but which divulge no obvious meaning.

 

While the exhibition at Tornabuoni Arte includes framed examples of the series titled Interludio and Costellazioni, Dadamaino also worked on huge sheets of paper or polyester that stretched for meters. Strung across open rooms, they became alternative spaces, sensual terrains that atomised the atmosphere with a silent alphabet defying translation.

 

For all its abstract objectivity, Dadamaino’s work was in touch with humanity through the phenomena of the world. The viewer is asked questions—about how to represent reality directly, which materials art can legitimately use and what role the artist plays in the society the artist shares with her audience—that channel fresh significance into every image.

 

Breaking the surface also released a metaphysical quality that reflects on space and time beyond the present moment. It is a dimension her work shares with that of James Lee Byars.

 

Born in Detroit in 1932, Byars pursued an ideal of the pure and beautiful. Like Dadamaino, he preferred to pare down his means to a few essential gestures expressed by clear, harmonious forms. He had been a performance artist in the 1960s, and after many years in Japan evolved an economic yet richly coded artistic language reminiscent of the Noh tradition.

 

Byars had two preoccupations. One was to create the perfect work for an imperfect world. Throughout his career, much of it spent in Venice from 1980, he connected art with life through the symbolic power of radiant colour, precious materials and basic shapes.

 

His other fascination was with death, an inevitability he commemorated throughout his career. So the pairing of Byars’ The Head of Plato (1986) on a pedestal with Alberti’s Rucellai Sepulchre (1467) at the ex-chiesa di San Pancrazio (now the Museo Marino Marini) represents an inspired meeting of minds across the centuries.

 

Alberti was a humanist in holy orders who approached architecture through philosophical enquiry into the complementary value of every detail. Byars’ work expressed what he called ‘the first totally interrogative philosophy;’ it considered the vastness of outer space as well as the microscopic level of particles, pulling that wide span into itself in a search for the limits of our knowledge.

 

Byars’ Plato is a sphere of white marble, here placed on an undecorated Doric column. By no means a portrait, the object is a metaphor for the philosophical endeavour that has no end point. In harmony with the material presence and timeless classicism of Alberti’s tomb, it suggests the beauty of thought and the artist’s unfailing desire for something more.

 

 

 

Dadamaino

Until July 23, 2014

Tornabuoni Arte, lungarno Benvenuto Cellini 3, Florencewww.tornabuoniarte.it

 

‘uroboros’ - James Lee Byars encounters Leon Battista Alberti

Until November 9, 2014

Museo Marino Marini, piazza San Pancrazio, Florencewww.museomarinomarini.it

 

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