It was the French poet Paul Valéry who coined the phrase, “Ce qu’il y a de plus profond dans l’homme, c’est la peau” — “the most profound thing in Man is the skin.” Paradoxical on the face of it, the idea that the skin is at once a mechanism for protecting the body as well as something that desires connection is representative of the tensions between the external versus the internal. It’s also the apparent paradox that’s at the heart of Ettore Spalletti’s most recent exhibition, named after Valéry’s quote.
On at the Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris until May 26, the septuagenarian Italian artist’s exhibition investigates flatness versus three-dimensionality, sculpture versus painting, and the ways in which colors can seem to pop off a canvas. He has split his new work into two rooms. His “Paesaggio” paintings, which are composed of single-colored panels — in azure and in coral — are meant to evoke the Abruzzo landscape, nestled within the region that Spalletti has worked all his life. (Born in the seaside town of Cappelle sul Tavo, Spalletti’s studio, perched atop the famously windy hill of Pescara, is only about five kilometers away from his childhood home.) The room is complemented by a coral-colored diptych with gold-leaf framing that achieves the paradox of vulgar minimalism, the colors seeming to leap out of the painting while, in their unity and monochrome, also seeming to be tightly held by the canvas. Nearby cubic sculptures reify the space’s thematic flatness.
Spalletti is an “artist’s artist.” Not necessarily widely known, he’s still achieved a great deal, including representing Italy at the 1997 Venice Biennale, showing at Documenta in 1982 and 1992, and sharing an exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York in 1993. His use of color is likewise legendary. Inspired by Yves Klein and Lucio Fontana, Spalletti employs blocks of color as well as seemingly immaterial color schemes, especially in his depictions of sea and sky. As far back as the 1950s, Klein’s influence can be seen in Spalletti’s work. Klein’s famous Plexiglas box filled with his “International Klein Blue,” gold leaves, and pink powders, convinced Spalletti of both the power of media-based inquiry (what’s a sculpture versus what’s a painting?) as well as the potentialities of color.
“Blue is a color that you almost can’t find in nature,” Spalletti told Apollo, an art magazine. “It is the color of the atmosphere which we live in continuously. We are immersed in blue... Pink is the color of the skin, which is never fixed but is transformed according to the state of mind or mood you are experiencing.”
It is his understanding of light, however, that most differentiates his work. “Light shows me the colors,” he added. “They are transformed continuously by the light, which moves and gives me the idea of another color.”
While the first room is devoted to coral, the second room is devoted to azure. The three azure-colored paintings appear to be perfect squares save for a small bit taken out of the corner of each. In this way, the paintings become sculptural — geometric fragments. In the gallery’s bookstore, a few new paper drawings in colored pencil and pastels depict the landscapes of Abruzzo.
Spalletti’s process fundamentally questions the line between two- and three-dimensional artwork. In the same way that our skin protects us from our surroundings, his paintings seem to turn into themselves thanks to their flatness of color. But in their powders and the gold leaves that accent many of his works, his art also seems to poke out and penetrate the world, just as our skin is what first makes contact with our environment. In some ways, Spalletti’s work is neither in two dimensions nor three but is instead suspended between both. A profound depth of surface.
Click on the slideshow for a sneak peek at the show
Founder: Louise Blouin