White uplifts me

Angelo Savelli
interviewed by Michele Cardarelli

O. A good point from which to approach your artistic experience is with a formaI 33 analysis of your work – could you explain the reasons behind your exclusive use of “white” ?
A. My use of “white” is not something which began only when I went to New York, rather, it matured naturally in time without my even noticing. I remember once I entered a church in Florence, while I was still in Italy in 1944-45; it was nothing like the baroque churches I was used to in Rome, being of a simplicity I had never seen before, painted white, a warm grey-white, with gilt cornices. This first visual experience of “whiteness” impressed me and when I returned to Rome, white started coming into the landscapes I was painting. Their skies often had white patches which were not intended as variations of colour, they were not clouds where, after all, you cannot tell whether they are white or celest; rather they were “spaces” painted white. This “white” was al so reflected in the landscape alternating the vegetation with all the rest. The most important thing, however, is that back then, being an abstract-figurative artist, I was painting crucifixes and the white came out with increasing naturalness because of the spirit of the subject. I portrayed Mary Magdalene and Christ completely white _ or almost. The “white” expressed Mary Magdalene’s love for Christ which was no longer an earthly love but a love of the spirit.

O. Since the time of your first meeting with “white”, how did your concern for this non-colour, absence, spiritual transitus, develop to the point of absolute priority in your work ? Moreover, can we read your “white” as a reflection, a mirror?
A. It’s true, white reflects all other colour, it attracts. As far as space is concerned, however, you cannot make connections as the mirror is an illusion of space. At first the “white” was related to the subject of the painting, complimentary to it. Then it became a support for itself, its strength, without being tied to anything else other than its own energy. Before, the “white” was also related to the other colours and in that way it was a colour itself. Then, released of chromatic relationships, it became a “space” which was linked to the idea of the infinite, free of connections, “white” does not exist. Furthermore, the “white” of my works was not the result of a particular cultural concern, it was not influenced by an awareness of who, how or why the first totally white painting was ever created. I only became aware of Malevich’s work afterwards, the logic of history came to my thoughts much later, in 1956-7. Of course I know that history passes its culture and the wealth of knowledge down to us, yet it is also true that if everything ends up being cited, then it is ali meaningless and gives us nothing-you’ve got to add something to history for it to exist and continue. My first things were not done with a constructive intention but with a sense of this “whiteness” and I was still using not one but many colours, also in my graphic works. As a matter of fact, working on prints in 1955,I managed to make one which was completely white – I still have it. I then completely abandoned the coloured canvas and the experience of American abstract expressionism wich was well matured by then, “White” came to me even before I sought it out – it introduced itself to me. I remember I once saw a lake in Pennsylvania in the early morning. The water was evaporating and water and mist came together in a single white -grey; nothing separated them. Recalling this vision, I painted my first white painting without thinking of Malevich at all. White stayed with me after that and colours slowly faded from my palette. This “white” uplifts me and using it satisfies me more and more.

O. You also treat the canvas support in a “white” way by eliminating the frame, its right-angles and all its classic proportions:
A. Yes, I eliminated the frame and the classic proportions of its form: the “square”. I worked on irregular geometric forms, lending a certain continuity to Malevich’s work, the first white painting ever realised.

O. Your works contain heterogeneous materials. Beyond their formal value, are the ropes, for example, symbolic in the way they are twisted into a spiral? And what about the whiteness ?
A. I believe that these ropes constitute a memory from my childhood, when I lived by the sea. My birth place is situated on the rocky Tyrrhenian coast in front of the Island of Stromboli. If I have unconsciously referred to this, my intention in introducing the ropes into compositional space was to accompany the eye in a cyclic movement from the bottom to the top and vice versa. In this way, the right and left planes are brought in, the line traced by the rope defines and emphasizes the space, dividing it and uniting it at the same time. In these particular paintings, the space was not defined in an absolute way, but it was still bound to a specific action. The rope, nearly always diagonal. weaves in and out of the painting’s surface, its movement interacts with the surface and also its internal and external space. I have never given symbolic values to my works as I do not believe that symbols exist in an absolute sense. Every culture has its own symbols which I find limit the field of artistic expression. For example, “white” has different meanings in different cultures. If, in classical representation, a symbolic meaning was attributed to the images, I find it all the more fascinating where the symbol remains enigmatic, as in Titian’s Amor sacro e Amor profano. In this painting it is uncertain whether the naked body is the profane or the clothed one the sacred, or vice versa, so the interest is kept alive.

O. In stating that you do not use symbolism, could you explain the “mythical” sense suggested by the titles you give to your works ?
A. The first time I used the rope was in Dante’s Inferno in 1964. The rope is situated inside box-like vertical structures, open on one side, rising in squared insets, from the bottom to the top. I started out with the idea of making columns rise out of a square base situated in a container of water; the subject of the title was not premeditated. When I finally finished the work with all its 25 columns, I was living in Pennsylvania but had a studio in New York. One day Barnett Newman came to visit with his wife, they saw the work and talking about it, asked me what I would call it. This caught me by surprise as, while I had been making it, I had concentrated solely on the effect of the structure reflected in the water. He suggested I call it Dante’s Inferno; I responded that I thought it was rather pretentious to compare it to such a strong literary work. Newman answered, bewildered, that I shouldn’t worry especially as he himself had created an equally minimal piece, entitled THe Passion of Christ where there was no passion and no Christ. The subject then seemed to me so formidable, but thinking of all the characters Dante put in Inferno, I started to think that it might not be so bad to go there, when my time comes. I think that Dante possibly finished up there too, and I would be able to speak to Virgil, Socrates, Plato, pythagoras and other such luminaries. So I gave each column a name, but only to distinguish one from another. There are short ones and tall ones, as high as about 4 meters, in aluminium and the rape is cast in meta!. Sure, it could be that, unawares, I wanted to evoke a “mystical” or “meditative” sense with these names, which is something l’m quite used to as I have been practising Yoga for many years, but still, it is extraneous to the artistic intention.

O. So a formal approach to disparity and avoiding symbolism are both of equal importance for you?
A. Yes, after I left the canvas I eliminated the variation between the various types of white and used only one, titanium white, the most intense. Then, having limited myself to only one “white”, I felt the necessity to work further and I concentrated on sculpture, starting with Dante’s Inferno. When sculpture was not enough for me, I concentrated on physical space and how to make it live. One (installation) I did, for example, for the Hutchinson Gallery in Green Street, New York, had about 84 tree trunks painted white, not placed in classical formation but in an unusual perspective which was disorienting to the eye, giving it no point of escape. At the far end (of the space) I placed a “sacred” tree, as everything in nature is sacred, which was the crux of the work.

O. Can we find the idea of a “place of passage” in the tree, and permit me the symbol, in the “wood of life” ?
A. Yes, at that time I was living in Pennsylvania on a big farm with plenty of space, a kind of country house which is quite common in those parts, beautiful architecture. The vision of the trees, bare in winter then glorious with their leaves, deeply impressed me. I felt the need to use trunks of wood to create a vision of nature which had never been seen before. Even if snow whitens nature, it always leaves some part uncovered, revealing its true colour. Nature completely wrapped in white, as I wanted it, has never existed except in my installation. I have used many other materials including plastic since 1954, and milk-white plexiglass, especially in the later works.

O. Like the milk of the primordial sea of Indian tradition, if you will allow me one last, harmless provocation ?
A. If you like, but I confirm that metaphors or symbols are not part of my artistic language, even if I have written a poem on breasts which feed the world with their milk. The ovaI, for instance, which I have recently started using again, does not imply the cosmic egg which generated the universe, just as l prefer to avoid ali reference to logical space and to harmonious configuration from a formaI point of view. Everything which takes pIace on the surface of the painting or in the illusion of perspective has a symbolic vaIue and so limits artistic creation.

O. By avoiding all metaphors or symbols and their inevitable cross-references, is it possible to “tautologically” link the spirit of matter and the matter of spirit in the fact that you make art?
A. Yes – just as when you shake someone’s hand and sense their “power”, l think it’s the same for things of any material, you establish a relationship of deep contact, even if it’s just visual contact. The idea of the nonexistent “point” from which every thing originates (before creation ndr ) also fascinates me. There is nothing in nature in the universe which is not made up of immateriality and that point is the origin of entire cosmos.

(Interview published in “L’Arca”, Milan, n° 32 Nov. 1989, pp. 102 -103)