The irreverent genius of Pino Pascali

Fondazione Prada pays homage to the eclecticism of Pino Pascali with a retrospective that transcends the traditional concept of the art show and delves into his multifaceted practice: a striking reflection of the changes of Italian society in the 1960s.

Fondazione Prada could have limited itself to creating a traditional retrospective that would outline Pino Pascali’s artistic career through a series of works displayed in chronological order, and that would have made it a good exhibition. Instead, the Milanese foundation decided to set a new standard for the conception and creation of monographic exhibitions by creating a majestic art show. Pino Pascali, open until 23rd September 2024, is in fact the result of thorough research that began almost four years ago, involving the efforts of the Fondazione Prada staff, of many national and international institutions, private collectors, gallery owners and scholars, with the supervision of the curator Mark Godfrey. A more linear and less intense exhibition project would not have done justice to an artist who between 1965 and 1968 was the protagonist of thirteen solo exhibitions in distinguished Italian galleries. Pascali’s tragic and premature death at thirty-three years old abruptly interrupted his relentless creative flow, leaving us in doubt as to which paths he would have taken in the years to come and how his artistic journey would have taken shape on an international level. For this and many other reasons, Pino Pascali had to be an atypical art show, including four exhibitions in one, coherent with the multifaceted nature of its protagonist: innovative, original and extremely sensitive to the changes in the society, economy and industry of his time.

The first part of the exhibition develops on the ground floor and first floor of the Podium and is dedicated to the artist’s Solo Shows. Instead of merely displaying a selection of Pascali’s works, the gallery spaces and venues that hosted five of his main solo exhibitions have been faithfully recreated: Pascali (1965), La Tartaruga, Rome; Pino Pascali (1966), Gian Enzo Sperone, Turin; Pascali. Nuove Sculture (1966) L’Attico Gallery, Rome; Bachi da setola e altri lavori in corso (1968), Galleria L’Attico, Rome; XXXIV Venice Biennale, Italian Pavilion (1968). This design method allows visitors to delve into Pascali’s exhibition-making process, which he considered an integral part of his work as an artist, and to discover – or re-discover – his non-conformist attitude that challenged the concept of ” signature style”, so dear to so many artists of all eras. Among the works exhibited in this section there are also iconic pieces such as Primo piano labra (Lips close-up, 1964), La Gravida o Maternità (Pregnant woman or Maternity, 1964), Il Colosseo (The Colosseum, 1964), Le botole or Botole ovvero lavori in corso (The trapdoors or Trapdoors or work in progress, 1967) and various works belonging to the Animals and weapons series. In the middle of the ground floor is Delfino (Dolphin, 1966), that with its body seems to cross the central column of the room, re-proposing the setup designed by Pascali for the Il mare (The sea) exhibition at L’Attico gallery. On that occasion the artist had filled the gallery space with twenty-four panels of waves – too fragile to travel, unfortunately – forcing the audience to the edges of the room and thus highlighting the inadequacy of the bourgeois aristocratic space of traditional galleries for contemporary art.

Exhibition view of “Pino Pascali” Fondazione Prada, Milan Photo: Roberto Marossi, Courtesy: Fondazione Prada

On the upper floor there is a reproduction of his exhibition in the central pavilion of the XXXIV Venice Biennale that, unlike the previous ones, brought together a series of works without a clear narrative link but that were united by the employment of innovative materials such as steel wool and synthetic fur, that introduce the second section of the exhibition. Materiali (Materials) allows a true immersion in Pascali’s research, which intertwined several times with the Italian economic and social fabric over the years. His works are in fact exhibited alongside archive materials and publications of the time, showing how these materials were advertised. In the 1960s, plastic, Eternit, steel wool, foam rubber and synthetic leather entered Italian homes for the first time, testifying to a change of direction in Italian society and the economy, from the countryside to the cities, from agriculture to industry. In the works displayed in this section, wood and straw seem to coexist peacefully with expanded polyurethane and acrylics, but actually hide a contradiction that would prove irremediable in the decades to come.

Finally, Pino Pascali pays homage to the figure of the artist on the national scene, both as an innovator and as a member of a lively and extremely prolific creative community. On the one hand, it focuses on his relationship with photography, and thus with the great photographers of the time, such as Ugo Mulas, Andrea Taverna and Claudio Abate, who used to document all the phases of the creation process behind his works.  On the other hand, the show explores his relationship with Pascali’s “fellow” artists, with whom he shared some languages, and from whom he often steered away in terms of attitude and research. In the Photography section, alongside large sculptures such as an exhibition copy of 32 metri di mare circa (32 sq m of sea approximately, 1967), Vedova Blu (Blue widow, 1968) and Cinque bachi da setola e un bozzolo (Five bristle worms and a cocoon, 1968), many archive materials and intriguing shots – in which Pascali playfully interacts with his works in imaginative settings – are displayed. These photographic shoots had no performative intent, as they were not carried out in the presence of the public, but they were intended to provide visitors with a key to understanding his works and encourage personal interaction. 

Eliseo Mattiacci, Pino Pascali, Mario and Marisa Merz – Opening of “Bachi da setola e altri lavori in corso”, Galleria L’Attico, Rome, 1968, Courtesy Studio Eliseo Mattiacci

Meanwhile, the Nord Gallery hosts the section devoted to the Group Shows, as a tribute both to Pascali’s collaborative approach in exhibition-making and to the cultural fervor of those years. Here his sculptures are juxtaposed with works by Michelangelo Pistoletto, Jannis Kounellis, Eliseo Mattiacci and Luciano Fabro, among others – to many of whom Fondazione Prada has already dedicated retrospectives over the years, demonstrating its ongoing commitment to promoting historicized Italian artists. The individual research of the artists presented in this exhibition branch, which is a de facto collective show, sometimes dialogue and sometimes clash. While Mattiacci employs Agip’s intense tone of yellow, Pascali uses and gives new life to parts and tools from the car industry; and while many artists employed pure materials, such as mud and earth, Pascali used to reproduce their texture and essence by manipulating and mixing them with other compounds.

Pascali’s sculptural research is indeed much more daring than that of his fellow artists, as it introduces the concept of ambiguity: we can never be sure that what we see is actually what it seems. This is also the case with his series dedicated to weapons, where the paints mixed with the artist’s ingenuity make scrap metal, cardboard, and waste look like real war machines. And while many of his contemporaries, in open controversy with traditional art, fully fall within the perimeter of the Arte Povera movement theorized by Germano Celant, Pascali’s practice is still difficult to place in this or that artistic current. Fascinated by technological progress, but at the same time embracing the myth of pre-industrial societies, he has created a heterogeneous body of works of extraordinary, timeless significance that continues to influence numerous contemporary artistic practices.

Agnese Torres
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