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Arnaldo Pomodoro: ‘Sculpture is the appropriation of one’s own space within the wider space in which we live and move’

As Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro has his first London exhibition for more than 50 years, he talks about his work and the influences that have shaped it

Interview and translation by ANGERIA RIGAMONTI di CUTÒ

Arnaldo Pomodoro’s singular artistic language combines peculiar vision, a fascination with form, archaic language and signs, all underpinned by prodigious craftsmanship. A recurring theme is the magnetic encounter between pristine, lucid geometries and the fraught, unfathomable underlying structures revealed by their flayed surfaces,  a sculptural translation of Fontana’s spatialist rupturing of the canvas. Many of Pomodoro’s large-scale works have been placed in prestigious sites including the United Nations headquarters, Trinity College, Dublin and the Vatican. Others belong to that always beguiling category of unrealised projects and include designs that seem to teeter between the ancient and the futuristic. Throughout, he retains a distinctive feeling for his sculptures’ relationship with their surroundings, not least in the ability of their reflective surfaces to invite the spectator and surrounding environment into the work. Pomodoro dissolves the boundaries between architecture, sculpture and the applied arts of jewellery and stage design, while his recent, fully-fledged architectural work, the startling, tortoise–like wine cellar Carapace (2005-12), indicates an enduringly visionary approach.

Angeria Rigamonti di Cutò: Your early years were spent in an area imbued with Renaissance art, that of Piero della Francesca in particular, and I know those landscapes were important to you. Can you begin by telling us something about the wider cultural influences that formed you outside of your immediate environment, not only strictly artistic, of which more below, but also literary or philosophical?

Arnaldo Pomodoro: I must say that the landscape of the Montefeltro region affected me greatly: the rocks and harsh, mysterious crevices – typical of the area – as well as the medieval fortresses such as the one in San Leo whose walls hang off a sheer cliff, making it hard to distinguish the rock from the architecture.

As a boy, as soon as I got the chance, I would run away and roam the countryside. I would get lost in those landscapes and hills, which I later discovered in the paintings of great Renaissance masters such as Raphael, Piero della Francesca, Bramante, Paolo Uccello …

I think there is a connection between the generally “rocky” landscape of the Montefeltro region in the Marche and my own style, as the writer Paolo Volponi aptly put it when describing my “marchigianità”.1

I think that he was mainly referring to the places themselves, in terms of their geographical, anthropological and even visionary qualities. I was also fascinated by books and writing in general: I began reading in the autocratic cultural climate of fascist Italy.

I remember that among the refugees who arrived in our town there was a lady who brought lots of books. Through her I came into contact with a new world and discovered American writers published in the series edited by Elio Vittorini and Cesare Pavese for the Einaudi publishing house.

They offered me an escape from the dull oppression of the fascist regime and allowed me to discover literature. My passion for books developed and I read widely, from Kafka to Kierkegaard to Sartre, Attali and Sennett. It was from those literary sources that I derived my fundamental philosophical and ethical approaches.

ARC: You later also spent time in Milan which was experiencing a cultural rebirth of its own and I think you also were struck by the experiments of abstract expressionists such as Pollock in your early years, not to mention Klee. As for many artists, Fontana’s rupturing the canvas was crucial to you, and yours were among the first sculptures to perforate geometric forms, giving them completely new life. Fontana was thus clearly an artistic starting point for you, but was he also a kind of father figure from a personal point of view?

AP: I met Lucio Fontana in 1954 in Milan where I had moved from Pesaro with my brother Giò who introduced us to the Milanese artistic milieu. Our studio was near Fontana’s, at the corner of Via Visconti di Modrone and Corso Monforte – he had actually suggested it to us. For many younger artists, Fontana proved himself a master in understanding both their potential and their individual paths of research, thanks to his extraordinary sense of the new. For me, too, he was like a father, challenging, encouraging and always taking a keen interest in what I did. Fontana’s generosity is well known and we quickly established a warm and friendly relationship. I often invited him to our studio to discuss things and he always gave me very important advice. I remember his smile, which was so expressive and ironic, his way of conveying his thoughts with simplicity but at the same time great acumen. He moved with such lively and expressive gestures that you could practically see the pattern of his signs, the arabesques he made with neon, which he used as an artistic medium before anyone else, a testament to the inventiveness that enlivened all his work.

ARC: What was the impact, both artistic and social, of your first trips to America in the late 50s and early 60s? It is said that you were particularly struck by purely artistic works such as the sculptures of David Smith and Louise Nevelson, but presumably also the natural forms of American landscapes affected you?

AP: I was extremely fortunate during my first visit to America as I was able to visit the best museums and meet extraordinary artists I greatly admired both for their gesturalism and groundbreaking research. I sensed and assimilated the great vitality that animated the art world in those days. That trip was also enormously important to me because of the enormous impact of American space. I realised that the problem lay in negotiating a sense of space that was so different from ours. It is not simply a question of larger dimensions, it is rather a different way of seeing because American landscape is space itself.

ARC: You have also said that the minimalist purity of Brancusi was something that inspired the destructive impulse that characterised many of your works, although more than simply destroying a surface, you uncovered its inner workings, which requires an imaginative and creative act. But was that destructive impulse also a reaction to the social anxieties of the period? You made a sculpture memorialising John F Kennedy, so presumably you responded to the end of optimism marked by that period?

AP: Faced with the ideal purity of Brancusi’s works that I had admired at MoMA, I realised how outmoded such perfection was – I am talking about the early 60s. This realisation led me to probe geometrical shapes to discover their inner turmoil, the mystery they concealed and their compressed vitality. We were living through a moment of great tension and unrest, seeking new values, and Kennedy’s assassination seemed like the end of all hope and potential for restorative political action. I heard about it while I was preparing sculptures to exhibit at my personal exhibition at the 1964 Venice Biennale and I was so struck by the news that I decided to create a work dedicated to Kennedy. It consists of a square block of bronze in which the geometric form is brought to life by a series of indecipherable and emblematic signs representing the dramatic nature of the events.

ARC: Coming from an architectural background, you began designing jewellery, produced with the ancient technique of cuttlefish bone casting, with your brother Giò, in a kind of Renaissance bottega. Did you view jewellery-making as practice for sculpture, a means of working out ideas on a small scale, or did you approach it on its own terms, considering the design’s relationship with the human body as you would consider a sculpture’s connection to its natural or built environment?

AP: I never considered my jewellery to be small-scale sculpture or rehearsals for larger works. I would actually link them to my early reliefs of silver or lead elements executed with the same method I used for jewellery, cuttlefish bone casting, and mounted on backgrounds of velvet, jute and cement. In any case, even in those early works there was an impulse towards large-scale works, an “architectural urgency”, as Gillo Dorfles defined it.

ARC: The other important strand of your work has been set design, which is where you began your artistic career. Many of your major sculptures have been situated in existing natural and architectural settings but in the case of theatre design you are working in a more artificial environment, moreover at the service of an existing work in another art form. Is this a stimulus or a constraint?

AP: For me, theatre was a source of revelation in terms of ideology, myth and form. Particularly with my large-scale sculptures, it encouraged, and even inspired, me to try out new approaches and ideas for site-specific projects in which relationships with the surrounding physical environment, cultural paradigms and utilitarian functions can all play an important role. In some stage projects, particularly for classic texts, I made large, spectacular machines out of which I formed actual sculptures. In other cases my set designs borrowed from some of my unrealised sculptural projects.

ARC: Unlike many of your contemporaries who rejected the idea that the artist’s hand is crucial to the process of creation, you seem to advocate a direct, personal, almost visceral approach to your sculptures, and have never allowed for quasi-industrial productions of your designs. This approach also emerges in your working methods, from the virtuosic lost-wax technique you use, as well as in your collecting and modifying traditional cutting tools, not to mention the prodigious physical exertion your sculptures must require. Do you reject the idea of an exclusively conceptual art?

AP: Speaking for myself, I have always been attracted by material which I feel the need to touch and transform. But I think that all expressive forms are valid and have a meaning; techniques and methods should be absolutely free and devoid of preconceptions. It is thanks to imaginative research that contemporary, expressive solutions can be found, both consecutive and open, as in the great historic examples. The important thing is to avoid practices that are purely spectacularising, repetitive, commercial, or aimed simply at following current fashions and tastes.

ARC: Some of the most stunning exhibitions of your work have been those in historic architectural settings such as Frederick the Great’s castles in Puglia, the Pigna Courtyard at the Vatican or the Belvedere Fort in Florence. You have also incorporated your designs into existing architectural structures such as the Duomo di Cefalù. The kind of dialogue this engenders between your work and important historic sites must be intimidating but also stimulating?

AP: For me, the ideal is to situate works among people, houses, greenery and the streets of everyday life, creating a relationship with the urban and natural landscape. As Hegel says, sculpture is the appropriation of one’s own space within the wider space in which we live and move: it makes sense only if it transforms the environment in which it is situated. In the case of sites that are imbued with history and beauty, the challenge is even greater and the dialogue more stimulating.

ARC: In addition to such dialogues with architectural structures, you have also designed some quasi-futuristic projects that relate intriguingly to their natural surroundings in a way that recalls the work of 18th-century visionaries such as Ledoux and Boullée. I have in mind projects such as the cemetery for Urbino, the Fortress Tent for the desert and the uncanny Pyramid of the Mind. What is your relationship with these unrealised designs, which are some of the most remarkable of your production?

AP: I defined these works “visionary projects”. They consist of both unrealised buildings and constructions (for example the Urbino Cemetery), as well as games, utopias and spectacular machines. In general, they are paradoxical forms that question an environment or a convention, revealing the profound and complex connection between pure artistic research and the applied fields of architecture and design. For me, they act as a stimulus towards any kind of spatial intervention.

ARC: Apropos of your remarkable cemetery design for Urbino, this was a subtle interaction between structure, space and landscape that at the same time was strikingly simple and non-invasive, but its realisation was impeded by conservative public opinion. Do you think a certain retrograde mentality can change in Italy in a way that could accommodate this extraordinary design or are these values too deeply entrenched?

AP: The odyssey of the Urbino cemetery was a disheartening experience and a source of profound bitterness. The project, which more than 40 years later continues to stir the interest and attention of critics and scholars, is definitively “buried” and the cemetery will never be built. In the summer of 1997, when I was setting up an exhibition of mine in San Leo designed expressly for the fortress, I discovered that a new cemetery was being built in Urbino and do you know how it was made? With walls and, inside, burial recesses, gardens and allotments for tombs, while the wealthy could buy more space to make a mausoleum. So all the customary cemetery formulas were in place and I had aimed to abolish these in favour of an innovative design that would integrate architecture and nature and that would, above all, be a sculpture in a landscape.

ARC: In 2000, your foundation, the Fondazione Arnaldo Pomodoro, published an anthology of some 50 years of criticism of your work, with the writings of some noted, predominantly Italian, critics.2 Do you consider the role of the critic important in interpreting, and perhaps even affecting, an artist’s work, and how would you characterise the relationship between artist and critics in your case?

AP: From the beginning of my career, my relationship with critics – but also with writers and intellectuals – has been extremely important to me. It has proved a fruitful debate consisting of an intellectual and human exchange that has always stimulated me and helped with artistic research. Friendships have been formed with many of these critics and, in some cases, real partnerships. I have in mind, for example, Giovanni Carandente, who in 1962 organised the largest exhibition of international sculpture in Spoleto, with 102 works of contemporary artists placed in the streets and piazzas of the city [Sculture nella città]. He gave me and other artists, such as Pietro Consagra, Beverly Pepper, Alexander Calder and David Smith among others, the opportunity of working in various workshops of the Italsider steel plant. This allowed us to create works that in other circumstances we would not have been able to realise.

ARC: For all the formal modernism of your sculptures and your interest in technology and science, you also seem to invest abstract forms with very human impulses. This emerges most forcefully in a sense of torment that the contorted interiors of your sculptures convey, but there are also works that are genuinely poignant, such as the Pietrarubbia Group. This sculpture commemorates a particular childhood site that you loved but felt compelled to leave, but also important people in your life and is inscribed with Montale’s moving poem: “You know: I must lose you again and I cannot.”3 Is art always autobiographical?

AP: I don’t know if art is always autobiographical. What I can say with certainty is that for my work I’ve always drawn on essential stimuli from my experiences and relationships over the course of a lifetime. It’s a question of suggestions, flashes of inspiration in different situations at unexpected moments, but always connected to a specific, concrete lived experience. Consider my Cippo and Papiro series, realised after my first trip to Egypt in 1982, or my four Stele, inspired by the moving vision of the remains of the columns of the throne of the mysterious Queen of Sheba in Yemen.

References
1. The quality of being from the Marche region of central Italy, or embodying characteristics of the region.
2. L Berra and B Leonetti (eds). Scritti critici per Arnaldo Pomodoro e opere dell’artista 1955-2000, Milan, Lupetti Editori di Comunicazione, 2000.
3. E Montale, Mottetti, Turin, Einaudi, 1939.

An exhibition of the work of Arnaldo Pomodoro is at Tornabuoni Art, London until 16 April 2016. 



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