This Artist Rigorously Measured Life’s Unpredictability

Antonio Scaccabarozzi’s work has sometimes been overlooked. Now a superbly curated survey at the Museo del Novecento charts this visionary artist’s 50-year journey.

Antonio Scaccabarozzi with his work “Superficie modulata” (Modulated surface) in 1969.

Throughout his entire career, Antonio Scaccabarozzi designed how to go beyond and went beyond the idea of design. His approach was scientific, relentless, and precise, but, over time, he allowed the most labile and essential aspects of existence to emerge in his work.

“He let the work gradually take off. It became airy. And talked about what cannot be seen,” said Gabi Scardi, who curated the extensive retrospective of the artist’s work at the Museo del Novecento in Milan and whom I met in the rooms of the museum on Piazza del Duomo for a tour of the exhibition.

For the first time, Scaccabarozzi’s works have been brought together in a coherent and harmonious project which allows us to better understand the trajectory taken by the artist and the core of his research.

Born in 1936 near Lecco, Scaccabarozzi is one of the too many often overlooked artists of his generation. He studied painting at the School of Applied Arts of Castello Sforzesco, in Milan, and he was close to the Milanese cultural milieu that included Carlo Carrà, Piero Manzoni, and Lucio Fontana, to name a few. He then moved to Paris, and then London, Holland, and Spain. Back in Italy, he spent the rest of his life in Montevecchia, a small village in the Province of Lecco in the Italian region Lombardy, located about 30 kilometers northeast of Milan.

His work is a critical examination of painting and, at the same time, it invites us to think about the world and reality we live in, what we see, what we do not see, how we perceive it, what are the limits of our perception, and what are the boundaries that we experience daily within the world around us.

“His work was his life, but he had always had the ability to look at the work from the outside as a spectator,” Ms. Scardi said. “The moment he felt that what he was doing was already known, he took a step forward. And this is research par excellence.”

The exhibition opens with two of his early works, entitled “Equilibrio statico dinamico,” a series of paintings in which the artist worked on a balance that generates a sense of dynamism, creating surfaces that could be extended to infinity.

Antonio Scaccabarozzi, Fustellati, White, 1971. Private Collection.

Scaccabarozzi was very close to the artistic circles of the time, profoundly inspired by the ideas of Gestalt, a theory of perception that describes how humans perceive visuals, as a reaction to the informal art of the entire previous era, Ms. Scardi explained. “Art moves like this, by variations on the theme, by actions and reactions,” she said.

From the very first room, it is clear that the ‘dot’ is where he starts. His entire production focuses on the founding elements of painting: the dot, the line, and over the years, the brushstroke. “For Scaccabarozzi, the dot is the generative element of painting,” Ms. Scardi said.

In his early works, Scaccabarozzi started with rules he created for himself. For each work, he established a specific governing principle. For example, ‘3 present and 3 absent,’ or ‘a larger dot every three,’ and, to a certain extent, the rules allowed the paintings to make themselves.

Walking through the exhibition, the works appear strongly characterized by a “distinctive rigor in the method behind his choices and meticulous attention to materials,” Ms. Scardi said. They are the result of a detailed, precise, and slow technique. Up close, you can see minuscule wooden elements grafted onto the monochrome background of the painting. Others are die-cut with extreme accurateness.

“Although he said that color is not fundamental in his work,” Ms. Scardi noted. “He always used it with a good share of flair.” The colors are artificial: from shocking pink to acid green, bright yellow, and neon blue. “If present, his colors are full of energy and also joy,” she said.

The works appear light in their outcome, and they are almost immaterial. In the early works what matters most is the shadow or the effect of light. In those years, kinetic art was at its peak, and although Scaccabarozzi did not use mechanisms or automatisms, perception is at the center of his work, and light is what sparks movement in his creations.

Amid the rigor, there is room for error and the exception. The precision of the grids and the symmetry of Scaccabarozzi’s works are interrupted by unexpected touches of color. “Life, somehow, takes over the rules,” Ms. Scardi said.

After working in an extremely thorough and careful way for a decade, Scaccabarozzi started to feel the need to loosen his grip, even though he did not stop measuring and did not abandon rigor. His gestures, colors, and materials begin to incorporate the softness of life and its contradictions.

The lines are no longer precise and straight, the dots are no longer extremely regular, and the uncertainty of the artist’s hand takes more space. “We also have uncertainties in life,” Ms. Scardi said.“The work must be able to absorb the unexpected more and more. They are ‘free measurements.’”

The exact same amount of color can be applied in different ways and can generate different shapes. Starting from these assumptions, Scaccabarozzi inaugurated a period of transition in which he liberates color and form.

What happens with the same amount of paint injected into the canvas? What shapes does it create? How does the liquid act on its own? These are some of the questions that guided his work in this phase. His rules were always the starting point for unexpected results.

In the series of works titled ‘Injections,’ two of which are on display in the exhibition, the artist injected water into the canvas and painted in black all the portions of the surface that did not get wet. The liquid generated the form, and the artist merely went along with it.

Antonio Scaccabarozzi, Measure/Distance (Volume), Two Injections Cm³ 40, 1980. Private Collection.

“The pictorial matter becomes the work,” Ms. Scardi commented. The process in Scaccabarozzi’s practice is logical, one step at a time, but it brims with great expressive freedom.

The exhibition also features a selection of handwritten and typewritten texts, and preparatory drawings. “From these documents, we learn the ‘madness’ of his research,” Ms. Scardi said.

Thanks to his written production, we can delve into the artist’s reasoning and the rules he gave himself. “Reading them today is exhilarating, and he also probably viewed them with a certain detachment and demystifying attitude,” Ms. Scardi added.

Scaccabarozzi explored his interests throughout his entire career and continuously challenged his previous achievements.

In another series of works, he noted down measurements and distances on photographs. “Measure/Distance, Window” (1979), featured in the exhibition, draws a relationship between the distance from a dot marked on a window and the sun seen beyond it. The dot and the sun appear to be the same size, forcing the observer to struggle with the awareness of a greater distance and different measurements in real life. In another work, the artist compared the distance between two trees in a picture, which is highlighted by a piece of tape measure glued onto the photo, with the actual distance between the two trees, which is a few meters. Again, Scaccabarozzi in his works explores the difference between perception and reality, asking poetic questions about the world that surrounds us and how we experience it.

Antonio Scaccabarozzi, 1979 Measure/Distance, Window, 1979. Private Collection.

His interest shifted over the years from the dot to the brushstroke. “The brushstroke became the protagonist of his works to the point that the supports disappeared,” Ms. Scardi said. “The support is almost invisible, what remains is only paint that becomes self-supporting.” What continues to exist is the direction, the energy infused into the gesture, and the matter of painting itself: color.

Scaccabarozzi titled this series of works “Essenziali” (Essentials) because at this point he reached pure essentiality and couldn’t go further. Only what constitutes the work remains visible.

Subsequently, he also abandoned the brushstroke and adopted an extra-pictorial material: polyethylene. This lightweight plastic is a modest material, often used for pouches or rubbish bags. 

Antonio Scaccabarozzi, Polietileni, Simi, 2001. Rosaarancione. Private Collection.

Materials are central in Scaccabarozzi’s work. He experimented with tin foil, newspaper, and several apparently banal everyday stuff he used as unusual but effective supports.

The works in polyethylene, a difficult material to work with despite its ostensible simplicity, characterize the most radical season of his artistic production and he manages to draw enormous poetry from this material. 

Made of several layers of light plastic, the works in plastic revolve around landscape and architecture. He calls them ‘banchise’ (ice fields) or ‘eclissi’ (eclipses).

Once more, Scaccabarozzi’s works invite us to reflect on what we see and how we see it. “By overlapping layers, the artist is challenging us to think about how we see things through the codes, the conventions of the world around us — a layering of thoughts and ideas, but also memory,” Ms. Scardi said.

In the same years, he created the series of works entitled ‘di qua di là,’ informally known as ‘gates.’ He began to use different types of polyethylenes to create barriers that explore the concepts of separation and limits. The separation of what we perceive from reality.

Antonio Scaccabarozzi, Ambiente, Sleeper Gallery, Edinburgh, 2004.

The idea behind these thresholds came to Scaccabarozzi when he looked through the colonnade of an ancient Greek temple. But they can also bring to mind a type of fog that the artist could have seen in the area where he lived in northern Italy.

Scaccabarozzi looked beyond the fog, the thresholds, the limits of perception. And his works are taking us on a timeless journey, a pure and rigorous adventure to accurately measure the unpredictability of life.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.