Little-Known Works by Well-Known Artists

Graphic art by contemporary artists who are commonly known for their pictorial or conceptual artistic research is at the centre of a new exhibition in Chiasso.

Alberto Burri, Cretto Bianco, Serie di Cretti, 1971. Courtesy by Fondazione Burri Città di Castello; Image Courtesy by Fondazione Burri Città di Castello.

The artists’ work is not acknowledged exclusively by their best-known artistic practice and technique. Quite the opposite. Behind the most famous works and research, there are little-known visions that deserve the same attention and which reveal different sides of an artist’s path. It is precisely on this point that the m.a.x. museum in Chiasso has developed the new exhibition “Matter, Gesture, Imprint, Sign: The Graphic Work of Burri, Vedova, Kounellis, Paolucci and Benedetti” curated by the museum director Nicoletta Osanna Cavadini and Antonio d’Avossa.

The exhibition is part of the branch that the museum devotes to 20th-century masters and it offers an unusual view of the research of these five artists by focusing on their graphic practice. Known to the general public mostly for their pictorial work, all five artists have always considered graphic art as an artistic act of introspective research offering a production expressed with different techniques; starting from engravings up to the intersections of collage.

There are about 20 works that have been placed for each artist within the museum’s rooms. Each group of works in the five sections, dedicated to the five artists chosen, has this kind of “rituality” that always sees a mould as the protagonist that can be considered as the first act of graphic art from which some of the prints displayed in the exhibition are then born.

The curator d’Avossa says, “There is a thread that connects the artistic and graphic activity of the five artists that leads inside the ‘labyrinth’ in which we developed the exhibition. I thought of a thread —a derivation of the Japanese legend of the red thread of destiny— that connects the artistic and graphic activity of the five artists and leads inside a labyrinth in which we find ourselves. If I had to think of a colour for this thread it would be black because it is related to the idea of erasure, which, however, extends to white. The first reference that came to my mind when I was asked to curate the exhibition was Alberto Burri. Since the beginning of his practice, Burri was used to using a few colours: red, black and white.”

Indeed, the exhibition’s path opens with the section devoted to the extraordinary work of Alberto Burri for whom graphic expression represents a unique and dominant feature of his artistic practice. On display, there are a series of etchings and aquatint that retrace the most famous combustions made with plastic material. In the middle of the room, the “Mold for combustion homage to Ungaretti” is displayed and makes his graphic work even more celebratory. Thanks to this mould, visitors get closer to Burri’s graphic research and they also have the opportunity to go even deeper into the process of making graphic works.

The black thread, the element conceived by the curators to narrate the exhibition’s path, reaches in the second room the works by Emilio Vedova in which the colour black predominates. Vedova, one of the greatest protagonists of the Arte Povera movement, flanks his pictorial research with graphics through which he highlights the strength of gesture. In his works there isn’t the idea of traditional painting, the canvas is not enough to express his needs. His gesture in fact, which we see enclosed in the mould of the large etchings on display, becomes the means of social denunciation.

In these prints Jannis Kounellis paradoxically leaves us with the trace of an absence: to whom did those coats belong, who lived inside those fabrics, and why now does that absence recall the presence of the body that lived them? Photo by the author.

The climax of the exhibition is reached upon entering the spaces dedicated to the work of Jannis Kounellis, who manages to converge in his series of etchings, “Untitled,” a performative act. Here, the large mould and the works evoke a sense of absence and presence. Starting with some coats bought in some markets, Kouneliss makes his graphic work by dipping the coats in acid, throwing them onto the plate and then applying a powder that allows the plate to be inked and printed.
The exhibition’s path continues with the last section dedicated to the works of Flavio Paolucci and Mario Benedetti, artists who are still working in their respective ateliers in Biasca and Bergamo. Paolucci in his research makes constant reference to natural elements. He takes inspiration from Ticino’s nature transforming these elements into a visual language. We can see an expression of it in the displayed works “Le Forme Chiuse” and “Q.u.a.d.e.r.n.a.r.i.o.”

Benedetti like Paolucci takes up the value of the sign as an artistic expression of lost contemporary reality. The black thread that united the path of the exhibition concludes its journey precisely with the work of Benedetti, who often uses the colour black for his large graphics as a memorial medium as in the artwork “Colors of Black” which combines the visible and the invisible.

After or before visiting the exhibition you can stop and enjoy the special lunch at Trattoria della Zocca (Corso S. Gottardo 103), not far from the museum, dedicated to the exhibition. The “Tasting in black and white” sensorial menu mixes the artists’ graphics and the flavours of the Ticino territory.

“Matter, Gesture, Imprint, Sign: The Graphic Work of Burri, Vedova, Kounellis, Paolucci and Benedetti” is on view until 19 February at the m.a.x museum, in Chiasso, Switzerland.

Jessica Capretti is a frequent contributor to Milano Art Guide since 2021. She graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Milan and has worked on several projects including “L’Arc de Triomphe Wrapped” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in Paris. She lives and works in Milan.