File Note 117: Giorgio Griffa - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Martin Holman



Provisional Knowledge Images References Quote Biography Credits

Provisional Knowledge

Art needs painting because it needs its language, which is both light and at the same time dark, rational and emotional, direct and metaphorical, it needs air and wind.1 

Giorgio Griffa has stayed with painting through years when fellow modernists abandoned the idiom as ineradicably tainted with representation. Many contemporaries adopted sculptural practices in the mid-1960s in order to break through this limitation, exploiting the primary, unmediated experience of reality through matter. Griffa felt a strong affinity for this development, but at the same time embraced the contradictions inherent in painting. ‘Every mark of the brush,’ Griffa insists, ‘is a real phenomenon, every piece of canvas is a piece of reality.’2 Throughout the fifty-year span of this exhibition, he has eliminated the superfluous, preferring ‘the notion of a painting of growing complexity based on very simple elements, a sort of metaphor for the great discovery of the complexity of matter.’3 The same succinct fluency sensed in work created in 1968 is found in those made this year. Variation, for instance between severity and mutability of line and colour, has taken the form over the years of logical shifts in emphasis that reinforce the fluid nature of the work’s sensibility. ‘I don’t represent anything,’ Griffa insists, ‘I paint.’4 

Griffa’s painting developed alongside the emergence of Arte Povera in his native city of Turin, where he has always worked. The term has been applied loosely since 1967 to diverse experiments by his close peers and neighbours, among them Giovanni Anselmo, Giulio Paolini, Giuseppe Penone and Gilberto Zorio, to free art from its traditional technical and commercial conventions. Like Griffa, they have sought ways to convey an understanding, confirmed by science, of the energy present in all things as a fact of being. At the same time, they recognise contingency in practice and outcome as a potent source of the ambiguity which, for Griffa, transposes the threshold of access to a work from the individual eye to the collective memory for signs and rhythms.

Griffa shared their commitment to the importance of openness and subjectivity in a work’s interpretation. Nevertheless, he has provocatively described himself as ‘a traditional painter’.5 His observance of what artists have done through centuries, by placing their hands at the service of the colours that meet the canvas, is evidence of the inspiration he draws from past art in a continuum indivisible from current activity. Indeed, action is the key attribute: a succession of gestures ultimately determines the appearance of the image, propelled forward by the intelligence the artist perceives in the properties of his materials. In contrast with post-war American action painters, like Jackson Pollock, whom he nonetheless esteems, Griffa has steered away from the extremes of self-expression. Consequently, his signs do not personify the artist but exhibit a startling anonymity. ‘There is an enormous inventory of signs in the world’, he told Hans Ulrich Obrist, ‘and I’ve always tried to understand it, without looking for a sign of my own.’6 

Each painting and drawing is distinguished by a pace of stroke that advances on the interior of the canvas or paper in single, unrevised repetitive touches. This sensation of movement permeates sequences of rudimentary and generic signs directed from either side of the canvas, or from top or bottom edge. For six years from 1973, his paintings consisted only of horizontal lines in spartan, masculine colours, the passage of which the eye would follow through the space of the canvas to equate that trajectory with time. In the 1980s, a freer motion introduced the fluency of waves, dots, arabesques and other superficially ornamental rhythms in a palette lightened with pastel shades of orange, pink, green, turquoise, lilac – Matisse-like colours resonant of domesticity. 

A constant feature, however, has been the artist’s decision to leave the painting intentionally incomplete. The process of making is sometimes interrupted purposefully in mid-mark so that substantial areas of empty canvas confront the viewer with a state of perpetual imminence. For Griffa’s work is shaped by the contemporary culture of his working life. In that time science has penetrated the mystery of matter, inducing an assumption of universal compliance to the logic of mathematical principles in order to model a credible picture of the future. With its expansion into all-over surfaces, non-objective art conventionally reflects this positivist utopian ideal. Griffa’s painting, however, revolves around the unknown, the focus of wonder since antiquity with the point beyond the capacity of reason to envisage the future, even to formulate signs. ‘The unfinished painting,’ the artist has explained, ‘addresses the temporary nature of knowledge. It is not a metaphor; the painting itself is provisional knowledge.’7

His canvases hang loosely against the wall like drapes, from small nails in the top edge, to present themselves as solid ground rather than an aperture to illusion. Textured and coloured according to the composition of the fabric from linen, cotton, hemp or jute, yarns are exposed in their unvarnished rawness. The rectilinear network of interlacing threads contrasts with the motion of marks made with a wide or fine brush or blocks of sponge, drawing in the liquid paint so elements fuse into a distinct, constructed entity. A sort of cohesive energy encompasses opposites, as when handmade marks in paint interact with inflexible folds in the woven cloth to subdivide space or transgress boundaries with drawing.

Each canvas appears temporarily placed, like a sample displayed to give an impression of the greater whole. At any moment, one suspects, the sheet might be removed from its fastenings, folded and carried off in just the way one imagines it arrived. The work’s potentiality is prefixed by this initial impression of unsettled nomadism, and by its assumed portability through space. A grid of ridged and grooved creases criss-crosses the surface of each canvas: having worked them on the studio floor, Griffa stores his paintings folded in an orderly way on shelves, a practical action with conceptual connotations. Folding, after all, is a form of marking, like drawing, as well as the physical compression of both space, as explored in modern physics, and the time lived in the course of the painting’s making. As a consequence, instead of being perceived as empty, these canvases appear as strikingly active. 

To give further, almost tangible expression to a continuous present in suspended creation, Griffa has appropriated the mathematical problem solved by Euclid in Greece in the fourth century BC. Known as the Golden Ratio (canone aureo in Italian), this calculation of proportions, symbolising harmony and equilibrium in art and architecture through centuries, appears in Griffa’s paintings from 1993 onwards in strings of numerals that snake across the surface into the open canvas. Given the enigmatic graphic sign of 1.6180 followed by an infinitely extendable amount of figures, it encapsulates ‘… awareness that our space, the one we know, is indefinite, expanding, dynamic, and a global, static representation of it is no longer possible.’8 The delicious poetic paradox concealed in this detail, however, is that as the arithmetic expands, the space it denotes contracts.

By upholding painting as the language of art, Griffa relates himself as artist to knowledge of the world communicated verbally and stored in memory. Humans invented metaphor to bring together a huge amount of information and transmit it as stories. Griffa is not documenting this cognitive process on his canvases but performing it through the medium of mark making within the physical space of the gallery at the moment when the viewer confronts his work. ‘We are always in the area of a work with rhythm,’9 Griffa has pointed out, from the first note of percussion to the sound of Miles Davis’s trumpet. The melody of line, colour and gesture extends painting into parallel languages of poetry, music, dance and ritual, each characterised by their reliance on metaphor and motif. As in the writing of Ezra Pound, which Griffa deeply admires, audiences instinctively apprehend the complexity of matter in these works through the complexity of their own memory. ‘I continue painting because I don’t believe humankind is ready … to throw away the accumulated wealth of millennia of painting. I go on painting, because I don’t know how to do anything else.’10


1 Giorgio Griffa, Studio Guastalla, Milan, 2003

2 Giorgio Griffa, Post Scriptum, Turin, 2005, p. 139

3  ibid. p. 111.

4  ibid, p. 71, but first stated in Giorgio Griffa, Galleria Godel, Rome, November 1972

5  ‘Giorgio Griffa and Hans Ulrich Obrist in conversation’, Giorgio Griffa, Works: 1965–2015, Milan, 2015, p. 184

6  ibid. p. 165

7 Post Scriptum, p. 67

8  Studio Guastalla, op. cit.

9  Giorgio Griffa interviewed by Flavia Barbaro, Dietro l’opera dell’artista, Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin, 2003

10  Post Scriptum, p. 151

Italo Calvino, Lezioni americane, ed. Garzanti 1988

Fritjof Capra, Il Tao della fisica (The Tao of physics), ed. Adelphi, 1982

Ananda Coomaraswamy, La danza di Siva (The dance of Shiva), ed. Adelphi, 2011 

Thomas Stearns Eliot, Le poesie, ed. Garzanti 1975

Richard Phillips Feynman, QED, ed. Adelphi, 1989

Allen Ginsberg, Jukebox all’idrogeno (The hydrogen jukebox), ed. Guanda, 1992

Mario Livio, La sezione aurea, ed. Rizzoli, 2003

Henri Matisse, Scritti e pensieri sull’arte (Ecrits et propos sur l’art), ed. Einaudi 1979

Ovidio, Metamorfosi, ed. Einaudi, 1994

Ezra Pound, Cantos (The Cantos), ed. Mondadori, 1985

Ezra Pound, ABC del leggere (ABC of reading), ed. Garzanti, 2012

François Rabelais, Gargantua e Pantagruele (Gargantua et Pantagruel), ed. Einaudi 1993

Carlo Rovelli, L’ordine del tempo, ed. Adelphi, 2017

Amartya Sen, L’altra India. La tradizione razionalista e scettica alle radici della cultura indiana (The Argumentative Indian. Writings on Indian History, Culture, and Identity), ed. Mondadori, 2014

Daisetz Taitaro Suzuki, Lo zen e la cultura giapponese, ed. Adelphi, 2014

Paul Valery, Introduzione al metodo di Leonardo Da Vinci (Introduction à la méthode de Léonard De Vinci), ed. Abscondita, 2007

Walt Whitman, Foglie d’erba (Leaves of grass), ed. Rizzoli, 1988

“To be men not destroyers” Ezra Pound, The Cantos (1968)


Giorgio Griffa (b. 1936) lives and works in Turin, Italy. Recent solo exhibitions include: Giorgio Griffa: The 1980s, Casey Kaplan, New York (2018); Giorgio Griffa: The 1970s, Casey Kaplan, New York (2016); Works on Paper, Fondazione Giuliani, Rome (2016); Giorgio Griffa, Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles, Arles (2016); Quasi Tutto, Serralves Museum, Porto (2015); Painting into the Fold, Bergen Kunsthall, Bergen, Norway (2015); and A Retrospective 1968–2014, Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, Geneva (2015). Griffa was included in the Venice Biennale 57th International Art Exhibition, Viva Arte Viva (2017), which was his third time at the Biennale following presentations in 1978 and 1980.


Martin Holman is a writer who lives in Penzance.

Supported by the Giorgio Griffa Exhibition Circle: Pierre Darier, Shabin and Nadir Mohamed, Carlos, Francesca and Joel Pinto, Karen and Mark Smith, Alice and Tom Tisch and others who wish to remain anonymous. With special thanks to Casey Kaplan, New York and the Italian Cultural Institute, London.