File Note 57: Pino Pascali - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton



I think I am not a sculptor [1] Images Refrerences Quote Biography Credits

I think I am not a sculptor [1]

If I had to say what I liked most about Pino, what I would put first: his capacity to use his hands, those big, tough dirty hands, to transform ideas … I also liked his contradictions, his need for order at the same time as an instinct for chaos, because he easily got high on ideas and then he preferred chaos to order.

Eliseo Mattiacci 1969 2 


The hands of a sculptor? Pino Pascali was a chameleon, an artist who also worked in advertising, film and television, who took performance as seriously as a clown and in just five years produced a dizzying carnival of work, always new. Fewer than a hundred works survive. He took life by the throat, rode fast bikes and became an Italian legend. He died after an accident riding his Moto Guzzi 750cc at the age of 32. He lives forever in the ether of the internet, an icon for artists and bikers alike. He believed sculptors and all artists played like anyone who does what they like to do. To his friends he seemed to be several artists in one, for the artist Maurizio Cattelan he was at least two: Pino and Pascali. And they often contradicted each other. In his restless need for change and renewal Pascali never stopped questioning what sculpture was and whether what he made was image, object or sculpture. The most he conceded was that his works were ‘feigned’ sculptures, but he also declared that however theatrical an exhibition ‘sculptures are not actors and they’re not scenery either’. 

A typically trenchant insight by an artist who was the least overtly cerebral of the thirteen Italian artists now regarded as associated with Arte Povera in the late 1960s. Pascali said ‘our problems are problems of consciousness, not of aesthetics’3; he instinctively understood the paradoxes of his own work and its roots in the tensions between a European, specifically Italian, cultural tradition and technological advance, modern life and a dominant American modernism. He was enthralled by American culture; by fast cars, comics, movies, especially popular sci-fi, Tarzan and blockbusters like One Million Years BC; and by American artists such as Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine, but he recognised his difference: ‘Nothing belongs to me –– neither what I’ve got, nor what the Americans have got. It’s that I belong neither to this world, nor to the other’. He had no illusions, with his saturnine Roman looks and bikes he had the image of Marlon Brando but knew he was no ‘wild man’: he was an Italian born by the sea, living in Rome.

Eliseo Mattiacci, a close friend of Pascali during the last two years of his life, saw how these contradictions and the liberating inspirational child in him provoked ‘an important turning point in the work of all of us, this sense of a re-evaluation of man in the midst of the natural elements among which he finds himself living’.4 But Pascali knew ‘no one rips off nature’5 and was wide-eyed about technological advances: ‘artists must make use of materials perfected by researchers. It seems as if nature has been virtually exhausted, a new nature is being created’. His last works, the two cycles Elements of Nature and Reconstruction of Nature,6 confront that ‘new nature’ with the undeniable persistent naturalness of the world and man’s bodily, biological necessity to address it, although he admitted ‘I can’t begin to explain what I mean by “natural”.’

Pascali was born in war time: his earlier work, Neo-Dadaist assemblages and the Armi (the cannons and fake armoury) came from childhood, from ‘the heroic representation of war –– of the grown-ups (our fathers were at war)’.7 The shift in his focus to the body, earth and water developed from the critical influence of his close contemporaries Pistoletto and Kounellis with whom he showed at Fabio Sargentini’s L’Attico gallery in Rome. ‘It was continuous exchange. Somebody was giving something to Pascali, Pascali was giving something to me, I was giving to Kounellis. It was the three of us –– the beginning of “Arte Povera” ’.8

Kounellis’ odyssey through the accumulated and living memories of his Greek roots is mirrored by Pascali’s ceaseless sorties through his internal labyrinth of images imagined and real. Both artists saw the sacred in the common object and identified the artist with the hero and art with the potential of myth. This demanded an unequivocal pursuit, even the students and workers’ revolts on both sides of the Atlantic, which reached a crisis in 1968, did not deflect them, as Sargentini recalled: ‘But no, we didn’t go to any of the marches, or protests, not one of us. The thing was the art’.9 Pascali, the radical artist, stood apart from the political maelstrom; when students clashed with police at the Venice Biennale he abhorred the attempt to ‘resolve moral problems with violence … we found ourselves between two fires …  which in no way corresponds to the real necessities of Italy’s cultural situation’.10 

While Pascali’s work was part of that driving force demonstrated by Harald Szeeman in his legendary exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form 1969 to turn the ‘nature of art and the artist’, through natural processes, into ‘form’11, Pascali ‘liked clear shapes’ and his starting point was always an idea ‘a subject, an image, a pre-established context. What I am doing is not research into form.’ His focus was not so much the poetics of the object but pleasure in making and in the primacy of the image: to create make-believe sculptures where stuff, volume and weight are elusive. Even the titles make word play with the object: Bachi da Setola (brushworms), setola is an acrylic brush, seta means silk. 

This challenged the more astringent conventions of sculpture. Even the curator of Arte Povera, Germano Celant, seemed incredulous: ‘His image in just a few years, has gone from objects put together to form birds and animals, to busts of women; from walls to cannons; from mythical animals to waterfalls; from the sea to pools; from cubes of earth to ploughed fields. His latest works are large silkworms realised in coloured nylon and metal wire’.12 Pascali’s last works with their animal, vegetable and mineral guises, including those eight shown at the XXXIV Venice Biennale in 1968 –– for which he was posthumously awarded the prize for Italian sculpture, are not so much synecdoches of a natural world as hallucinations which he enacted with his own presence. An iconic work such as the fake fur Vedova Blu (Blue Widow) wickedly bows to Yves Klein and his blue monochrome when he howled ‘kitsch, corn, bad taste’ 13 but is rudely real to the spidery idea. Pascali playfully crawled under it, getting up-close; he loved ‘animals because I see them as intruders, things that don’t belong to our species but which move about’. Like Pascali’s rampant brushworms, they invade our space: living emblems of our own mortality. 

Pascali’s works of mutable and fragile, natural and man-made materials –– skeletons of wood and straw, galvanised aluminium, steel wool and wire, acrylic plush –– are a personal cosmogony of past and present worlds. Works such as Atrezzi Agricoli (Farm Tools) 1968, the sheep shorn skin of Pelo (Fur) 1968 celebrate a rural arcadia, his nets are the fishing nets and rat lines from the boats at Bari. But he casts a wider net as he enmeshes himself in the gladiatorial braided steel wool of Trappola (Trap) 1968 and he is Jason confronting the magical Golden Fleece in front of Senza Titulo (Cavalletto) (Easel) 1968 like a frame from Medea the 1969 film by Pasolini who lamented the loss of the transnational universe of a pre-industrial world. 

Pozzanghere (Puddles) 1967 was the first work using water, shallow plastic containers of different sizes and was shown with the earth constructions at Fuoco, Immagine, Acqua, Terra (Fire, Image, Water, Earth) 1967. Pascali rises like a youthful Neptune in Luca Patella’s film SKMP2 1968. The sea was in his blood, he saw water as a true mirror, but his sea which is not a sea, 32mq di mare circa (approximately 32m2 of sea) 1967 with its dyed blue water is immobile, as much an image of sky, window or pavement. It is as unnaturalistic as his spider and as culturally coded. 

With all their ephemeral material fragility, wit and poignancy, Pascali’s works liberated sculpture. His life and art have a potent legacy in contemporary art, none more so than in recent British art.14 For Pascali his work was ‘an extended linguistic crisis’, the process of its making was paramount: he said that as soon as they were made and exhibited the works became tombs, prescient of his own tragic, early death. Making art was to live. 

The essential thing is that they give me strength, they demonstrate that I exist.  Pino Pascali 15


1 ‘Pino Pascali in conversation with Carla Lonzi 1967’ first published in Il Marcatré No. 30–33, Rome, 1967.

2 Eliseo Mattiacci ‘Qui Arte Contemporanea No. 5’ 1969, published in Carolyn Christov Bakargiev Arte Povera Phaidon, London, 1999, p.264.

3 Bruno Corà ‘Pino Pascali: the reconstruction of self in the lost garden’ in Marianne Brouwer (Ed.), Pino Pascali, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo, 1991, p.77. 

4 Eliseo Mattiacci op.cit. 

5 Pascali as quoted by Fabio Sargentini in Pino Pascali exhibition catalogue, Gagosian, New York, 2006, p.77.

6 Germano Celant ‘Pino Pascali the Euphoria of Sensibiltiy’ in La reconstrucción de la naturaleza 1967–68, exhibition catalogue, IVAM, Valencia, 1992, p.95.

7 Pino Pascali ‘I was born in 1935’ handwritten statement in Vittorio Rubui’s archive Rome cit. Christov-Bakargiev op.cit., p.264.

8 Conversation with Fabio Sargentini August 2008 in Pino Pascali, Ponte 1968, Christie’s The Italian Sale: 20th Century Art, 20 October 2008, p.37.

9 Ibid., p.41.

10 Pino Pascali ‘La Biennale e stata fatta da gente’ B’it, No. 3 Milan, June 1968, p.262.

11 Harald Szeeman cit. Christov-Bakargiev op.cit., p.225. 

12 Germano Celant, ‘Arte Povera 1968’, in Christov-Bakargiev op.cit., p.223.

13 Yves Klein, ‘Truth Becomes Reality’ 1960 cit. Christov-Bakargiev op.cit., p.209.

14 See Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton ‘The Big Dipper, The Legacy of Arte Povera’ in Performance, Summer 1989, No. 58, pp.23–29.

15 Pino Pascali cit. Germano Celant op.cit., p.223.

Note: Unless otherwise stated all Pascali quotations are cited from this conversation with Carla Lonzi

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (ed.) Arte Povera Phaidon, London (1999) 

Robert Lumley Arte Povera Tate Publishing, London (2004) 

Jon Thompson ‘New Times, New Thoughts, New Sculpture’, in Gravity and Grace, The Changing Condition of Sculpture 1965  1975  (exhibition catalogue) Hayward Gallery, The South Bank Centre (1993)

Jon Thompson ‘Jannis Kounellis: A Diffferent Idea of the Image, Deadly Prescription’ in Artscribe September (1991) No. 88 pp. 58–67 

Jon Wood, David Hulks, Alex Potts (ed.) Modern Sculpture Reader Henry Moore Institute, Leeds (2007)

‘I have been close to many artists, the greatest, but never did I find something like the white heat radiated by Pascali with his impetuous inspiration and his power to transform raw matter into the purest gold of the imagination’ Cesare Brandi, Pino Pascali, Electa, Milan 2010


Pino Pascali (b. Bari, Italy, 1936) moved to Rome in 1955 where he met Jannis Kounellis whilst studying at the Accademia di Belle Arti. In his studies and early career, Pascali worked with scenography and graphic design, which informed his attitude to material and form. Pascali had his first solo show in 1965 at Galleria La Tartaruga in Rome and thereafter his practice moved from Pop-influenced images to three-dimensional forms that investigated his fascination with artificiality. These include The Armi –– assemblages of found materials, painted olive-green, imitating modern cannons and missiles. In 1966 he began to work with organic forms from the sea and land, exhibiting a two-part show (‘Gli Animali’ and ‘Il Mare’) with Fabio Sargentini’s Galleria L’Attico in Rome. Pascali was included in Celant’s important first shows of Arte Povera in 1967 and 1968, and in 1968 was invited to make a solo presentation at the XXXIV Venice Biennale. The show closed when the artist withdrew his work in response to student protests and the actions of the police. He died later the same year from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. Examples of Pascali’s work are found in leading public collections in Europe and America, and recent important one-person shows have taken place at the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo (1991); IVAM, Valencia (1992); Palacio de Velázquez, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2001); Castel Sant’Elmo, Naples (2004); and GNAM, Rome (2005).


Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton is an independent writer and President of AICAUK (International Association of Art Critics).

Supported by The Henry Moore Foundation and the Pino Pascali Exhibition Supporters Group.