Pino Pascali, a Little-Seen and Much-Loved Giant of Italian Art History, Gets a Retrospective in Milan

Pino Pascali once called the typical format for exhibitions, wherein an artist passes off finished products to someone else now charged with showing them, “a kind of graveyard.” So what does it mean that Pascali has now been awarded the greatest graveyard of them all—a retrospective? It’s a paradox, to be sure, but it’s also a gift, since this artist, whose work is more often talked about than seen in bulk, has rarely gotten the treatment.

Maybe that’s because Pascali’s case is a tough one for curators. For one thing, the Italian sculptor passed away when he was far too young. In 1968, when he was 32, he was killed during a motorcycling accident, arguably at the point in his career when his star burned the brightest. In his wake, he left behind an impressive but small body of work—not the sort of thing that’s traditionally conducive to big show.

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For another, Pascali has been lumped in with Arte Povera since his work melds natural materials and industrial ones. But he’d already been doing that before Arte Povera was even formed. This means that Pascali resists classification, belonging to no specific movement at all.

The best thing way forward, it seems, is to let Pascali’s memory linger on in all its messy glory. That’s exactly what curator Mark Godfrey has done with his sprawling retrospective for the artist at the Fondazione Prada in Milan. It’s a must-see for anyone who cares at all about European postwar art and, for good reason, it’s likely to be a point of pilgrimage for those headed to Venice this week.

The show assembles a significant chunk of Pascali’s oeuvre in one space—a feat unto itself. Yet the exhibition mostly does not move viewers chronologically through his career, instead focusing on how the artist chose to exhibit his work during his lifetime. Pascali’s methods were unorthodox, to say the least.

Four square grids of tiles, some of which are removed to reveal water, gravel, and more beneath.
Pino Pascali, Le botole o Botole ovvero lavori in corso, 1967.

An entire section of this rich show is given over to promotional photography of Pascali alongside his sculptures. These are no staid portraits. Take the one by Claude Abate in which he is situated alongside Vedova blu (Blue Widow, 1967), a large sculpture of a spider that is covered in faux fur dyed a garish shade of blue. Rather than standing alongside the work, or even honing it into being, Pascali is shown beneath his wacky arachnid, pretending to tumble head over heels. (The sculpture itself is presented alongside a blow-up of the picture.) Pascali seemed to assert that the only way to keep his sculptures from being interred was to breathe some life into them through playfulness.

Another section is devoted to Pascali’s exhibitions themselves, which, as Godfrey points out, were sometimes subject to change. You don’t always get that impression when walking through the Fondazione Prada’s galleries, since the show won’t shift much over the course of its run. But even the objects themselves speak well to a mischievous artist whose work, however conceptual, was always borne out of a desire for a good time.

Among the restaged shows at the Fondazione Prada is one initially put on by dealer Gian Enzo Sperone in 1966. The exhibition featured what appeared to be an array of weaponry—a missile, a cannon, an aircraft. In fact, none of this functioned as it appeared, as Pascali had assembled it all from scraps at hand. No one would be able to fire his 1966 sculpture Mitragliatrice (Machine Gun), for example, because its parts had all been recycled from a Fiat 500. Essentially, Pascali had turned a pricey consumerist object into little more than a toy, one that looks like it should be used for killing but instead is just a reincarnated car.

Sculptures resembling a tank, machine guns, and more in a gallery.
Pascali did a series of works in which he crafted what appeared to be artillery, but in fact assembled metal and ready-made materials to resemble weapons.

Pascali’s first attempts at lending life to his work took a much different form. Born in 1935 in Bari, Italy, he would go on to study set design in Rome. His work would, in other words, play host to people who would perform alongside them, and it would exist in the world at large, not in cloistered white cubes. His project grew even more ambitious when he started doing design gigs for film and advertising companies.

Then, in 1964, he moved toward avant-gardism. The transition would seem sharp were it not for the fact that Pascali’s earliest work transfigures everyday objects, causing them to appear humanly. The Fondazione Prada show kicks off with a sculpture from that year formed from a champagne bottle outfitted with metal feet; telling, it’s titled Personaggio (Character). They’re close to a grouping of oddball paintings that bulge as though they are pregnant. Two refer to Billie Holiday, the singer whom Pascali rendered only as a pair of lips placed on monochrome fields of black and white that jut outward. They’re a bit pat, though, since Pascali couldn’t quite figure out how to evoke an organic quality without explicitly showing it.

It didn’t take him long to leap into the fray, however. Within the coming three years, he would sculpt a dolphin jutting through a wall, conjure decapitated giraffes through lopped-off pillars, and craft a bridge from steel wool, a material more commonly associated with household chores.

His final solo presentation, a gallery of his own at the 1968 Venice Biennale, for which he received a special mention, featured one of his most wonderful steel wool sculptures, Archetipo o Ponte levatoio (Archetype or Drawbridge). The sculpture is composed mainly of interwoven strips of the stuff that cover a wood rectangle, effectively evoking the Minimalism coming out of the US while rendering it softer. The piece, which is leaned from the ceiling by tight coils of steel wool, contains an ominous quality that can be found in much of Pascali’s work. Standing beneath it, one wonders how much it might hurt if this drawbridge came down on their head.

A long gallery filled with abstract sculptures. One resembles an H-shaped metal bar. Another resembles a twisting blue form composed of trays filled with water.
The Fondazione Prada show compares Pascali’s work to pieces by other Arte Povera artists. In the foreground is Pascali’s Fiume con foce tripla (1967).

Pascali had a slyly evil side that expressed itself in mysterious ways. Unlike his Arte Povera cohort, which seemed to delight in luring dirt, rocks, and organic matter into gallery spaces, Pascali seemed to toy with what it would mean to divert nature, contorting it until it met his needs.

Fiume con foce tripla (Three-Mouth River), from 1967, for example, features an arrangement of water-filled iron trays that resembles a delta. Yet Pascali’s trays, because they are arranged with spaces in between, obstruct the water from flowing freely. Compare that to other Arte Povera works included by Godfrey in this show—say, Alighiero Boetti’s 1967/93 sculpture Panettone, in which boulders weigh down sheets of aluminum, forcing industry to cede power to nature—and a sharp contrast emerges.

Certainly, the perversity of Pascali’s work is what lends it some of its appeal. It’s frequently threatening, and sometimes even downright scary. The artist seems to have realized this—there’s even one photograph in this show of Pascali trapped within one of his columnar creations, along with an unseen figure pointing a revolver at his head. But there are times where Pascali’s intimidation tactics seem feel less desirable.

His work, to be sure, is of the aggressively masculine kind that proliferated in the postwar era. Few would mistake Missile “Colomba della pace” (1964) for anything other than a phallic symbol, and if you didn’t get that, you only need to look at the pictures of Pascali riding it, Dr. Strangelove–style, as if the faux bomb extended from his waist.

A gallery filled with sculptures made from steel wool that resemble bridges, traps, and more.
A series of works from the years before Pascali’s death involving steel wool, whcih he formed into bridges, traps, and more.

He’s guilty, too, of racism—he occasionally enlisted raffia, to refer to “primitive” African societies he wanted to channel—and perhaps even of conservatism, since he participated in the 1968 Biennale when many young leftists demonstrated against it. (Violent clashes between the police and protesting students came to define that edition, and in that context, it’s hard to forget that Pascali’s father was a cop.) Godfrey does not excuse some of Pascali’s dated views (which, during their time, were admittedly common), but his political beliefs, at least as represented within the exhibition itself, remain in need of clarification.

The good news is that while we await more information on that front, Pascali’s work speaks well for itself. And it’s best when it wears its conceptual heaviness lightly, burying its heart of darkness beneath a joke.

Consider Bomba a mano (Diario), from 1967, one of Pascali’s greatest works in that regard. It’s a grenade that Pascali appropriated, along with a handwritten excerpt that purports to be from his diary. Even though the device is not functional, with its bottom unscrewed, getting close to it feels like a death wish. To learn more about Pascali’s life, you would, at least in theory, need to risk your own.


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