“Edmondo Bacci: Energy and Light” Lands in Venice for Visit to Peggy Guggenheim Collection’s Orbit
By William Corwin
Much to the consternation of the Poles and their star astronomer Copernicus, because of Galileo, the Italians have long been credited with the discovery of the idea of outer space. This national fascination with astronomy, as well as with other branches of science, has found its way into Italian art over the centuries and particularly in the 20th century, with such schools of aesthetics and ideas as Futurism—and the far lesser-known Spazialismo. The largely long-forgotten painter Edmondo Bacci (1913–1978), a mainstay of Spazialismo, is being re-examined in a one-person retrospective at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection that will run through September 18, 2023. While his work is visually resonant with many contemporaneous artists such as Miró, Pollock, Frankenthaler, and a host of Italians such as Virgilio Guidi and Alberto Burri, it is far more exciting to examine Bacci’s work from the perspective of experimentations into the spatial capabilities of two-dimensional painting. As such, he has strange and exciting bedfellows in artists as diverse as Lee Bontecou and Glenn Brown, John Latham and Jack Whitten.
In his essay “Edmondo Bacci,” which appears in the exhibition catalog, Toni Toniato describes Spazialismo as an expansive hybrid genre of painting derived from a metaphysical exploration of form as both image and reality. He writes: “[Bacci] developed a unique conception of painting, which engaged with and adhered to the poetics of Spazialismo, based on the idea that light and color are fundamentally equivalent to matter and energy.” We see this in a mature work such as Avvenimento #13R (Avvenimento plastico), painted in 1953, a colorful yet brooding canvas in which billows of cadmium reds, fuschias, and fleshy pinks hang over an impenetrable and amorphous structure of deep blacks and occasional blinding whites. The space as defined by this painting is convoluted and seems to recede off into pale silhouettes of endless iterations of these dark structural elements. Avvenimento 7R, also from 1953, is similar in format; however, it moderates the overall dour sensibility, focusing a bit more on brightness and color—the dark void receding to the outer periphery of the painting, no longer taking center stage. This structuring of the paintings as facets of color in a flowing and moveable void places an emphasis on those in-between spaces, connecting Bacci’s explorations to a general fascination with Einstein’s bendable responsive fabric of space.
Throughout his career, Bacci makes the void his primary medium, and the emotional content of that interstitial space (while mostly based in painting and the painterly, though he does experiment with three-dimensional appliqués to the canvas as discussed later) also relates his work to artists whose practice also became obsessed with physics and the calibration of space. Bacci imbues the void at times with a terrifying loneliness, but he can just as easily pivot into a light-filled and positive-energy-filled framework as well. Bontecou’s biomorphic portals or maws, simultaneously devouring and emanating from the viewer’s presence, literally create structures that evaporate the flatness of the picture plane—something Bacci achieves with the illusion of depth he creates alternating black with bright colors. There is the possibility of a dark nihilism, especially in the works that engage with darkness. Bacci pushes his Spazialismo in a different direction than Fontana’s literal physicality, towards a more painterly and academic and positive assessment.
Bacci studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia from 1933 to 1937, under Virgilio Guidi (1891–1984), starting out with a loose figuration, similar to Guidi’s, but realizing by the late 1940s that abstraction held more interest. This shift to abstraction still has strong underpinnings in the Italian fascination with science and technology. While the depictions aren’t literal, they engage with Futurism’s obsessions with mechanized speed, repetition, and the overwhelming sense of modern energy. Barry Schwabsky, in his catalog essay “A Space of Possibility,” sites the work geographically, discussing water and Venetian light, the legacy of Venetian painting, and then brings to bear the oppressive industrial zone of Marghera, where Bacci began to depict the Mordor-like blast furnaces: “Marghera, where chemical factories are more notable than churches…there is a play between positive and negative—as if the smoky, nebulous passages were in some way a searing brightness that could only be registered indirectly: a darkened glare.”
The monochromatic Fabbriche is a series that began in 1950. These paintings play at approximating the grid; however, the verticals and horizontals skew at slight angles destabilizing the structure, but also layering the illusion of perspective that is lacking in Modrian’s pure geometric abstractions. Coming as they do post-war, there is also the implication of ruins or, as Schwabsky points out, the presence of industry and reconstruction. Fabbrica (c.1951) is a spiderweb of ethereal intersecting lines in tempera grassa and charcoal on paper. The pigment is thick but bleeds at the edges, giving a smoky, almost suffocating, presence to the forms as they criss-cross the yellowed paper. Fabbrica (1950) emerges from the same origin but is more playful—a kind of union of a bleak futurist mechanical dystopia and Piranesi’s classical Carceri etchings. On top of a charcoal base, Bacci decorates his matrix with an “arch” at center and floating orphaned right angles and irregular geometric solids, all in ink, the sensibility moving towards a dislocated architectural folie. The Fabbriche also employ color and gently morph into the more liquid, less grid-y Avvenimento works described above.
It’s not surprising that by the mid-1950s Bacci’s work was being incorporated into the ever-expanding canon of the New York School. The paintings bore a strong formal resemblance to the work of Miró and Kandinsky, while also appearing to ally themselves with the New York School aesthetic of Hans Hoffman, Charlotte Park, even Perle Fine or Pat Passlof. As Bacci continued to explore the fraying inscrutable edges between matter and emptiness, his style became looser, lighter, and the application of the paint more carefree. Senza titolo/Untitled (c.1953) places several black bursts within an almost cartographic context. The drips, dots, and explosions of darkness seem to pinpoint hot zones within a collection of blue masses vaguely reminiscent of the continents of the globe, themselves floating within a yellow ocean, retaining the network quality of the earlier Fabbriche, while also yielding to a tumultuous collection of shapes displaying kinship with the organization of Rothko’s late “multiforms.” In 1955, Bacci met Peggy Guggenheim and Alfred H. Barr, Jr., through the art dealer Renato Cardazzo, owner of the influential Galleria del Cavallino; both Americans—Guggenheim and Barr—began collecting Bacci’s work. He exhibited in New York the following year and in 1958 was prominently exhibited in the Venice Biennale, the high point of his career. He was 45 years old.
But Bacci’s Spazialismo coalesced into something else, a more streamlined and slick presentation that was decidedly more European in its gritty and symbolistic quality—pulling from Art Informel and Art Brut, rather than the action painting of the Abstract Expressionists like Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline or de Kooning. Avvenimento #316, Omaggio a Gagarin (1958) is the apotheosis of this period, both stylistically and in its glorification of the first human to enter space, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin. Both strangely realistic and profoundly abstract at the same time, the tempera on canvas painting has an oddly shaped rounded form as its subject, crisply outlined against a striking red background. Bacci’s image could easily have found its way into a fanciful astronomy book as an “artist’s rendition” of a looming asteroid, and it could have been deemed entirely convincing—hence my earlier comparison to Glenn Brown and that painter’s famous series of conceptual paintings of the mid 1990s based on the science fiction illustrations of Chris Foss. Both Bacci and Brown—separated by decades—are entranced by the abstract/realistic possibilities of imagined deep space. Bacci certainly was aware of images of the planets of the solar system and integrated this imagery into his paintings. The second and perfectly harmonious reading of Avvenimento #316 Omaggio a Gagarin is that the irregular form at the heart of the canvas is a portrait of the cosmonaut himself, one eye red, one eye black, placidly and bravely hurtling through the unknown ether that so fascinated the artists of Bacci’s generation. This subset of the Avvenimento series is typified by a contrast between sharply defined forms with firm edges juxtaposed with expanses of smoothly blended fields of color. One such example is Avvenimento #35 (1955). The painting’s background moves from an absorbent black void at the lower right, across the canvas—through tortured scarlets, ultramarines, and burnt sienna—to a blindingly bright super nova in the upper left. Meanwhile, in the foreground, what could either be a volcano erupting or simply a purely abstract form of brushstrokes and thinly applied skeins of color sits impassively.
Reuniting intellectually with his fellow Spazialismo painter Lucio Fontana, Bacci in his late work begins to add actual dimension to his paintings, probing whether the viewer needs a physical prompt inhabiting their space in order to further internalize the idea of imagined space. Senza titolo/Untitled (c.1975) lays out Bacci’s ideas since he commenced with the Avvenimento series in the 1950s. Starting with a perfect circle formed by a low strip of white card and expanding out into increasingly flowing forms, Bacci creates a colorless abstract object of the surface of his painting. This form made of nested shapes casts shadows and forms areas of different light and shade, without pigment of any kind. Along the bottom of the work are three painted forms (red, black, and blue) outlining a mountain. Is the paper form the sun over a landscape, or is the composition simply a serendipitous accumulation of shapes, flat and dimensional? Senza titolo/Untitled (1972) incorporates a foreign object with an alternative texture—burnt paper (part of a series using this material) that is also clearly differentiated from soft clouds of primary colors seemingly existing separately from the crackled black forms.
It would appear that Bacci was becoming less interested in blending colors and creating the visually immersive environments of his most well-known paintings, such as Omaggio a Gargarin, instead opting for discreet objects whose presences and dimensions could be clearly apprehended by the viewer. These late works, like the burnt paper or meticulously rendered acrylic on paper paintings such as Senzo titolo/Untitled (1974), are still very spatial, but they veer towards the diagrammatic and cartographic and away from illusionism. Was this Spazialismo acknowledging the graphic qualities of Pop art? Bacci died suddenly in 1978, and his reclusive temperament had instigated a steady decline in his notoriety since the 1960s; in fact, his work has been studied very little over the years following his death. Edmondo Bacci: Energy and Light at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection offers a second chance to investigate and situate an artist whose work straddled both a painterly approach to abstraction and a theorist’s perception of the physics of space and its two-dimensional representation.