Painting the Present

Barry Schwabsky, in the catalogue of the exhibition Painting the Present, Barbara Behan Contemporary Art, London / Grossetti Annunciata Arte Contemporanea, Milan, October 2005

There are things so obvious they need hardly be said, and yet from time to time it becomes necessary to say them―because to some eyes even the obvious is somehow not evident. The paintings of Roberto Rizzo may not be addressed to such eyes, for in them something as ungraspable as the present itself becomes evident, but these strong and unfashionable works remind us of some possibly neglected facts, including the present vitality of painting and in particular―among so many possible and valid modes of contemporary artmaking―of abstraction.
By abstraction, I don’t only mean an art that eschews the representation of people and landscapes, battles and bowls of fruit―of all the things whose representation served painting so well for so many centuries. Nor do I even mean, though this is getting closer to the point, an art that takes for its subject matter its own representational elements, whether these be “free” and fundamentally prelinguistic ones such as the brushstroke; definite, nameable shapes of the sort typically referred to as “geometrical”; or even color itself as in the work of the painters of monochromes. Even more essential to abstraction than any of this is the underlying idea of ascesis―of an art that, paradoxically, expands through self-limitation, proceeds by holding back.
At its best, such an art succeeds in tapping the richness of all the possibilities it has, at least provisionally, refused. Its density lies there, apart from all mere empiricism. Thus, as the critic Giovanni Maria Accame has observed with regard to Rizzo’s work, “As much as one believes that construction is done by adding, it is always much more true that what we exclude takes us forward in our construction.”1 And for all that, Rizzo’s exclusions have not prevented his work from partaking in a determinate relationship to each of the three main branches of abstract painting, the gestural, the constructive, and the monochrome, even though it does not fit easily into any of those categories.
Rizzo’s paintings are, in the first instance, objects to be looked at, not windows to be looked through. Their very shape―he invariably modifies the conventional rectangle by rounding off its edges, softening it and keeping its energy contained within it by eliminating those outward-pointing arrows that are a painting’s corners―tells something about the artist’s respect for tradition and at the same his willingness to qualify it, to re-form it, so to speak. At the same time, the painting’s power is not only invested in its material character but more significantly in the perceptual and mental synthesis that is formed on the basis of that material character. This becomes particularly clear in Rizzo’s diptychs, where the space that separates the painting’s two panels becomes such a powerful factor. The internal corners, exceptionally, are not rounded off in these works; this is probably one of the reasons why each part of the diptych maintains such a magnetic claim on its mate. It is precisely the powerful relation between the two parts that endows the vacant central axis with an equal and opposite power.
The tension-in-balance so vividly embodied by Rizzo’s diptychs is, in many ways, the salient character of all his work. Duality is of the essence. Each painting, as will be immediately apparent to any viewer, consists of a smooth monochromatic field which shows light traces of the brush marks through which it has been constituted, and a contained rectilinear form made with at least two colors that have been pushed and pulled through each other with a palette knife to create a more variegated and atmospheric space that evokes the gestural quality of abstract expressionist and informale painting but in a highly contained and somewhat mechanical form, recalling the facture of Gerhard Richter’s abstractions. So these two elements differ in texture, in color, and in the technique by which they have been produced. There are also temporal and, one might say, physiological differences: To all appearances the monochrome field has been worked slowly, contemplatively, in a deliberate manner, while the thicker paint of the contained shape has been applied in a blunt, energetic, and immediate way.
One might expect, then, that the contained shape would appear as the dynamic actor on the relatively neutral stage of the monochrome field. Nothing could be less the case. In every case, the form of the painting, different from each to each, is function of the balance in tension between the field and the contained shape. The shape is never a figure seen against a ground, or at least it is never securely so; the field can always be the dominant element.
This suspension (not abolition) of the figure/ground distinction is self-evidently a modernist desideratum; for instance, both Mondrian and Newman pursued something of the sort, each in his own very distinct way. Such a heritage faces Rizzo with a difficult double challenge: A contemporary art that pursues a modernist aesthetic may satisfy neither viewers who believe that modernism has been surpassed and that its problems are no longer relevant, nor those whose great admiration of the modernist masters leads them to dismiss all contemporary efforts as lacking in their original rigor and radicality. Both types of viewers should be more open-minded. Certain modernist formal desiderata remain vital even if the feelings to which they must be answerable have changed profoundly. Today, for better or worse, no one can seriously aspire, as Barnett Newman said he and his companions did, “to start from scratch, to paint as if painting never existed before.”2 That aspiration was based on a real and urgent necessity, but to ape it today would be as if to pretend that Newman had never existed. Rizzo is too honest for that. So for all that he has clearly learned from a painter like Newman, he has learned just as much from the more modest―but in its own way equally rigorous―work of Giorgio Morandi, to whom Rizzo has paid homage as he has to other sources of inspiration ranging from Jacques-Louis David to Jim Jarmush. Rizzo’s paintings are beautiful, not sublime; their scale is domestic, not exalted; they are less about the melodrama of creation than about the hum of continuance. Cognizant of the past, they embody our nuanced present.

1. Giovanni Maria Accame, “Roberto Rizzo, processes, not objects,” Roberto Rizzo (Milano: Galleria Grossetti Arte Contemporanea, 2002), p. 8 (my translation).
2. Barnett Newman, “Jackson Pollock: An Artist’s Symposium: Part I,” Art News, April 1967, p. 29, quoted by Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), p. 187.