Roberto Rizzo, Bête comme un peintre

Studio Paolo Pessarelli, March 28, 2023

PDF catalogue: Bête comme un peintre

Paolo Pessarelli: We are now at our fourth conversation of this series. We are back to painting. When Roberto Rizzo came to set up the exhibition yesterday, I was struck by his attention to every detail, even the most marginal. Reading the texts on his website, I found it extremely interesting that he concentrated a lot on the theme of painting and the difficulties that this form of art has had in recent years. These texts trace his idea of the journey, which fully fits into the contemporary debate.

Roberto Rizzo: It is a pleasure for me to talk about my work here, to present small paintings that represent the two projects that I am recently working on, in parallel. They are three paintings that belong to the cycle Bête comme un peintre, and one, which is number zero, of De pictura.

Angela Madesani: Roberto and I have known each other for many years, since we were kids: we were in high school, he was) attending an art school and I was taking classics, and we had mutual friends. I visited his first exhibition in 1989, at Careof in Cusano Milanino, near Milan. I still have the documentation. His attitude has always been very serious, he was always well prepared in art and painting in particular. Why did you choose for your new works and for our evening the title Bête comme un peintre, as “stupid” as a painter, which is a quote from the 1851 novel Scenes of Bohemian Life by Henry Murger. Is there a hint of irony in all of this?

R.R.: I understand that the expression Bête comme un peintre was used by Marcel Duchamp and that it was then used instrumentally in the following years during the contentions and discussions between the various artistic factions. It was an expression that was used by avant-garde painters, at the end of the nineteenth century, to attack academic painters, who only cared about form and not about intellectual elaboration.

A.M.: We would like to talk about your personal story.

R.R.: I started painting and exhibiting early and therefore I got to know artists both my age, and older, who spoke to me about their experiences. I have never seen myself in the “stupidity” of painters, those I have known had a serious intellectual preparation. In the history of the avant-garde, painting fits into a dimension of a conceptual matrix. I am interested in analyzing the discourse here both from a personal perspective, relating to my years of growth, and from a general one, relating to the changes in the art world.

A.M.: I find it a beautiful and fascinating experience observing your works from where I am sitting. They require time to be properly ‘seen’. As I look sideways at the wood panel that is part of the De pictura cycle, with a title that brings me back to Leon Battista Alberti, a lot of art history comes to mind, Titian’s painting method for example, with its light and its colors.

P.P.: Actually, setting up the light was fundamental in preparing this exhibition.

AM: Let’s go back to your story. You were born at the end of the 1960s, you went to art school, then the Brera Academy.

R.R.: The decision to paint came early, before enrolling at the Academy, it came from my fascination for the studio, for the preparation of colors and the daily life of being a painter. Little by little it expanded and embraced all parts of my life… Through painting I try to understand the world, I know it may seem exaggerated, but it is true. When I started it was the eighties, it was the period of the ebb. It was in those years that the attitude that reaches up to the present day was born, I mean that temporal suspension which belongs to the dimension of postmodern thinking, of the downfall of ideologies where the image and the citation are more important than the elaboration of mental, technical or execution processes. An operation of recovery, recycling, reproposing images of the past in a historical moment that we know well, in which we grew up, which unfortunately was often based on a general historical amnesia.

A.M.: It was the time of the ‘Milano da bere’, the city that changed in the 1980s. It was when we together gave life to Periscopio¹ between the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s. We often used the phrase: «A laughter will bury us». An amusing art was made, made up of gimmicks.

R.R.: It was the upgraded version of a phrase that was popular in the seventies².

A.M.: At the end of the 90s it had a different meaning, everything had to be fun, consumed quickly, cooked and eaten. So fast that many of those artists disappeared. Artists like you instead, who have worked, studied, kept researching, had and have a much more difficult life but fortunately resisted the fashion and trends of the time.

R.R.: Dedicating yourself to abstract painting might seem like a suicidal choice. The fact that in those years it was a common belief that nothing new could be said in painting, made me approach that language all the more reason. I wanted to get closer to the experiences of the latest avant-gardes. I was fascinated by the intimacy that is created in the studio between the artist and the canvas.

A.M.: That period, which began in the 1980s, is unfortunately not over yet and art can be, in my opinion, a mean not so much or not only of salvation, but of a possible interpretation of our historical time. Obviously, it is useless to deny that at the top of the pyramid there is the market that ‘does the good and bad weather’. A work like that of Rizzo, like that of the artists who were previously invited to exhibit and converse in Paolo’s studio, represents for me a glimmer of faith and hope in art. I’m also pleased that you’re similarly interested in other languages: from video art to photography, which you don’t use but which you look at with interest.

R.R.: By nature, I’m very curious of what happens around me. I’m interested in such distant and different languages precisely because, as I said before, I feel very much inside me painting. For me, painting is a bit like breathing, I recognize it in the pictorial practice and in the achievement of a condition of spontaneity with this language. Opening up to what is outside of painting becomes a way to get to know and to bring the rest into my own world. This way I perform an operation of reverse translation compared to when I express my painting. In fact, I am convinced that painting must maintain a link with its entire history, which is very ancient, but at the same time must be physically present in actuality. What I have always tried to do in my work is to understand my role within a historical process; I know it might sound megalomaniac, but it connects to what I was saying earlier when I was talking about the suspension of time in recent years, in recent decades. I have the impression that there was a void which, in fact, interrupted a path of artistic research, connected to a long historical process, in the late seventies and early eighties, with which we reached the end of a process of deconstruction of languages. When I started painting, it was a historical period in which the only possible solution was to remove history, through play, irony, getting hold of what was needed where it was found, like at the supermarket, and citing what was useful. On the contrary, I have been interested, since then – then over time I applied it with greater awareness -, in understanding what had happened after the monochrome in painting, what after Fontana’s cut. While many have found the solution with getting out of the painting: an easy way out, I was interested in remaining within it, within the painting containing Fontana’s cut, not removing it, but reconstructing that long experience of deconstruction processes of the 20th century avant-gardes. Not a return to order, but a reconstruction that contained that memory without removing it…

A.M.: It’s a starting point.

R.R.: So that slit that you see in De pictura, despite being a breakthrough, a trace of Lucio Fontana, which is my inescapable reference, is also an element of the picture that dialogues with the painted forms that you see in the painting. It’s a difficult balance, but it’s what I’m interested in trying to do, what I’ve always been interested in trying to do.

A.M.: This is fundamental in my opinion. Comparison with the past is essential. After all, Paolo Pessarelli also dialogues with the gold background. How could I fail to take into account the Mnemosyne Atlas of Aby Warburg, even if he died in 1929? Its link with the iconographic, cultural, intellectual memory? Roberto is an artist who writes.

R.R.: I have no literary ambitions; they are simply the painter’s texts.

A.M.: In a 2020 exhibition, La Reinvenzione del quadro, at Figino Serenza’s Space 56 with Marco Grimaldi we had created a small catalogue, in which a three-voice dialogue was published which I still consider very interesting. I like to say here that over the years I have seen Roberto grow a lot in his work, but also in his attitude towards his research. For me it is exciting to walk together and see how the other grows. I find it interesting that an artist feels the need to write.

R.R.: I write with great difficulty because I am very slow, I read and re-read, in the sense that I put a lot of effort into it because I try to explain first of all to myself what I have done and what I am trying to do. Let’s say that these things I write come from work and not vice versa. I am unable, and it is not in my habits, to theorize and then carry out the work. Everything comes from my experience, precisely Bête comme un peintre; the first sign of my intelligence passes through my hands and through the contact with the tools of painting, with the material. As I said before, with the colors and smells of the materials I use. Subsequently I need to clarify to myself what happened, what I did and what I am doing, also in order to bring everything back to a relationship with the outside world. Artists are different from one another, there are artists who have very frequent, very intense relations with their public, others, especially painters, are more or less solitary. Ours is a secluded profession, so it is important to get out of the studio, go to see exhibitions, talk to other artists.
I read you a short sentence by Piero Dorazio that struck me greatly: «There is in the myth of many primitive societies the legend of the ‘hidden child’. A newborn within a clan, at a certain moment is hidden, and then reappears grown up after some time, to tie up the threads of the tradition of the ancestors. This is what happened to me when I tied up the threads of Balla’s or Severini’s painting. It is a question of preserving the substance of values». Piero Dorazio had the need to reconstruct a memory that, he felt, was precarious, because memory is in itself precarious and must be continually reconstructed. The memory of a painter is the one that allows you to relate to artists who are very distant in time, it is a profession that in its tools, in its methods, has changed little or nothing since prehistory; this is an extraordinary thing and also a great fortune, it is the possibility of communicating with people who led a completely different life. This sentence struck me, because there is a need to keep alive the fundamental values of painting, fundamental values for the human being.

A.M.: In your opinion, Roberto, what is painting going towards? Because I see so many different things and, sometimes, I find myself in difficulty.

R.R.: A quote by Picasso comes to mind: «Painting is a blind man’s profession». This is because the great Spaniard was well aware that the image in painting is the least of the problems. What is important is all that comes before, the image is the consequence of a process. Of the pictorial process, of the elaboration, of the stratification, of the construction and destruction of forms. Of the struggle, even in a good sense, with space, with the painting. A process of appropriation, of knowledge. The image arises in the end, almost unconsciously. The problem with painting today, in my opinion, is that there are many paintings around, but not much painting intended as a language that develops in a dimension of reflection. The representative dimension is found on a more superficial level, which has to do precisely with the image and which is what attracts most of the artists you see around; they are only interested in images, whether figurative or abstract, but not in the painting process. Those who almost never have the history of painting as a source of inspiration, but instead cinema or images on the web or music, in other words, other things. There’s nothing wrong with that, I titled my paintings Ghost Dog from the movie Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai by Jim Jarmusch, because I like cinema too and I like dogs and animals in general and there’s nothing wrong with that. A painter though in my opinion should not only know but also love the history of painting, get excited when he finds him/herself in front of a Bronzino or a Pontormo. When I paint, I try to recreate the emotion I feel when I look at one of these great painters. At the same time, I try to combine all of this with those historical passages that cannot be ignored such as, for example, the experience of Lucio Fontana. I realize that this is an almost impossible feat. Giovanni Maria Accame³ wrote that what struck him about my work was the fact that I persisted in always seeking the most difficult path. Mine is not masochism, it is the desire to find what is central in research in painting.

A.M.: It is as if one narrows down an apparently enormous field more and more in order to reach the synthesis of the phenomena. In the series of paintings behind me from the Bête comme un peintre series, I see something I’ve never seen in your work: transparency. I am wrong?

R.R.: No, actually I’m glad you notice it because it’s something of the last few years. I have been painting for many years, but I feel like someone who is still trying to learn. I’m not saying this out of false modesty, I know very well that to become really good you have to work hard. The perception of transparency in color is something that belongs to great paintings. The research is complex, it is both mental and technical, therefore also on materials and their application.

P.P.: You spoke of Fontana’s cut, of this slit which, if I understood correctly, is not only a quotation, but has also become a structural element of your painting. Your works have a particular shape which is not perfectly rectangular, they have rounded corners, then you move them away from the wall. You told me that you build some supports for the works yourself, you have others made. Is there a design dimension then?

R.R.: I paint on wood panels because they are functional to my work. The rounded corners, in my paintings, have a function which is to replace the frame which has always been an important element in the history of painting, not only as an ornamental element, but above all for its function of mediating between the internal space and the external space of the painting.
It is a boundary between the internal space of the painting which is conventionally absolute, that is autonomous and independent both from a perceptive and conceptual point of view, and at the same time physically relative to everything around it. Therefore, it is the absolute that lies within the relative and not vice versa. The blunt sides of the wood panels accentuate the two-dimensionality, which in reality does not exist but which has always been ideally sought after in painting. Painting is made of a matter, a substance which, despite this, remains unreal, because what it pursues is two-dimensionality. It is the contradiction present within the painting language that makes it unique and irreplaceable.

Monica Dorna: I know you teach at the Brera Academy. What role does teaching have for an artist who, like you, has a historical breadth? What does it mean to pass on one’s language to the new generations? What added value has it brought to your research?

R.R.: I really like teaching because, first of all, it forces me to study. When I have to teach, I have to explain concepts or methods, I have to be credible and what I convey must have value, meaning and depth. My teaching method is not to use me as an example, I never talk about myself and what I do, unless asked. I think I have to convey the search for a discipline, a personal, individual method. Applying someone else’s recipe, even if it were mine, would not be the right way. The relationship between the teacher and the students is a relationship that must be based on mutual trust, that’s the only way to build something.

M.D.: In any case, teaching is two-way; an artist who teaches enriches himself.

A.M.: It is essential that the artist does not create clones.

R.R.: I enjoy it more, if the students conduct researches in other artistic languages as well, if they have a point of view different from mine. I learn new things too.

A.M.: Those who teach experience a great privilege.

M.D.: It’s like having a channel open towards the future.


1 Periscopio (Periscope) is the title of a series of exhibitions organized between 1997 and 2002, commissioned by the Province of Milan, curated by Angela Madesani with Paolo Campiglio and Francesco Tedeschi.

2 «A laughter will bury you» is a phrase from the 19th century attributed to the anarchist Michail Bakunin, which was later written on the walls of Paris in May 1968. In Italy, this sentence had had good fortune and consequently had a great diffusion about ten years later. In 1977 it was written or shouted during the student protests, the last mass political demonstrations. The complete and recurring refrain was the following: “Fantasy will destroy power and a laughter will bury you!”. A phrase that was much scarier for those in power than one might think.

3 Giovanni Maria Accame (Bologna, 1941-2011) was an Italian art critic and historian.


Translation by Maria Renzi