With this exhibition, Brun Fine Art is exploring the avant-garde of the Cenobio group, which emerged in 1960s Milan in a fertile, international cultural climate following the crisis of Art Informel. The group’s emergence was rooted in the teachings of Lucio Fontana (1899 – 1968) and the relationships, in some cases also collaborations, between its members and Piero Manzoni (1933 – 1963). The exhibition was developed in collaboration with the studios of the living artists and the archives where their art is preserved.
When the coveted first prize of the Venice Biennale was awarded jointly to Hans Hartung and Jean Fautrier in 1960, the younger and more perceptive artists had already been looking ahead for several years. The clear, brusque transition that took place in Europe in reaction to the crisis of Art Informel, which generated a split with the American art world, probably lies in the memories of the first avant-gardes, unsmothered by the physical and ideological rubble of the world war. Among the figures who served as a bridge connecting generations of otherwise distant artists, the most representative in Italy were Lucio Fontana and Bruno Munari (1907 – 1998), both of whom were working at the end of the 1950s in a Milan that found itself cradling the production explosion and a new generation of designers. During that period, Milan not only regained a seat at the table but, in the sphere of western art, also became, to cite Vettese, an ‘absolute forerunner’.
Fontana and Munari, the life paths of whom coincided at many points, had come into contact with the leaders of the second Futurist wave, the movement having been revived after the cultural breakdown in the 1920s. For Fontana, this had happened through his activity as a potter in Albisola, whereas the relationship between Munari and Futurism had been longer lasting and more regular. In 1947, Fontana founded the Spatialist Movement, and then, the next year, with Munari, he was among the founders of the Concrete Art Movement. Fontana’s first hole, made in the context of his exploration of the monochrome, dates to 1947.
After the breakup of the Spatialist group, Fontana supported the Nuclear Movement (which was led by Enrico Baj and Sergio Dangelo) from the outside. In Albisola, he encouraged contact between the young artists of the movement and Asger Jorn, the former leader of the CoBrA group. During this phase, the promising Piero Manzoni drew closer to Fontana, and two artists of the future Cenobio group, Ettore Sordini (1934 – 2012) and Angelo Verga (1933 – 1999), linked themselves to Manzoni.
At the height of the Nuclearist period, Manzoni, Sordini and Verga penned the manifesto Per una pitturaorganica(‘Towards organic painting’), stating that ‘the picture is our space of freedom, where we continuously reinvent painting in an endless search for our first images’. A few months later, still in 1957, the three co-signed the manifesto Contro lo Stile(‘Against style’), expressing a hope that the work of art become a ‘modifying presence, in a world that needs not celebratory representations but rather presences’.
In this melting pot and fast-moving moment when Nuclearism was, finally, surpassed, Fontana readied himself to become the artistic father of a new generation. He thus presented the group show Manzoni Verga Sordiniat the Galleria Pater, Milan, in 1957. The three went on to display their work in other group shows in Milan that same year. But the poetics of the three artists quickly diverged, and indeed Sordini and Vergadid not follow Manzoni in the exploration of the proto-conceptual zeroing of the artwork. Instead, they moved in a direction that would be later described as semantic, aiming towards the reduction of the painting to a space of preliminary sign research. Their efforts formed the basis for the subsequent founding, in 1962, of the Cenobio group, joined by the poet and theoretician Alberto Lùcia. It was also joined by Arturo Vermi (1928 – 1988), who drew on expressionist and symbolist premises for Diari(Diaries) made up of rods, and Agostino Ferrari (1938), who was inclined towards spare, lyrical painting, ‘like a musical score’. Vermi, who had spent a long period in Paris absorbing its cultural aspirations, had already been working with Ferrari for a few years. Another member of the group was Ugo La Pietra (1938), who worked primarily in the areas of planning and design.
The five artists, remaining firmly rooted within the field of painting, looked to Fontana as a teacher and drew from him the aim of reducing the sign to its minimum terms. Unlike the other abstract artists, their work accentuated the need to seal the image and transform the brushstroke into a graphic sign, to the point of anticipating the later experiments of visual poetry. The tools of the trade remained intact in their approach to the artwork. This experience, which was in historical terms the third Milanese reaction to Art Informel, the others being object/constructive and nihilist, had and has had a profound influence on all of the subsequent artistic production of Ferrari, La Pietra, Sordini, Verga and Vermi in their pursuit of individual paths. And their work was and remains a rich source of inspiration for other young artists.