The Weight of the Image – Lilou Vidal – 2019
Can a job done outside the studio actually define the principle in- trinsic to an artist’s work,rather than being simply a hindrance to its development? The origins of Ezio Gribaudo’s artistic practice are the book and the printed page, understood simultaneously as editorial endeavours, as objects of research, and as spaces of pro- duction and collaboration, of visual and artistic experiences.
Ezio Gribaudo was born in 1929 in Turin. His studies took him first to the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan, then to the Faculty of Architecture at Turin Polytechnic. He embarked on his career as an artist while still working with typography, printing, and publishing. In 1955, Gribaudo started working as a draftsman at the famous Nebiolo foundry, and it was there that he developed his taste for typefaces and printing presses.1 He learned to set type while also focusing on learning all he could about new industrial printing technologies. Four years later, in 1959, he was invited to head the Fratelli Pozzo Moncalieri company in Turin. Although originally specialized in the printing of train schedules, under Gribaudo’s leadership it was transformed into a publishing house specializing in art books, the Edizioni d’Arte Fratelli Pozzo.
In this context of industrial revival in Italy’s Piedmont re- gion, Gribaudo likes to recall the symbiosis between work and culture that existed in the printing company: with shared pas- sion and curiosity, employees, artists and Ezio Gribaudo worked side by side, experimenting with new machines in the effort to become the operators of the printed page. When offset print- ing first emerged on the printing scene, Gribaudo’s friend Pierre Alechinsky wrote him, ‘Maybe I’ll have time to go to Turin in October to try the new machine, I’m very curious to see it, but the four colours scare me a little!’2
Gribaudo’s oeuvre evolved as a whole alongside his role as a publisher and a supporter of the artists of his time. In 1963, he started to collaborate with another publishing house, Fabbri, where he worked as the series editor of Le Grande Monografie, under whose rubric he published more than thirty monographs – collaborating with authors, critics, poets as well as other publishers, such as Einaudi – on artists from the international avant-garde.
The book, Il Peso del Concreto (The Weight of the Concrete, 1968), which Ezio Gribaudo edited for Edizioni d’Arte Fratelli Pozzo, is an example of this sort of collaboration between art and publishing. For the book, Gribaudo invited Adriano Spatola, at the time a leading figure in experimental and sonorous poet- ry, to conceive an anthology of concrete poems based on black and white photographic reproductions (sometimes in macro) of Gribaudo’s Logogrifi (Logogriphs), embossed white works in relief. The result is a book in which the industrial material of text and image acts in a relationship of visual and tactile in- terdependence: ‘An anti-reductive operation in Ezio Gribaudo’s Logogrifi turns matter into language – not matter at point zero but ‘industrial’ matter, the end product of complex technical pro- cesses. In the works of these poets, it is language that, by means of the same anti-reductive process, turns into matter. In both cases, the key moment is that of pure research, which makes aesthetic quality just one more step in its process of penetrating reality.’3
The relation to the image and the printed text physically in- sinuates itself into the essence of the artist’s work.That was at the origin of the first Flano and Logogrifo works: both were fruits of his activity as publisher and his fascination with new industrial printing processes (montotype and linotype) and typographic characters and relief matrices. The Flano works were exhibited for the first time in 1961, and are based on typographic printing plates (stereotypes) cast from flongs, in other words, papier mâché molds that made it possible to produce printing plates that could be adapted to the printing cylinders of the presses that were used to print most newspapers until the arrival of offset printing.
Gribaudo became interested in these post-industrial residual forms: he saw them as something of a technological readymade, which he altered by erasing the original traces (ink and colour) by covering them in white. Besides the kinship here with the absence of colour characteristic of Piero Manzoni’s paint- ing-sculptures, the Achromes, this neutrality echoes the blank page, while the arabesques of the shadows of the reliefs reveal the negative forms of a printed page. In these white monochromes, the hierarchy between text and image – for example, on a page of the newspaper Stampa – has disappeared: the text has become image and the image language.
Gribaudo’s Logogrifi4 stem from an equivocal, visual, non- verbal entity; they are grounded in the principle of an alphabetical or imaged enigma, like an anagram, or a rebus: ‘The Greek logos (for speech) and grifo (for fishing net) are used for every enigmatic discourse that is intricate and hard to understand: more in par- ticular, Logogrifo is a sort of riddle that consists of verses, which in turn consist of an equal number of enigmas to be figured out, and from which, once they have been guessed, letters or words must be drawn in order to form the solution to the main enigma.’5
Still, much more than a sophisticated and literary jeu d ’esprit, the Logogrifi resemble a figurative, poetic and intuitive gram- mar that short-circuits the image’s historical linearity. It is not a question of a narrative formed through a Dadaist process of as- sociation, or an exercise in the cadavres exquis dear to Surrealists, but rather a cartography or constellation of anachronistic images. These forms, detached from their origins, seem simultaneously to float over and to sediment on the paper’s white materiality.What we see in the Logogrifi is the coalescence of image and language.
The sampling character of Gribaudo’s Logogrifi springs from a migratory process for displacing the image.They are made using an embossing system on blotting paper following the impression made by a zinc or copper matrix.These works,which stand out for their great precision and graphic sobriety, earned Gribaudo the Graphic Arts Award at the Venice Biennale in 1966 and at the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil in 1967.Their precision and sobriety notwithstanding, the Logogrifi thwart the rational rules of the universe from whence they originate and maintain their poet- ic ambiguity through their original and anachronistic use of an associative process that involves typographic forms culled from a variety of disparate sources: newspapers, train schedules, dic- tionaries, children’s books, architecture or geography books, etc. These imported forms are reminiscent not only of an enigmatic picture book, but also of Walter Benjamin’s interest in illustrated alphabet and textbooks. They make one think of those reading apparatuses in which the image and language co-exist, in which the ‘legibility’ of the world and the ‘visibility’ of things anticipate language.6 This could be, according to Benjamin’s formula, an act of reading ‘“what was never written”’; such reading, Benjamin goes on, ‘is the most ancient: reading before all languages, from the entrails, the stars, or dances.’7
The repertory of these white, mnemonic forms – sometimes textual, sometimes figurative or topographical (even orographic) – has to be read like a visual poem that recalls the weight of a con- crete world. The relation to this corporality – this ‘weight of the concrete’ – and to the imaginary is reflected in Gribaudo’s fasci- nation with the iconography of dinosaurs.When one enters Ezio Gribaudo’s Brutalist-style studio, on Via Biamonti in Turin,8 one discovers a whimsical world populated by the sculptures that Gribaudo himself made of those prehistoric vertebrates. Just be- fore crossing the door, one encounters the fossilized imprint of a dinosaur’s body.That is the archetypal image of the trace,of the – at once concrete and fantasized – imprint, since it has nev- er been seen by humans. Indeed, the bodily (even architectural) presence of the dinosaur emerges from the positive or negative shape of its absence. This is a subject that returns like a leitmotif in many of Gribaudo’s works from the 1980s onwards, wheth- er paintings, drawings, sculptures or Logogrifi. He even devoted a book to it: at once poetic and full of humour, the book retraces the history of the dinosaurs, which he illustrates with his own works: coloured drawings, Logogrifi reproduced in black-and- white, vignettes, and an atlas – like the paleontological picture book of an imaginary archive.
Georges Didi-Huberman has brilliantly defended the heuristic force of the imprint in La ressemblance par contact. Archéologie, anachronisme et modernité de l’empreinte,9 a book that revindicates the anachronism of the imprint, and con- cludes with reflections on modernism or anti-modernism. Didi-Huberman avails himself of the approaches inaugurat- ed by Derrida, Lacan and, notably, Benjamin in his famous 1935 essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility,’ to pose anew the question of authenticity and origin in light of the practice of the imprint. Does its authen- ticity depend on contact with the original matrix? Or, on the contrary, does it depend on the loss of uniqueness implied by its reproducibility (mold, frottage, etc.)? On that front, Didi- Huberman mentions the molds that Rodin used to make of his own sculptures in order to create a sort of index (hand, arm, bust, and so on), and which participated in the production process of potentially new works. The imprint is disorient- ing to the mind, both because of its proximity to the object, and because of the physical (erotic) contact it evokes. Marcel Duchamp’s Female Fig Leaf (1950-51) crystalizes this dialec- tic of form and counter-form: a mold of the female sex organ, the imprint of a hollow form become salient. The result of that dialectic is a phantasmatic object that is defeating in relation to its referent, and that poses the question of values and meaning through the contact of opposites.Didi-Huberman writes:“That is why, ultimately, the imprint reverses everything. On the one hand, it symmetrically inverses the morphological conditions of its referent: the imprint of a convex body is, generally, the imprint of a concave body. On the other hand, this topical in- version engages the entire field of significations: it functions then like ‘a reversal of meaning.’”10
The Logogrifi done in wood in the 1980s contain this same semi- abstract and figurative strangeness, which flows from this relation of binary interdependence. A concave object that originates in the drawing of a matrix used to make a white Logogrifo in relief, its vari- ous hollow stratifications reveal new lines and forms that push us to an imaginative exercise based on matter.These engraved wood plates in negative seem to promise a new printing, the engendering of a possible image that remains, nevertheless, in the state of the gaze.
Impregnate, from the Latin impraegnare: to render pregnant, fertile. The word’s Latin root fully reveals the vital force of this ‘weight’ of the image; indeed, that force is entirely present in the English word pregnant, which designates a fertile, gestating state. A matrix. Exactly like the principle of reproduction of the print- ed pages of a book.
The character of Pinocchio, like the moving matrix of a repro- ducible image, likewise impregnates several registers of Gribaudo’s work. As early as the 1950s, he created a series of Indian ink draw- ings of Pinocchio, one of the artist’s favourite figures and subjects. This wooden puppet invented by Carlo Collodi has become a mod- el unto itself. Across all the different symbolic interpretations that spring from Pinocchio’s story, the character embodies a subject in search of an identity and a social and political order. Pinocchio is born from the craftsmanship of a woodcarver; for Gribaudo, how- ever, he is a shaped and reproducible form, a form that never stops multiplying itself, but that is never turned into anything other than itself. A prototype. Gribaudo sees Pinocchio as a kinetic creature (always moving, always jumping) whose motion mechanism he invests with a satiric and erotic sense in a sketchbook in which nudes are drawn on the printed pages of Logogrifi in relief. The work makes one think of the games children play and of the way they surrender unselfconsciously to a naïve erotic imaginary.
It is hardly surprising, then, that Gribaudo should have been interested in the wooden mannequins of Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings. In 1968, Gribaudo made a series of twenty-one paint- ings entitled Omaggio a de Chirico (Tribute to de Chirico). It is a Pop-style rereading – thus anticipating the tribute that Warhol11 would pay to de Chirico in 1982 – of the master of metaphysi- cal painting, who continued to fascinate Gribaudo throughout his life, and who was the subject of three major books edited by Gribaudo.12 Gribaudo’s friendship with de Chirico and his deep knowledge of his work became the fruit of new experiments. Decontextualized from their original pictorial frame, the subjects that Gribaudo borrowed from de Chirico became graphic shapes, which Gribaudo painted with the direct virtuosity of the drawn line, and mostly set against neutral and monochrome back- grounds without any hierarchy of perspective. These works are essentially painted drawings made directly with tubes of paint, they are contours in relief that seem to have sprung from the ma- trices of engraving plates. The tribute, the act of borrowing, also becomes an imprint.
The modular aspect of de Chirico’s work, who himself pro- ceeded by the repetition of a motif, cannot have escaped Gribaudo’s notice in the 1960s, just as it did not escape Warhol’s, who had this to say in the 1980s: ‘I love his art and then the idea that he repeated the same paintings over and over again. De Chirico repeated the same image throughout his life. I believe he did it, not only because people and dealers asked him to do it, but because he liked it and viewed repetition as a way of expressing himself.’13
The palm trees we see in the series Omaggio a de Chirico can be traced to the works Gribaudo created following a trip to Cuba in 1967. Through the initiative of Cuban artist Wifredo Lam (Gribaudo, incidentally, produced a monograph about Lam in 1970), he was invited to participate in the art exhibition Salon de Mayo, held in Havana in 1967. While there, he contributed to the collective mural, born of the revolutionary mood, Cuba Colectiva.14
When he returned from his trip to Cuba, Gribaudo devel- oped a series of paintings of palm trees. Working in a style that was equal measures Pop and graphic, in which the repetition of patterned lines – which were also made directly with the tubes of paint – seems to indicate hollow areas, so that the works in this series appear like colourful winks to the engraving and printing process. It is interesting to note the graphic character of palm tree leaves, which are themselves hollow and light-reflecting, and which cut through the Cuban sky with their silhouettes while casting their shadows on the ground.We find these same graphic qualities in the series of cactus drawings in coloured pencil that Gribaudo did during his trip to Arizona in 1965.
Gribaudo’s editorial adventure in the early 1960s coincided with his meeting with a man who would become a frequent col- laborator and friend: the French intellectual and art critic Michel Tapié, the inventor of the concept of Art Autre (or Art Informel), and the founder of ICAR, the International Center of Aesthetic Research, in Turin in 1960. Within its framework, Gribaudo published and edited a number of books with Tapié, among them: Morphologie Autre (1960), the cahiers entitled Baroques Ensemblistes (1961-1963), Manifeste Indirect dans un Temps Autre (1961),andDevenirdeFontana(1961).Thelatter,areferencebook of immaculate quality, reveals Gribaudo’s deep affection for the work of the artists he used to work with, and for his own work as a book architect. And it reveals as well the sensibility with which he renders – in this case – the spatialist essence of Fontana’s work on the page with both rigour and tactility.
Almost all the books Gribaudo made for Edizioni d’Arte Fratelli Pozzo bring the text to the fore. Printed in large black typeface, the text becomes as much a reading experience as a visual exploration. Books designed by an artist, for artists. The work of bookmaking, and the knowhow it requires, not only defined the aesthetic and graphic process specific to Gribaudo’s work, it also preserved an au- tonomous and independent creative freedom that was auspicious for experimentation,as his friend Jean Dubuffet observed in 1976:‘I am astonished, given the ethos of the era, that you should have devoted so much of your time to your duties as a publisher, all while pursuing the development of this fascinating body of work that could very well resonate loudly with the public. (…) But I find as well that you are right to do it, since in this way you keep yourself from becoming a tributary of the vicissitudes and compromises that all too often beset the very equivocal position of the professional artist.’15
Ezio Gribaudo has just turned ninety. If you visit his studio, you may leave with a dinosaur drawing made in broad strokes by means of four markers of different colours, a gesture of generosity and an echo of the screen of a four-color printing process that has, once again, become manual.