A key figure in the kinetic and programmed art of the 1950s and 1960s, Gianni Colombo anticipated, in his work, many of the most current themes in art.
In his experimentations with perceptual structures, Colombo developed new definitions for the work of art as a habitable environment and a field of active participation through the use of light, movement and space. In the experience of his environments, our sensory and aesthetic capabilities find themselves diffused and amplified. Using light, movement and space, he conceived works and environments that actively acted on the physical and sensorial perception of the viewer. They celebrate the possibility of experiencing space and time, and knowing the world by touching it, and by being touched. For Colombo, space is always participated space and experience is always experience of, and within, participation.
Interested in the Surrealism of Max Ernst and in the poetic world of Paul Klee, Colombo attended the Accademia di Belle Arti in Brera, Milan. Between 1955 and 1961 he regularly exhibited ceramic works. His artistic research was soon characterized by experimentation with different materials such as wadding and felt. During the 1950s Colombo was active in creative circles in Milan. He was close to the Nuclearist group, the Azimuth group and especially Lucio Fontana and Spatialism.
In 1959, Colombo founded Gruppo T with Giovanni Anceschi, Davide Boriani and Gabriele De Vecchi, who were soon joined by Grazia Varisco. The group proposed kinetic where the artwork changes in time (the letter in the name Gruppo T comes from this word), and their artworks were programmed like psychological tests on perception. Colombo’s goal was to abolish every static boundary between painting, sculpture and architecture. In this sense, the intervention of the viewer was decisive, being able to directly manipulate the artworks that function as ludic and emancipatory devices. Colombo’s first solo exhibition was Miriorama 4, where he presented his early kinetic works: Surfaces in Variation, Intermutable Reliefs and Pulsating Structuralizations.
Beginning in 1964, the artist experimented with the possibility of activating residual images (after-images) in the retina of the observer, using plays of light, structures in rapid motion and rhythmic flashes. In the same years, he was also interested into the notion of architectural space and its primary elements: the first environment was Habitable Kine-Visual Structuralization (1964), reconstructed for this exhibition, and which was followed by other environments such as After-Structures (1966), Elastic Space (1967) and Zoom Squares (Distorted Squares) (1968–70), also present in the exhibition.
In 1968 he won the prize at the XXXIV Venice Biennale for his Elastic space, an environment where the movement of fluorescent strings illuminated by Black Light create surprising effects that lead to the public’s spatial disorientation.
During the 1970s, Colombo created more complex practicable spaces without the earlier works’ electronic element, such as the Bariesthesias (1974–75) and Topoesthesias (1975–77), that are elementary structures where the visitor’s passage is an essential part of the work.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he developed new environments that focused on the concept of “curved space”, sometimes for the outdoor. The exhibition ends with Opus incertum (1992), Colombo’s last work and extensive selection of architectural models which demonstrate the artist’s interest in the design and conceptual phase of his work, although always intended with a sense of play and levity.
In his formation period, Colombo became closer to artist and designer Bruno Munari’s humor and playfulness, and to the Spatialism of Lucio Fontana, who was one of his first supporters. Developing further many ideas of early Twentieth century Futurism, Fontana had advocated the necessity to transcend painting and the sculptural forms of traditional art, in favor of an interpenetration of artwork and real space through the observer’s gaze and his/her spatial-temporal experience. If Fontana theorized the spatial environment as artwork,he only rarely created environments where electrical light was the focus. Colombo, with his luminous and programmed works and with his later environments, explored art as a partecipated space as his primary focus.
Using plays of light, structures in rapid motion and images produced by rhythmic flashes, he experimented with the mechanisms of perception and the possibility of activating residual images (after-images) in the retina of the observer. This was the genesis of After-Structures, environments defined by the movement of luminous projections, but also hypnotic objects, whose refelections spread in the whole space. The Roto-Optic works and the After-Points belong to this cycle, being able to catch the gaze of the spectator through the luminous paths in red and green. Alternatively activating light and dark and transitioning between 0↔220 Volts suggest a more environmental attitude, due to his experiments of that time. The Chromostructures are instead lamps and plexiglass’ objects with a rhythmical and programmed animation based on the chromatic spectrum.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, Colombo directs his research towards the creation of environments characterized by the use of inclined planes, arches, columns and manipulated and distorted architectural elements, where the condition of the visitor’s passage is an essential component to the work. Discontinuous and aimless itineraries, strongly sloping planes, labyrinths, varyingly inclined pillars forced the viewer into performative uneasiness. This resulted in the Bariesthesias, from 1974, and Topoesthesias, which began in 1977. The goal of such environments is to modify the viewer’s perceptions of place and space, showing the inertia of their otherwise normal use. The environment Bariesthesia was first exhibited in Milan in 1975 and presented again on various occasions, including the show Didattica in Modigliana the same year (this version of the work is present here). Bariesthesia, disrupting the repetitive, consistently sloped order of normal steps, provokes a form of tactile apprehension and kinesthetic reaction that develops through the series of steps, in succession.
Created since 1959 and exhibited at Colombo’s first solo exhibition Miriorama 4 at the Galleria Pater in Milan in 1960, the Pulsating Structuralizations are among his first kinetic works with electro-mechanical movement. These three-dimensional works, composed of small white polystyrene blocks, pulsate, animated through an electro-magnetic force, creating visual and spatial displacements.
Not directly manipulable by the viewer, these works–called the “walls” by the artist–express the tactile sensuality of slow movement and the seduction of the object in variation able to penetrate the space of the viewer, slowly and rhythmically, without spectacle, evading all static definition of the art object. The Pulsating Structuralizations belong to the history of the monochrome that runs through the entire twentieth century. They are to be understood in relation to the works from the same period by the Zero Group in Germany and by Piero Manzoni and Enrico Castellani in Italy. Differently from his other peers, however, Colombo attempts to give life to the artwork, that literally seem to “breathe”.