National Gallery of Modern Art
Presentation by Cristiana Collu
Director of the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art
If the imprint is the negative, so no one has highlighted the generative process more than Achille Bonito Oliva. The vitality of the negative, brilliant intuition translated into an exhibition that has made the history of exhibitions, persists by exposing and overturning the similarity by contact that holds works and matrices together. The double bond seals the authenticity of the work by untying it from its uniqueness and projecting it into the infinite reproducibility of imperceptible variants, until it consumes itself, until it resolves itself in the disappearance of what is "art" and in the opening to the accidental.
The imprint is non-work, negative, representation of an absence but also of an essence, source point, testimony.
The reconstruction of an earlier future, an aorist that is configured as survival and supervenience. A gap that has the effect of forcing time and suddenly returning it to us plastic and modifiable. The imprints of art allow the signs received to free themselves and in this process of release they fill the scene with unexpected, dense and autonomous clues.
The monumental slabs document a fading dichotomy, a fictitious separation. They invite us to look at a rough, alternative and uncanny beauty that continues to shirk to keep itself secret.
Conversation between Achille Bonito Oliva e Valter Rossi
Rome - February 16, 2019
Achille Bonito Oliva
Leonardo da Vinci literally stated, "Art is a mental thing", discerning and implementing in his own creative output, the intuition that the work of art is fruit of an imaginary that, from the pole of the invisible, takes shape in the sphere of the visible.
The 2RC gallery has put Leonardo da Vinci’s assertion into practice, through the role you have played, not as mere executors but rather as artificers: you have created a dialogue with the artist, I’d say, actually taking the invisibility of form away from the artist, guiding it towards becoming a thing. It’s interesting that your work was carried out in the spirit of nomadism, a journey through diverse languages, currents and continents, embracing artists from many different generations and also countries.
How did you begin? Which artist first let you become artificers of his or her work?
Lucio Fontana was generous enough to grant us, young as we were, the motivation to break forcefully into the wonderful world of art. He left us free movement... saying only, "What can I do for you?"
With his protection and in a very short time, we moved to all intents and purposes into his world, where he could be both free and spontaneous.
We understood each other at once, we never had to ask anything because he was always available and this willingness to help was, I believe, the important thing. It made us think that we should not tie ourselves to the past but consider the future. And that's what we did: we sought what was new, something that would also give us the chance to invest in ourselves, trying not only to obtain the artist’s signature but, above all, produce high quality work and, when it was finished, find ourselves in a world that was new even for Fontana.
I also believe that Fontana somehow favoured the actualisation of his works with 2RC, in that he worked by means of a modular gesturalism, and modularity permits one to depart from the sublime of the unique gesture, and yet develop a creative method.
Starting always from Fontana, the question is, “In what way does the creative gesture of the artist remain as an impression on the plates, the matrices, which you have produced over 60 years?”
Fontana expressed his freedom through his gesture, which allowed him to tackle all of his beloved materials: paper, canvas, metals for us, clay for his ceramics, or anything else that interested him. He approached them all with the same sensitivity, because he always saw the part that was breached and thus enabled his light to pass through. For Lucio, that was the beginning and end.
At the very moment the matrix plates lie ready, free and virgin in the artist’s hands, from that first gesture, they become the real point of attraction and, after that first mark, a creative world unfolds, in which the surprise lies hidden until the end of the etching process.
Fontana broke through the sound barrier, he broke through matter, developing a spatiality that was able to create the visible, but also hinted at an invisibility that is constantly tangible in his work. What I find interesting in the matrix plates that you developed with Lucio is the execution. The work is not a vacation for the artist nor the simple reproduction of a formula, but in some way has its own specificity.
What is 2RC’s specific trait in its work and executive production?
Fontana could trace a mark, even on a shield, which was so incisive that the shield would open up and explode. At the same time, he gave the whole world a chance to imagine what can be seen and done, beyond the shield itself. Reminding us that we should absolutely not remain immobile before the statement that the art printing tradition means repeating techniques in a mechanical, scientific and academic fashion, as it may often seem. And even if the required research might have led us into error, everything was somehow salvaged, for even the error helped us think further ahead, always further ahead.
One thing that we always did before approaching artists, was to prepare ourselves, not only technically, but also with prior knowledge about their personal world, habits, quirks, desires and poetry.
After the experience with Fontana, we always studied and chose only those artists who came close to what we hoped to find.
You have worked under the banner of production and not reproduction.
Absolutely! Only high-quality editorial production, where the artist could experiment and demand impossible dimensions, techniques that did not yet exist... and would always be told, “It can be done!“
And I believe that you have also been artificers of an original specificity with regard to graphic work. Whose fault is that?
The fault is of our imagination, which can have no limits.
What is 2RC’s imaginary? In particular, its social imaginary.
Immense imagination was needed to reach the goals which, from the very outset, we had set ourselves: not only mine and Eleonora’s, but also that of all the young people who worked with us for years, together with the imaginary of all the artists who toiled tirelessly and often exulted before the work that emerged from the presses. Presses and equipment that were designed by us to be increasingly large and efficient, and were assembled in our studios in various parts of the world or in the artists’ own studios.
In our case, there was an absolutely inimitable symbiosis between me and Eleonora, and we always wrestled with great determination up until the moment of the final decision, at that point one of us would leave room for the other, whoever was most in harmony with that artist. We each had our own role. Eleonora has always had such a natural gift for colour and is so adroit with it, that there is not one artist who has not appreciated her skill and sensitivity. For the use of colours in printing, and the way they are handled, differs entirely from what happens with pictorial techniques since, in print making, a specific technical procedure must be followed.
First of all, one must know all the engraving techniques to perfection, and this skill enabled Eleonora to offer maximum quality by fully exploiting the sequence of the plates, the quality of the aquatint and their eventual overlapping. Then she needed to know the root of the colour with which she began, modifying it when necessary with small corrective interventions, following her natural sensitivity.
To give an example: the shade of orange that we created in the first subject with Francis Bacon.
When the artist saw the quality of that colour, which came about from the overlapping imagined by Eleonora, he said, "Let's work together!"
That first proof emerged before his and our eyes with an absurd colour, totally unique in hue, an infernal colour which the artist had only managed to create after years of work and, all of a sudden, saw in a print.
A marvellous aquatint, in which Eleonora had realised that she must start from black.
2RC has truly worked under the banner of production, not repetition or reproduction. It has generated added value in the work of these artists from different generations. Is this added value a planned outcome or is it a fruit that has matured gradually over time?
Yes! It is a fruit that has grown and will continue to grow over time. For when the graphic work is truly complete, it tells a truly new story, even for the artist, who is thereby regenerated.
I should add that for some fundamentally important artists this experience and coexistence with us was so significant that it simplified or even inspired their painting.
Graphics produces the artist’s mental thing because it drains matter.
Who were the artists in this adventure, over these decades, with whom you created a cultural familiarity?
I must say that our immense curiosity and passion for art, from our very early years, led us to make choices in the world of abstractionism that have been a fixed furrow on our path, which started with Fontana.
Soon after came Burri, with whom we journeyed long and far and had a close friendship, working together for several decades during which time, even from our first meeting, the artist expected us to do things that did not yet exist.
Afro’s colourfulness, his Venetian world and the dynamism of his painting opened us up to a different perspective and we sought new solutions tailored to him, thereby also resolving complex issues relating to his precarious state of health in that period. It was a fantastic working process for us since, particularly with aquatint, Afro had understood that, because of the immense range of tonal shading that the technique offered him, he could construct his image by imagining it in colour but then, in the end, create it in thousands of shades of black: for example, Grande Grigio, where the matrices’ ductility enabled us to create instantaneous variations that cannot possibly be obtained with other techniques, even pictorial.
It was a serious challenge, which we won hands down, thanks also to the loving contribution made by Valeria Gramiccia, Afro's friend and assistant.
At this point, with regard to your question, “Who were the artists in this adventure, over these decades, with whom you created a cultural familiarity?” My answer is that, despite the different and wide-ranging currents and pictorial movements that emerged during the years of our activity, that familiarity was created inside our nomadic printing press with the DNA of every one of them.
So, it could be said that, through your work, 2RC has conceptualized art forms.
Yes! Having moved through various, different parts of the world like nomads undoubtedly meant starting from a concept of freedom and, in particular, dismantling certain imposed constraints, thereby giving value, in a universal sense, to the graphic work, in its total autonomy.
So which generation of artists (and their names too) has been most in line with your expectations and given the most satisfactory results, as far as you are concerned?
No! I can see no difference between the various generations that have suffered and rejoiced with us, because each artist introduced us, almost systematically, into his or her inspired and secret world. And due to this distinctive feature, we generously gave them everything we could, seeking a different, autonomous path for each one of them. In every case, and from the very first day, each artist established the conditions whereby they could pass their baton, their testimony, into our hands as an additional sign of recognition for our technical and cultural growth over time.
As for satisfactory results, I should say they were frequently awe-inspiring, giving rise on most occasions to lengthy collaborations.
And I would like to add that every edition that emerged from our presses, thanks to the commitment shown by the artist and the entire printing press, is at the very least satisfactory.
If then we come in with some snapshots taken along our way, I can name Fontana for his complete purity; Burri for his intransigence and continuous research beyond matter, always expecting the impossible from us; Capogrossi for having whetted the appetite for colour in Eleonora; Chillida for reminding us of Segovia during the technical process, owing to the musicality of the artist’s gesture as he prepared a splendid aquatint; and then Sonia Delaunay, Vasarely, and Louise Nevelson who allowed us to penetrate her shadows.
It should also be said that Francesco Clemente finds it so natural to work in watercolour that he had no difficulty in approaching an etching technique, acquatinta acquarellata, which resembles his own way of working.
We often tackled projects with this artist in extreme conditions, yet his total trust and full integration during the preparation and etching stages always allowed us to overcome obstacles that then became truly experiential baggage.
In the spring of 2014, Clemente came to work in our 2RCCAFA etching department in Beijing (established in 2009 with the travelling exhibition “Doublefold Dream of Art”) and, thanks to the experience gained in many years of working with the artist, from the very first brushstroke of acid that he put on the matrix plate - two metres by one metre in size – everything began again as though it had never stopped. Moreover, Francesco found himself perfectly at ease in that atmosphere, which he knows so well, also appreciating the graphics we produced with his Chinese colleagues, particularly “Pinocchio” by Liu Ye.
What difference is there between European and American artists in the panorama of your production?
The years when we opened the studio in New York, in Broome Street, coincided with the time when Andy Warhol reshuffled the cards, particularly in the world of graphics. For he never even laid a hand on a plate or lithographic stone, merely coming up with superb ideas that were then extremely well executed by his collaborators in screen printing, lithography and offset, with numbers that were certainly not limited.
American artists, among whom Helen Frankenthaler, Sam Francis and George Segal, came back to us, cramped as they were by the commercial situation in their main market, certain of finding transparency and ethics and the chance to print large scale graphic works in etching with us. And this sizeable production of large format graphics in etching was precisely what differentiated our production in the United States and in Europe.
Warhol is the Raphael of American mass society, who gave elasticity to the consumer society and, by crippling himself, paradoxically developed the unique value of repetition.
I think that the revolution enacted by Warhol made it absolutely essential for us to go back to an ETHICAL form, so as to offer the clarity that the market demands, particularly in the graphic art world which, without the necessary rigour, would end up giving value to everything and nothing, particularly in the multiple arts.
What does 2RC’s expertise stem from?
Our expertise stems above all from curiosity and modesty.
I am very curious about all my surroundings. Eleonora, on the other hand, apart from being justly curious, is completely modest in everything but colour management, a specific field in which her research will certainly never end, for growth cannot be stopped.
I’d say that 2RC confirms Leonardo da Vinci’s belief that Art is mental Form.
Has this been put into practice more with European or American artists?
And which generation has applied this concept?
Everything certainly started with European artists, who reproduced by gemmation in the United States, creating dynamic new movements such as Action Painting and Pop Art, and everything else that happened in the years to follow, right up to the present. We lived on the borders of the various, different art movements, because while we were working in the study of Graham Sutherland in France, we were also working in Los Angeles with Sam Francis, an artist whose mental form was profoundly open and instinctive.
At the same time, with Pierre Alechinsky, we developed a serious, ongoing collaborative project only after spending a long time together in Bodrum, Turkey, where the necessity of tackling the work in such a different environment had become an obligation but then, over time, became an opportunity for meetings that stimulated both of us.
This constant nomadism was essential for planning an artistic iter, which we had already in some way identified, during the course of our growth. We did everything with great optimism and perhaps recklessness, but when you find yourself standing beside an artist like Henry Moore, in a printing press set up in Pietrasanta just for him, observing him as he expresses an almost child-like desire to produce a series of graphic works, trusting only in us, I believe this may be considered an immense act of faith, to which we responded with a series of etchings in acquaforte, aquatint and drypoint, and splendid matrices of huge dimensions, with which we printed the various subjects in very limited editions.
2RC is the fruit borne of a couple of artificers and not artisans.
What is the difference between an artisan and an artificer?
Artisans try to push the technique they know best, which is often limited, without discerning the real needs of the artist, and this enables artisans to guide artists towards rapid production of an edition with the instruments they normally use.
Artificers seek to explore the artist's world and, by means of varying etching techniques, strive to identify and suggest a sphere of autonomy in which the artist can feel comfortable. Moreover, since they know the artist in depth, they can offer instruments that unfold a new creative path, which so enriches and astounds the artist that it sparks an ongoing process of research.
This is exactly what we have tried to teach in China and Viareggio, with the activity of the Association Laboratorio 2RC Officina Contemporaneo. “It is not technique in itself that can determine the profession of engraver or printer, but how much space you give to modesty so that you are never quite satisfied, particularly when judging the quality of your own work.”
The really splendid thing that has emerged in our groups of young people, is their ability to integrate so well that they manage to do things together which they would never be able to do as individuals.
I believe that the difference lies in the fact that the artisan works towards confirmation, whereas artificers, and thus the couple Valter and Eleonora Rossi, by collaborating with the artist, have worked, I’d say, towards the possibility of producing a thing - in Leonardo's sense of the word - that did not previously exist.
With your collaboration, which artist, more than any other, produced this infidelity to their own work? Joyful infidelity, naturally...
Fontana is still the most surprising, because meeting and spending time with him was vitally important for us in every way, and because, without him, perhaps we would never even have begun. When we met him, we were in an embryonic phase, very open and free but with only a modest preparation obtained at high school/academy, and we had already realized that if we wanted to do something significant in the world of graphic art, we had to start from scratch.
Lucio gave us a wonderful opportunity to set off enthusiastically on the path to knowledge, enabling us to understand the idea of "spatial concept", order, simplicity and harmony in a space that was conceptually without limits. In the various editions printed with us, Lucio Fontana was always faithful to his creative world because paper, for him, had assumed a specific weight all of its own, which was missing in the other works he created, so maybe this could be considered a slight infidelity?
So, one could say that 2RC, paradoxically, has always steered clear of reproducibility, coming close to a unicum.
Yes, that’s true! And I think so too because, for every single subject, the engraving techniques (with all their different possible and imaginable variations) begin with a certain number of matrices that the artist works on and develops directly, whose outcome at the end of the printing process he or she must be able to imagine. So, for the whole period devoted to this development and during the initial printing stage, the artist lives in a state of suspension, excitedly awaiting the bon-à-tirer. Only then does the publishing process go forward.
Based on the bon-à-tirer, the matrices are handled by one or more specialized printers – according to the dimensions - who form a support group that assumes full responsibility, since one sole error, even minimal, during the printing process would affect the quality of the work itself.
When we observe the final work, we are definitely not faced with a reproduction, but rather a unicum that nonetheless leaves behind, as evidence, the cancelled matrices that gave birth to everything.
At the same time, 2RC has its own objective modernity since, by going beyond the principle of solitary creation, it creates access to a collective elaboration, hence the transition from the individual I to the collective We.
Yes! We are so aware of this that I am trying to teach it to young people. Because the only way to truly participate is to convey your knowledge to artists without their realising it and, at the same time, by giving our utmost, we learn things from the artist that make us grow.
So, in some way 2RC also works behind the artist’s back, without their realising it, by means of dialogue?
Dialogue has been fundamental for most of the artists we have met. Constructive for over fifty percent of them and even indispensable for some artists, like Enzo Cucchi, with whom profound and inexhaustible dialogue was crucial, always engendering focussed analysis of the projects and problems that we needed to overcome. Only through full collaboration and transparency could we give life to what the artist sought to create. During those months of dialogue, the thing that we were able to bring into focus only with great difficulty, became glaringly obvious at the moment when the artist came face to face with the matrix plates, often of exceptional size and increasingly complex: but Enzo had interpreted the path in his mind so well that he was able to tackle every obstacle with ease because, at that moment, this specific work was, for him, a true necessity.
In the end, a kind of morganatic marriage is created between artist and artificer.
With which artists did this morganatic marriage work the best, thrive, and remain over time, not ending in divorce?
So, I have to speak of Burri again, with whom there was a technical, qualitative and even inspirational progress that has now become history. Alberto never repeated himself, even in the techniques that we suggested and adapted to the various moments of his research. Some drastic decisions, such as castigating certain precious details inherent in the technique, were surprising to us, but for him those details were often so invasive that he would punish them, reducing their exposed part as far as possible, leaving only some small trace... vibrant.
Then I cannot avoid mentioning Afro, for the reasons I have given above.
And many other artists, with whom we collaborated for decades, like Victor Pasmore who, through graphics, was obliged to enter a system that prevented him from being as disordered as he sometimes was in his pictorial work. And yet he was not able to create the transparencies in his painting that we put at his disposal with the various aquatints.
Whereas Francesco Clemente always knew that he could count on us and, at that point, took advantage. He knew that we were ready and willing to make huge efforts in totally unsocial hours.
But why are artists like children? Are they cannibals?
I am a vampire, and that’s different, because a critic then redeems himself through writing, reflection and the originality of his theories. But initially he needs the artist's blood.
How did you manage to contain the cannibalism of the artist?
By establishing clear-cut periods of intense work in our printing press, or in the place where the artist felt most comfortable.
Pierre Alechinsky was one of the first, because we already knew his work and, after some meetings in his studio in Bougival, we realized that we were ready for a responsible and perhaps interesting technical approach, given the unusual graphic vision of his Cobra images. But perhaps even more important was the immediate aptitude shown by the artist, so much so that we decided to reach him with our boat in Bodrum, Turkey, stowing below board the plates that had already been prepared by using a technique that we had developed specifically for him.
We stopped off for more than a month, and there “Mare Nostrum” and “Arbre de la vie” came into being.
The important thing was the follow up, astounding to say the least, that resulted in the etching, “Aveuglette”, which convinced Pierre to downsize his studio and give more space to the kitchen, thereby making his wife Miki happy. And in the years to come, he would systematically find a base in our printing press in Rome that fulfilled his need to create graphic work.
While I understand the ease of dialogue with Pierre Alechinsky, the question is, “How did you work with the informal generation?”
How did you manage to desiccate the pictorial material of that generation?
By stimulating them! And only after they had seen our graphic works of artists they esteemed, created by using innovative techniques that we had fine-tuned to convince them. These works, I repeat, stimulated the curiosity that is always present in the artist.
But the fundamental thing is our absolutely immense and boundless passion for modern and contemporary art.
Given these premises, it has never been particularly difficult for us to convince artists from all tendencies to find the right path together.
Walter Benjamin wrote "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.
Does multiplication have a bearing on the role of art?
Yes! In my opinion, it has an influence from all points of view, particularly when there is no clarity or transparency, and this is the huge unresolved issue: the complete lack of education. To educate, you have to start with school, teachers, critics, gallery owners, publishers and printers. And perhaps artists must take the greatest responsibility for the lack of credibility represented by graphic work.
Finding ourselves in a world where artisans have not the slightest knowledge of how important the varying techniques are, and how to differentiate between them; where the so-called experts more often than not give hasty and often deliberately false information. On this basis, how can the market react? How can the graphic work find and express its true role in the total confusion of this market?
I suspect that you have educated the artists, too!
Undoubtedly! Regarding in particular the discretion needed about everything that happened inside the printing press, we had to all intents and purposes created sealed compartments, in which every artist had a permanent studio where even their material privacy was protected. And we never showed even one artist’s proof to others, unless after the bon a tirer. Moreover, no proof ever emerged without a stamp on the back with the term "Viewing copy only". This severity has always offered artists a reliable atmosphere.
We were once creating an etching with Giuseppe Capogrossi, for the “Graphical Presences” series. But in those same days, we were also in the process of printing a poster for Rothko, in lithography, for his great exhibition in Venice, at Cà Pesaro.
Capogrossi saw something on the newly printed pages that made him glow, and he asked me if it would be possible to have a copy, because he had glimpsed a possible solution for the base background of the image that he was creating with us. I clearly agreed, since it was a poster that was then printed in offset. I’m giving you this example because it allows me to point out that Capogrossi’s great etching was never finished, due to his sudden death, and that the matrix plate has been donated to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, where it is now on display.
In what way does dimension reflect upon and condition the graphic work?
Dimension is conditioned only by the technical limits which, as I explained at the outset, can be clearly seen in the differing figures of artisans or artificers. The latter have different horizons and goals, so much so that they should never say no... to any challenge with which they are presented.
Back at the beginning of the ‘60s, artists felt the need to tackle works of huge dimensions, and this distanced the world of graphics even further, accustomed as it was to small dimensions, which until then had been easily produced by a market that frequently created reproductions.
However, it has been demonstrated that the large graphic works produced by various artists stand up to comparison even with unique pictorial works, having a life of their own in any space whatsoever, including museums.
There are artists who show an aptitude for graphics, a truly linguistic aptitude. And I hark back to the example of Lucio Fontana with the modularity of his gesturality. On the other hand, there are artists like Francis Bacon who, due to the iconography they develop, always seem to strain towards a work that comes close to an epiphany, an apparition. Is this apparition limited by graphics?
And how was this image then transmuted?
The example of Fontana is certainly fitting since we found ourselves from the very start in his world. Whereas Bacon was difficult even to approach, let alone propose working together - despite my uncompromising and stubborn determination already in 1975 - with an initial, absolutely naive attempt at collaboration that merely demonstrated our lack of preparation to an artist who wanted not just a part of us, but all our future mastery. We met him at his rare exhibitions in London, Paris and New York where, in a relaxed atmosphere - but not perhaps for him - we managed by surprise to pick up the thread of the discussion, but it was never conclusive: “But…! Maybe someday…! Yes…!”
It was Pierre Levée, art director at the Marlborough gallery in New York, who championed the idea of an editorial project to which Bacon was very attached, then creating a triptych with us.
The difficulty lay in working on the dimension of an image that would be large enough to make the artist feel at ease while working in his habitual creative spaces, and without limiting his graphic work to a reductive image: since, in my opinion, all of his small graphic works created by other publishers, often in reproductive form, are without the necessary emotional involvement. So the project began with one of his previous works, for to expect Bacon to start from scratch on a copper plate, and work backwards as the technique requires, would have been an impossible dream; whereas having a base that could be used as a mould and then transferring it onto the matrix (as great artists from the past did when they prepared cartoons so as to have an outline of the projected work, then scaling them up for the fresco technique) made this challenge possible.
We had prepared the base matrix plate for black, its large dimensions ready with aquatint on which we had transferred the impression of his image, thus making his intervention during the etching stages as easy as possible. We fitted in with his times and methods of working without ever letting our weight or even presence be felt and left him utmost freedom on the black matrix plate and on the huge backgrounds. We obviously helped him a great deal, preparing the plates that would then be complementary, so that the main effort for him was to offer ceaseless attention and critical judgment during the various passages. This was truly gratifying for us, given that his time was very limited, for he lived in a world, even from early morning, that was impossible for us to imagine.
His spaces were absolutely unmanageable.
But the orange created for that first subject gave Bacon exceptional faith in us and, from that moment on, the tension lessened and the rest of the process was all plain sailing.
During 2RC’s productive nomadism, you have traversed many currents, groups, languages: from the Informal to Action Painting, from New Dada to Pop Art and from Arte Povera to Transavanguardia.
Did any one of these movements more strongly favour the construction of art as a mental form?
It should be said that, right back in high school, we were already infatuated with artists who were our points of reference: infatuations that stemmed from our insatiable curiosity to understand the parallels that bind art, from the past to the contemporary, and then we found ourselves, by chance, in a world of our own. The same world as Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri.
That was a great opportunity for us because it enabled us, in a very short time, to acquire the technique necessary so that we could then aspire to the various movements that you mention, all so different from one another.
All extremely engaging and ultimately rewarding.
And I should add that the ease of working with our actual physical presence in the various, differing strains of contemporary art in Europe, the United States, Japan and, in the last ten years, China, has opened up infinite horizons for us and offered us outstanding human and professional experience.
How did you select artists, choose them?
It occurred by degrees, starting precisely with those artists who were part of our DNA.
Figuration came to our attention with Graham Sutherland and we began to work with him because of the nomadic curiosity that we have always had, aiming to create a small printing press in Mentone and live in a surreal world with him, as nasty with nature as only nature itself can be. In this delightful space, we experienced moments of immense intensity with Graham, who relished our technical knowledge because, despite having been a master of engraving techniques, he was not familiar with aquatint. His curiosity carried us along with him, envisaging and then creating the “Bees" suite, and later "Apollinaire Le Bestiaire". Both were very difficult procedures but, despite himself, he brought us into the world of surrealist figuration, merely imagining what else he could still do.
At that time, we did not yet have the courage to enter the world of figuration, which we had deliberately neglected, also due to the intense political contrasts between the figurative and abstract worlds.
With Guttuso against this artist… and that one against Guttuso...
Argan and Trombadori....
Dorazio against all of them…
So, figuration was the fruit of a committed mentality, politically speaking, and abstraction was seen as escapism?
The real problem was that the abstractionists did not collaborate, they all lived in their own worlds, they never created true group solidarity, as you did with Transavanguardia. There was a palpable feeling that we were in a limbo consisting entirely of strange connoisseurs of abstract artists, whereas figuration took on a political form too, despite enormous differences in quality and methods, with astonishing peaks like Marino Marini, Giacomo Manzù, Renato Guttuso and others, to say nothing of Giorgio Morandi and still more artists of his calibre, who will remain forever in the annals of art history.
Manzù, certainly, is always graphic, and even in his sculptures he is linear.
You have created what I’ve called the "Doublefold dream of art". Starting from the artist's dream, you’ve managed to produce the doublefold dream, meaning a dimension which, not being merely reproductive, has also favoured the spread of art.
Do you think this is a political function of art? In a good sense?
In effect, graphics was natural for Manzù: he had an instinctive spontaneity, his gesture was always linear, limpid and incisive, as then crystallized in his sculptural forms. For Manzù, the mark alone sufficed to generate quality.
Without doubt, high quality graphics that adhere to the rules of transparency favour the spread of art, particularly when the soaring prices of original works curb interest, above all among young people.
I am sure that only the clarity and transparency of techniques and operators will give the proper space to quality, drastically reducing the confusion that has spread throughout the world: confusion that, with the new digital technologies, is becoming uncontrollable.
So, shall we say that it is a facility that also diminishes the aura of the work?
Certainly, the output from these new technologies, more often than not, consists of images that do not have a behavioural genetic imprint, but are interventions that anyone could do, anywhere in the world. There is no autonomy whatsoever, no ability to understand instinctively how to improvise by using a spontaneous gesture. Because, here, the true dictator of the image is technology.
In your experience, what responsibility do you have as artificers and not artisans?
The responsibility of being transparent and honest, and trying to make those who are attracted to the idea of owning a work of art, understand that it is important to know who made it and how it is made.
This is the moment when a concrete and unconditional response is needed.
In fact, we are promoting a new initiative with Publishers, Printers, Artists, Academies and High schools: “Ethical Archive”.
We are trying to give full responsibility to artists, publishers and printers to state the requirements of graphic works to the public, with the utmost transparency, thereby enabling them at last to certify a sector that is waiting for nothing else, just clarity.
How have you established the numbering and numerical quantity of the work over the decades?
In ninety percent of cases, this is established by the technique used.
For example, and somewhat simplifying, in etching, depending on the metal used, acquaforte permits print runs of even several hundred prints. With this technique, it is essential to be ethical, by producing one sole edition and cancelling the matrix in the artist’s presence, after he or she has signed and established the numbering.
There are many techniques and if, in synthesis, I consider just drypoint, a total of 50 prints is undoubtedly already a good result even with the greatest care and attention. However, after the first prints, it becomes increasingly difficult to produce those that follow. In this case, it is the artist who decides how many to number and sign.
However, even with the utmost attentiveness, when a matrix is etched using aquatint, ninety or a hundred good prints at most can be produced. Rarely more. During the stages of inking and cleaning, the matrix plates are inexorably worn down. And then they must undergo pressure below the printing press so that the fainter values traced by the artist can be emphasised: elements that are absolutely essential to the true life of a high quality etching.
From all this, it follows that 2RC has also championed a non-mechanical value: "sensitivity".
How has this value been developed in your work?
Sensitivity is indispensable, enabling the artificer, in all circumstances, to give artists what they expect, and often astounding them. In fact, all the artists who have worked with us have constantly progressed. As we have, too, because our real, visible results illustrate this. Sensitivity is our grand safety valve, giving us true strength and guaranteeing that we will go forward with the same method for many years to come, together with our artist friends, wherever they may be.
Has this element favoured your relationship more with European artists or with artists from other continents?
There is no difference because, when necessary, we were always able to relocate in a flash, with machines, equipment and sometimes our young printers, too.
We went to New York, where we opened a genuine printing press in Broome Street: an incredible move which, right from the start, took us into a world that was completely different, yet unbelievably exciting and extremely positive for our growth.
With Helen Frankenthaler we produced an etching, “Broome Street at Night” which, as soon as you see it, makes you think of New York City. And that's what I saw every night from my window.
With Nancy Graves, it was like a ritual: we started work in Rome in our studio at the Baths of Caracalla and there, in the garden, and according to what nature - as well as the Roman ruins - suggested, she began her work process on the matrix plates, knowing a priori that those plates would then pass through our studio in New York, where they would certainly be re-interpreted and re-elaborated, until they felt like hers alone. In the end, after the bon à tirer, the plates would return to Rome for the edition to be printed.
We feel fortunate to have had these opportunities - the right environment, with the right people, at the right moment.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, there was this divergence between figuration and abstraction. Then, with Pop Art for example, an iconography emerged that was absolutely recognizable, both because it produced images linked to everyday life, and because the poetics of that current also embraced the idea of going beyond the uniqueness of the mark or form.
Did this help your work?
Undoubtedly, and to an extraordinary degree!
With whom, for example?
With George Segal - we had doubts at first because he was a sculptor of plastic art forms that were three-dimensional and aggressive, and there is a tragic Jewish world in his works: knowing him as a person, you understand what he produced and why he did it in plaster. In order to have him with us, we had printed a first bas-relief in Rome in 1980 and, subsequently, a series of 5 subjects for the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Splendid three-dimensional objects, but distant from the world of graphics, into which I was however hoping to bring him. I just had to find the right way.
When Segal came to Rome with his whole family to work with us, three days went by without us really knowing what to do. Then one morning I said to myself, "But... excuse me ... he makes casts of people for his works , so why can't we cast ourselves on the plates, as models?".
I prepared an appropriate technique whereby he rolled us on the matrix plate and we left an impression where our bodies touched it. With this new technique that I had invented, after the pickling and etching process, we appeared on the plate as a dilated apparition, like an elongated animated cartoon. George then reduced the disproportion caused by this dilation, closing the parts with acid-resistant paint, using black to form a background, so that we emerged almost in proportion because, all of a sudden, the visual field had shrunk.
So graphics, even in your case, challenges two-dimensionality and takes on a three-dimensional form planned by the artist?
After this Blue Jeans series, I wondered what we could then do with George, until the day we walked into his studio in New Jersey, and I saw a small, splendid pencil drawing on paper. So I asked him, "Is this your drawing? Have you made any other drawings like that? " He opened a chest of drawers and came up with a series of splendid drawings, even immense ones.
This sparked a new and different pretext for employing us
And thus a series of portraits emerged, etched in our studio in New York by the artist who came in every morning for over a month, not leaving until late afternoon. He worked with us on every plate, creating a series of outstanding portraits that achieve three-dimensionality, in a Renaissance world.
Whereas in cases like Arnaldo Pomodoro, for whom the plastic relief was an absolute necessity, we inevitably needed to find technical solutions that would resolve the issue of preserving the durability of the paper under the enormous pressure of the press, in order to achieve all the passages and planes that Arnaldo had imagined, desired and created in clay - a natural material with which he had long years of experience – and then obtain the matrices which, owing to their size and colours, put us to the test for years.
Did the contamination between abstract and figurative, which was developed by Transavanguardia, in some way also create a fluidity in your relationship with artists?
I certainly had some difficulty in the beginning, but not because of their way of painting. It was the artists themselves who led us to make certain work decisions: with Francesco Clemente; with Enzo Cucchi in a completely different way; and lastly Sandro Chia, who enabled us to challenge ourselves with his peculiarly personal figuration. In 2014, we began the experimentation that would give birth to the project for the book "Sei Canzoni" (Six Songs), then published in 2017.
A couple of years before, we had worked in China with Zhang Xiaogang, a very special artist, whose marks, precious in detail and transparency, bind light through colour in a translucent, almost frivolous, manner. For his work, we had to take the value of aquatint to the extremes of weightlessness, impalpability almost, so as to bring his world of traditions and dreams back to life.
This prior technical experience helped us give Sandro the possibility of letting his characters live in the right atmosphere, his fundamental form of poetry.
In 1990, Francesco Clemente introduced us to Julian Shnabel, an extremely interesting person albeit outlandish and volcanic in his work, as in life. And he managed to convince us to set up a studio in Montauk NY, where the artist was able to erupt in an intuitive way, producing three enormous diptychs of great graphic value.
I believe that my proposal to exhibit the plates, the matrices, also favours a highly commendable interpretation of 2RC’s work , in that this is tangible evidence, and I think one could say that you started from sculpture to arrive at painting.
Every matrix is concretely solid and according to the thickness of the metal used, even a bas-relief can be created, but the real magic occurs when, with the different techniques that artists have at their disposal, they more often than not forget their pictorial or sculptural world, and autonomously reach a realm that is purely graphic.
Exhibiting the matrix plates - which are also the sign of a creative reality - is to trace the artist's need to almost traverse the etched image in order to arrive at producing the final form. And this reminds me, if I may say so, of the archaicness of artistic creation: just like the mark found in caves that illustrates the artist’s need, even then, to depict the hunt in order to reach the prey. And to me, this seems a circular conclusion in 2RC’s experience: how to start from the primitive and thereby arrive at the contemporary.
The plates of which you speak are the artist’s fingerprints, they are the master copy, the original, which you must however envision - if the subject is in colour - composed of the various matrix plates with the colours needed to create the imagined form. And so the final imprint is the formal impression, the true character lies there in its entirety.
Then it is transferred like a sort of transfusion onto paper, for different interpretations, but the creative original is that.
The matrix plates that we are exhibiting are the precise proof of how one begins with an imprint of the artist's imaginary, a solitary imprint which then leads to the mental thing, to the form, to the edition which is, in the end, the fruit of this relationship between artist and artificer.