I don’t consider myself a painter, but rather a poet who writes with images.— Emilio Isgrò, 1985 Deletion calls into question the survival of the human word. […] We have been fed such a rich array of words that in the end we no longer read them. But if they are taken from us for a moment, then once again we rediscover their full force and artistic power. — Emilio Isgrò, 2016
Tornabuoni Art London is pleased to announce the first UK retrospective of Italian artist Emilio Isgrò (b. 1937). One of the great innovators of the artistic language in post-war Italy, Isgrò offers a different perspective on the country’s artistic panorama to what has been shown in the UK before. Tornabuoni is taking this opportunity to broaden its focus beyond the Italian avant-garde groups of the 1950s-1970s and consider the role of one of the main proponents of Poesia Visiva (Visual Poetry) and precursor of international conceptual art since the early 1960s.
As befits the London chapter of this retrospective travelling between Milan, London and Paris, the show will open with the Encyclopaedia Britannica, whose 24 volumes Isgrò deleted in 1969. This installation, monumental by its size and undertaking, was presented by Tornabuoni at Art Basel Unlimited 2016 and epitomises the artist’s trademark deletion technique, with which he painstakingly strikes through text and image by hand with India ink.
Isgrò realised his first Cancellature (Deletions) in 1964 and was met with scandal and disapproval by the public. Since then, however, there has been growing interest in the artist’s work, as demonstrated most recently by the Palazzo Reale retrospective in Milan in 2016 and by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which has recently acquired three of his works and will be exhibiting them from Spring 2017. While his work evokes historic iconoclastic practices and more recent acts of censorship and misinformation, Isgrò nonetheless regards his deletions as a creative endeavour rather than a destructive one. Indeed rather than desecrating knowledge and works of art, Isgrò’s “purpose [is] not to destroy the word, but to preserve it by interrupting its communication by the mass media through which they are emptied of meaning and significance.”
By deleting the words on a page, Isgrò aims to call attention to their meaning, unshackling them from grammatical and social conventions to liberate their many potential meanings. Over time, the artist’s simple gesture was transferred onto telex, maps, sheet music, newspapers and photographs – as many variations in a complex pictorial universe of pictures, installations and performances. Tornabuoni visitors will experience the impact of Isgrò’s deletions from the early books and Telex of the early 1970s, to more recent works on identity. On these, the black and white marks have left the pages of written text to lay themselves upon well-known images from the history of art and culture.
As the curator, critic and Director of Castello di Rivoli, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has written, ‘Only for Isgrò does deletion become poetic (even when he is not deleting), thus giving life to the whole work.’ Always true to his literary roots, Isgrò focuses on words and ethics, as well as the issues of globalisation and the debate around the Mediterranean culture of exchange and of origins.
His works with insects, such as Le api di Istanbul (2010) and the Giara dell’Europa (2007) reflect current concerns over national identity and population movements, while also setting up a broader dialogue between nature and culture. The themes tackled by the Sicilian artist in his work thus form a reflection on culture and history, displaying an ability to comment on our times without ever falling into the mundane.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a new scholarly catalogue published by Forma Edizioni and edited by Marco Bazzini, with texts by Luca Massimo Barbero, Andrea Bellini, Michele Bonuomo, Mathieu Copeland and the artist himself. The volume will retrace Isgrò’s artistic career and provide a deeper understanding of the themes that lie at the core of the artist’s practice.