Giorgio Griffa

Three lines with arabesque No.111


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Not on display

Giorgio Griffa born 1936
Original title
Tre linee con arabesco n.111
Acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 2905 × 1940 mm
Purchased with fund provided by the Nicholas Themans Trust 2019


Three Lines with Arabesque No.111 1991 is a large-scale portrait-format painting in acrylic paint on a piece of unstretched and unbleached canvas. The composition is based on a sequence of painterly gestures executed with broad brushstrokes in different colours; these gestures start on the left side of the painting and organise the composition into horizontal segments. From the top down, there are three yellow lines; whilst the upper two are continued across the whole width of the canvas, the third one is interrupted after just a short streak. Below this streak the number ‘111’ is painted in the same yellow. Underneath this, starting again on the left, Griffa painted a row of three and a half, free-flowing joined loops in red. Some of the spaces between and within the loops are painted with broad pink brushstrokes. Below this, between the loops and the bottom of the canvas, there are nine wavy blue bands, painted parallel and very close to each other so that they almost touch and create a continuous block of colour. These bands are of slightly different lengths, with the very last one being just half the width of the canvas. The canvas itself has folds that indicate it was folded four times horizontally and four times vertically, creating an underlying grid.

Griffa had worked with unstretched canvas since he abandoned figurative painting in 1967, developing a characteristic language of signs made up of raw dabs and strokes, waves, diagonals and vertical lines. He was interested in the physical qualities of canvas and paint, which led to his practice of not stretching his supports over wooden bars but working on them horizontally, spread out on the floor, before fastening them to the wall with flat-headed nails. By folding his canvas, he also explored the way in which the folds become integral to the composition and thus underline the materiality of the canvas but are also subject to change over time. He explained that, ‘for me, the fabric isn’t a support I work on but rather an integral part of the work, with a capacity of its own … I liked to preserve this sense of fragmentation, of something provisional, something that represents the world but makes no claim to represent it definitively or entirely.’ (Quoted in ‘Giorgio Griffa and Hans Ulrich Obrist in Conversation’, in Centre d’Art Contemporain 2015, p.161.)

Based in Turin, Griffa began exhibiting his work at the time of the emergence of arte povera, at a moment when Italian artists were questioning the conventions, and traditional materials of, painting and sculpture. Early paintings, such as Pink and Grey 1969 (Tate T15220), bring together the essential aspects of his practice: seriality, rhythm, the use of signs and an immediate painterly expression. Griffa determines the length, the rhythm and the frequency of his signs in relation to the size of the canvas and the brush he has chosen to use. He often, though not always, starts his compositions at the top left, as with a piece of writing. The curator Andrea Bellini has described how the seriality of the signs in Griffa’s paintings does not diminish their impact: ‘Even when they are repeated, these signs appear emblematic, for each trace is exemplary and of value only in its own right, appearing new with regard to those have been come before it. The artist never completely fills the canvas, so the work never appears to be complete but remains open as a “metaphor for a permanently unfinished space”.’ (Andrea Bellini, ‘Of the Standard and the Random: Time, Memory, Sign’, in Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva 2015, p.12.)

In the early 1990s Griffa began using numbers in his work. Three Lines with Arabesque No.111 is part of a series of paintings that are composed of three lines and an ornamental form or ‘arabesque’, paired with a number. Each painting in the series is titled Three Lines with Arabesque followed by a number that indicates the work’s order within the series. Three Lines with Arabesque No.111 is consequently the 111th work in this series. Griffa later used numbers to mark the order in which his signs were applied to the canvas. His most significant preoccupation with numbers, however, is with the infinite number of the golden ratio. Bellini has explained the fundamental significance of this interest for Griffa’s approach to his art:

Ever since the time of Orpheus, this number represents a metaphor for the task entrusted to art, poetry and music: that of descending in to the unknown and of saying the unsayable. This, in Griffa’s view, is also the task of painting – not to represent the world, but to know it, and to take part in its construction: ‘I represent nothing. I paint,’ the artist has said.
(Andrea Bellini, ‘Of the Standard and the Random: Time, Memory, Sign’, in Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva 2015, p.34.)

Further reading
Giorgio Griffa, Works: 1965–2015, exhibition catalogue, Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva, 29 May–19 August 2015, Bergen Kunsthall, 28 August–18 October 2015, Fondazione Giuliani, Rome, 4 February–9 April 2016, Museo de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves, Porto, 21 May–4 September 2016.
Giorgio Griffa, exhibition catalogue, Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, Arles, 13 February–24 April 2016.

Monika Bayer-Wermuth
October 2018

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