A black mark for modern art

Deletion is the key technique of ‘visual poetry’ by Emilio Isgrò

Alastair Smart


During Milan Fashion Week in 2015, the designer Claudio Cutugno found himself in a spot of bother. A public backlash against apparent racism ensued when the models for his new collection walked down the runway with their faces blackened.

Cutugno insisted, though, that his inspiration for this use of make-up had actually been art-historical; he was paying homage to one of Italy’s leading contemporary artists, Emilio Isgrò, and his career-long series of Cancellature (“Deletions”).

It was a point that left many of his international critics scratching their heads – for unlike, say, Lucio Fontana or Alberto Burri, outside his native land Isgrò is hardly a household name.

There’s a strong sense that that’s about to change, however.

The Sicilian, who turns 80 this year, is currently receiving his first UK retrospective – at the Tornabuoni Gallery, in London’s Mayfair – shortly before showing at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Prices for his work have doubled in the past five years, and in 2016 he was the subject of a three-site exhibition in Milan (one venue being Intesa Sanpaolo’s Gallerie d’Italia).

So who exactly is Emilio Isgrò; what are his Cancellature; and why is he suddenly making waves in both the art and fashion worlds?

Isgrò started out as a journalist, working for the Venetian newspaper Il Gazzettino. One might assume he’d cite interviewing President Kennedy in the White House as the highlight of that period (JFK even complimented him on the snazziness of his tie). In fact, it’s a mundane episode in the Gazzettino offices that he remembers above all; editing what he describes as a “difficult article” and making so many cuts it was, by the end, almost unrecognisable.

This would inspire the first of his Cancellature in the mid-Sixties, in which Isgrò erased words from newspapers, books and other written source material and displayed the results as art.

These have become something of a trademark, with few texts having escaped Isgrò’s black marker in the half-century since: from Don Quixote and Ottoman manuscripts to encyclopedias Treccani, Larousse and Britannica. In 2010, he even took on the Italian Constitution.

Many considered the works iconoclastic, an attack by a young firebrand on sacred texts.

Initially, many considered the works iconoclastic, an attack by a young firebrand on sacred texts. They seemed in keeping with prevailing cultural attitudes; the Sixties saw widespread challenge to the Western literary canon on the grounds that its books were imperialist, sexist and class discriminatory.

Isgrò himself, however, sees the Cancellature as creative rather than destructive, examples of a contemporary movement called Visual Poetry. Broadly speaking, this meant “poems” that mixed verbal and visual elements – with text displayed so artistically that it’s as interesting to see as to read. In this light, Isgrò’s black marks were pictorial gestures akin to a painter’s brush-strokes.

He tends to leave a few words visible on each page, ones often unconnected originally, with the result that wholly new meanings are generated. In Fratelli d’Italia, for instance, a take on the lyrics of Italy’s national anthem, Isgrò left just the words Italia and schiava (slave) intact.

Emilio Isgrò (Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, Messina 1937), Cancellatura, 1964, acrilico e stampa fotografica su tavola, 60 x 50 cm, Collezione Intesa Sanpaolo

A song composed in patriotic fervour in the mid-19th century now hints at the country’s servile place in world affairs in the early 21st. (In the anthem, the schiava reference is to the Goddess of Victory having once been the slave of ancient Rome.)

The Cancellature are, in fact, part of a rich cultural tradition dating back to medieval palimpsests. Scarcity of material used to mean that texts on parchment were commonly erased and new ones written on top.

Isgrò’s practice also calls to mind the transmission to us of various ancient texts we now consider classics (from the poems of Sappho to the Epic of Gilgamesh), which actually exist only in fragments.

All of which is to say that there’s a lot more to these pieces than meets the eye. Over the years, Isgrò has effaced maps, telex messages, sheet music, even – at last year’s Gallerie d’Italia show – a reproduction of a portrait of author Alessandro Manzoni by Francesco Hayez (which he overlaid with a column of indeterminate text, whose words he’d blocked out).

Intesa Sanpaolo’s stellar collection of modern and contemporary Italian art boasts 11 works by Isgrò, the standout arguably being L’Ora Italiana (which also features in 101/900, a new publication cataloguing 101 of the bank’s best works from the 20th century.) This installation features 20 tondi on walls, each circle incorporating a small clock telling a different time and ticking with increasingly loud menace.

L’Ora Italiana was made to honour the victims of a train station bombing in Bologna in 1980, in which 85 people died. The tondi all bear images of everyday life from that city, but – in the spirit of ‘deletion’ – the citizens’ faces are bleached out.

No doubt part of the reason for Isgrò’s recent surge in renown is connected to the fact that Italian post-War art as a whole has leapt in popularity and price, international collectors realising that this is a critically important, but commercially untapped, market. It’s true, too, that the passage of time has conferred the status of venerability on the Cancellature, as it has done on so much radical work from the Sixties.

Perhaps most interesting of all, though, is the fact that, in our present age of fake news, post-truths and redacted reports, it’s notoriously hard to know what information one can trust. And by seeming to question the authority of any text ever written, Isgrò’s Cancellature are surely as relevant today as they’ve ever been.


Cover photo:
Emilio Isgrò (Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, Messina 1937)
L’Ora italiana, 1986
riporto fotografico, acrilico e assemblage (orologio) su tavola; venti elementi, diametro 100 cm ciascuno
Collezione Intesa Sanpaolo