Nothing is simple.

by Laura Mattioli.

Sculpture has always been the primary subject of my personal, eclectic collection. 

Most of the pieces that I own are from contemporary artists who have become close friends: Barry X Ball, Flavio Favelli, Jene Highstein, Wolfgang Laib and Richard Nonas. Before moving to New York City, I donated most of this collection to my two sons and I have brought with me only a few of the pieces that I most love.

Richard Nonas sculpture on the wall close to my armchair. (photo by the author)

Today I would like to speak about one of these works:  a small steel wall piece (Untitled, 2011, 4 3/8 x 4 1/8 x 2”) that hangs close by the armchair where I write and work in my apartment in Chelsea, New York. This piece was given to me by Richard Nonas (New York 1936) during the time when I was curating an exhibition of the Italian sculptor, Medardo Rosso, at CIMA.

Richard Nonas, Untitled, 2011, steel (photo by the author)

I have known and collected Richard’s work since 1996. We first met when I made a trip to Los Angeles with my husband, Giovanni Rossi, my son Giacomo and the great collector, Giuseppe Panza di Biumo as well as his wife Pupa and his daughter Giuseppina. It was a long trip, and my husband, an art restorer who was much more interested in ancient art, found the contemporary art that we were seeing tedious and uninspiring. But then we made a visit to Ace Exhibition Gallery where we encountered works by Nonas and he was captivated. All the complaints disappeared and together, over time, we purchased every one of the works by Richard from that exhibition. Later we met Richard in his New York studio and we purchased about twenty works from him. Others, such as this one about which I write, he gave to me or to members of my family as personal gifts as our long friendship developed. In 2004 I asked Richard to design a swimming pool for my country house in Italy and he produced one of my favorite works, (FIG).

Pool in Casorate Sempione, Varese, Italy (photo by the author)

The small steel piece above my armchair is made of two triangular prisms in steel, welded together on top of one another, so that they cross without forming right angles. From every side one can see these triangular shapes and this is a very typical way for him to work—assembling two or more pieces of the same material, often wood as well as steel and stone. This is really “his way” to make sculpture.

Once Richard told me that long ago, after years of working as an anthropologist, he became a sculptor at that moment when he was walking his dog in the park and he picked up two pieces of wood to throw, and, by chance, he crossed the two sticks that he was holding, one in each hand, and he realized that there might be infinite ways of doing this; that in this way infinite forms, infinite spaces, could be created.

Richard is not interested in his sculpture either telling a story or representing an idea. He is interested in objects that become a presence, by themselves, in our world—a presence that could mean many different and complicated things—things that cannot be expressed in words—things that are more real, more concrete and more universal than human language—things that can exist in time and space without explanation. But, at times, Richard’s works may also be accompanied by words and indeed he is an extraordinary poet of alternative realities.

Richard Nonas is considered a post minimalist sculptor since he began to work as an artist in 1970, a few years after Donald Judd’s 1964 essay Specific Objects was published. Richard prefers natural to industrial materials and irregular shapes to geometric shapes. He has always rejected definitions of this kind and has felt himself to be somewhat of an outsider in the world of art, stepping back and looking in at the system with the eyes of an anthropologist. But the most important reason why Richard’s work is not “Minimalist” is in the way this definition is used since his work is essentially about complexity—as is demonstrated by this small sculpture that hangs so close to my armchair.

The two pieces of steel are cut by hand, their edges are rough, not perfectly straight, and one feels and knows immediately that they could not have been cut by machine. Their form is not an obvious form: they make a cross but a cross with a strong downward verticality. There are no right angles. The sculpture seems unstable at the same time that it shows an unexpected complexity.  The two front faces are polished and reflect the light, introducing an additional element of variation in perception.

This piece has come to seem to me somehow to resemble the relations between two people.  The two forms change through the day as the light that falls on them changes, creating something unique and rich and fascinating—almost like two people with two different characters who act upon and react with one another. 

Another artist that I love very much, Giorgio Morandi, creates a similar sensation with his bottles and vases. For me they act as characters on the stage of life, the stage of his canvas.

This small sculpture made by Richard Nonas reminds me that I must always be attentive to the relations between people and situations and never to place in the simplicity of cages, of definitions, this great experience of art.

Editor’s note: The author is President of Center for Italian Modern Art in New York, NY

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