Arnaldo Pomodoro was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2008. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.
For more than half a century, Arnaldo Pomodoro has been making prescient, penetrating observations about modern life with his sculpture, expressing the inherent intimations, tensions, and tenuous, fleeting joys of the postwar era in Italy and giving form to global post-apocalyptic concerns. Instantly distinctive, provocative, and profoundly resonant, the ongoing series of works that he launched in the mid-‘50s with such tightly compressed, diminutive reliefs as La luna, il sole, la torre and Il giardino nero evolved into a series of iconic formal statements, based on geometric solids, and the latest monumental bronzes, among them the gravity-defying, shimmering Centenarium and the Porte della luna e del sole, with its shattering blend of deft elegance and raw barbarism. That precarious balance of polar opposites, that sublime tension between form and manifold implications, sets Pomodoro’s woks apart. The arc from his initial, but already fully articulated, jewel-like sculptural forays to the large-scale public works that by the early ‘60s established him as a major new voice in the international art world was meteoric, and unfaltering.
Raised in Montefeltro, Pomodoro studied at Rimini’s technical institute for surveyors and, after the end of World War II and an immersion in contemporary European and American literature, earned his surveyor’s diploma and went to work reconstructing war-damaged public buildings in the Pesaro region. With his younger brother, Gio’, Arnaldo became part of the area’s art scene around 1952 and began to study the ancient technique of lost-wax casting in a Pesaro goldsmith’s shop.
It was a pivotal experience, one that began to fuse the various strands of Pomodoro’s voracious interests into a cohesive whole. Over time, these interests embraced not only theater, literature, and poetry, but also ancient and modern cultures and dramatic natural topography. What struck Pomodoro as the “eternal verities” of yesterday and today, the innate links between the organic and man’s mechanistic creations, made their appearance in gem-like bas-reliefs infused with a worldview that he imbibed from the writings of Sartre, Brecht, Kafka, and others, as well as Klee’s diaries and drawings and the shattered structures that surrounded him at home and at work. At the same time, like many Italian artists, Pomodoro assimilated the traditions of Rome and the Renaissance – all of these influences played a part in his approach. “I think artists have to confront this sense of crisis [in the modern world],” he has observed. “I feel sometimes that people think my sculpture is mystical, but I don’t really think so. They also see an allure in my work, a matter of surface and finish. But I see the breaks, the eroded portions, the potential for destruction which comes out of our time of violence and disenchantment.”1
Those eroded portions appeared early, as Pomodoro moved quickly away from the fine lines, or “signs,” whose seemingly archaeological meaning has been lost with the passage of time. The tension can be seen in the elegant, almost calligraphic landscapes of La luna, il sole, la torre and the slightly later Nutrimento solare, with its blocks and stems arrange like a magical but urgently essential machine whose workings can’t be deciphered. The flaying energy behind Giacometti’s attenuated, tensile forms can be sense in the slender lines that spell out the tower, sun, and delicate “machines” in the 1955 relief, but without resorting to the human form; just as the wiry, whimsical motions of the figures in Klee’s Twittering Machine can be apprehended in Pomodoro’s firmer, more balanced construction as it reaches into three dimensions, beyond its formal influences.
For the first few years, as he gradually broke away from his day job as a surveyor and turned toward creative circles that radiated outward to Como and then to Milan and beyond, he came into contact with abstractionists Mario Radice and Manlio Rho, architect Ico Parisi and, more widely, Giò Ponti, Lucio Fontana, Bruno Munari, and Jean Tinguely. Pomodoro’s interests in other disciplines, particularly theater, continued to grow and led to interdisciplinary projects, which allowed him to add sculptural elements to texts, plays, operas, poems, medals, and prizes. By 1954, he had moved to Milan and was at the center of overlapping artistic movements, winning his first art exhibitions and collaborating on major theatrical productions.
In 1955, when his sets and costumes for a Parma theatrical company won a prize and his works were shown at Carlo Cardazzo’s Galleria del Naviglio in Milan, Ponti provided the critical text and Leonardo Sinisgalli noted that Pomodoro’s work as “a disconcerting form of writing.”2 Already the precise articulations, the personal touch that came from using the fingerprint-like patterns of cuttlefish bones, seemed too refined for Pomodoro’s emerging language, with its densely encrusted surfaces that suggested the jumbled bones of fallen warriors, recently excavated perhaps. His series soon featured the increasingly agitated, high-relief “Orizzonte” works and unnerving, repressed forms that seem to be emerging from the earth in “Lo stagno” omaggio a Kafka. Pomodoro’s gestures grew broader, bolder and ever darker and deeper in such early masterpieces as Il muro (1957), a piece that he shaped from lead, copper, and wood that tinted a somber, luscious black with streaks of bright red-gold, and La finestra, with the visceral channel cutting through its blocky strata.
Even at that early stage when abstract but richly allusive forms were still embedded in their sodden, terrestrial matrix, Pomodoro had invented a personal language, one immediately recognizable as his own. The surface is rough, even violently disturbed in the highly tactile Orizzonte II, its ashy tangle of broken ribs as tragic and strangely intimate as a photograph of Pompeii’s fallen victims, their horror far removed and desiccated but shocking nonetheless. The hatched vertical band that slashes Apparizione is as dynamic as a Barnett Newman zip – or, in Pomodoro’s nimble lexicon, as the thin, fracturing stratum between two gleaming forces, a humanizing but sadly frail gesture in the face of overwhelming external pressures. The universality of even the earliest and the smallest – but never small-scale – pieces sets the stage for what would come. Yet, at the same time, they remain complete and completely satisfying in their own right.
Two works that presage the heroic sphere, disks, stelae, and other geometric and ancient forms of the ‘60s and beyond are among Pomodoro’s most fully realized. In La farfalle del tempo n. 1 and its antithesis, L’inizio del tempo n. 1, his intentions are clear: to express the inarticulate, to capture in tangible – if fleeting, all-allusive – form the meanings and motivations of existence, with all their eternal hints and enigmas, hopes, fears, and dangers. In doing so, he confronted the essential modern conundrum and articulated the Sartrian concepts of Being and Nothingness. Tiny forms – just metallic accretions, really – stand trapped between what appear to be colossal, grinding, curving disks or are in the process of being sparked by them, as if in actual, frozen creation. It’s a marvelous concept, brilliantly realized, and one that later found a more dramatic but never more moving voice. As his spheres of influence expanded, and his technical and formal means increased, Pomodoro made a journey that shifted his worldview and allowed his work to spring free of the wall and exist in the real world.
When he visited the United States in 1959, he met artists, writers, and dealers who had a decisive impact on his work and his nascent career. Besides Duchamp and David Smith, he met Louise Nevelson, Sam Francis, and Mark Rothko, as well as Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsburg. The jolt of recognition that most affected him occurred in New York, as Pomodoro has famously recalled. Face to face for the first time with Brancusi’s Modernist icons, he was moved to delve below the gleaming surface of apparent reality, to reveal and balance eternally opposing forces: nature and technology, destruction and creation, time and memory.
“My spiritual passage in America begins with the beautiful Brancusi room at the Museum of Modern Art, for it was there that I experienced my particular epiphany,” he told his friend, poet and critic Francesco Leonetti. “Observing the sculptures I felt their force with deep emotion, but at the same time I experienced a wish to destroy their perfection. I imagined them in my mind’s eye full of worm holes and corrosion, and then the idea came to me of setting all of my particular signs in the interior of the geometric solids, turning the abstract image of Brancusi inside out. Klee and Brancusi were my putative fathers, but I owe a great deal to the U.S. for awakening this new consciousness. In Europe, nobody understands why works of art in the United States became so oversized; Europeans attribute that to an excess of exhibitionism or a misunderstood sense of monumentalism. In the U.S. I understood that the problem was to confront a limitless space completely different from our own.”3
By the early ‘60s, after beginning to shift and curve his works’ concave and convex surfaces, cutting into them with signs that Guido Ballo called “cuts of infinity,”4 and winning the Sculpture Prize at the 1964 Venice Biennale, where he had his own room, Pomodoro’s path was set. From the “La Colonna del viaggiatore” series, with its embossed grids that resemble rows or clusters of cryptic cuneiform and suggest the long-abandoned listening posts of some distant civilization, to the massive Grande omaggio alla Civilta tecnologica, a cement and bronze work that dominates an entire wall, his compositions had stepped free of the relief ground. Smaller, but fully realized works like La routa, Il cubo, and the seminal Sfera n. 1 (1963), a sphere whose polished surface appears to have cracked open to reveal mechanistic teeth, gears, and other fragments, expounded on his fresh vision and its endlessly fruitful variants.
The first in the “Sfera con sfera” series, which culminated in the enormous work that was installed in the Vatican’s Cortile della Pigna in 1990, is the foundation for many subsequent pieces. It combines the universal form with hatched forms familiar from his reliefs, in which a second, smaller sphere is visible through a reflective surface that looks as if it were split by interior forces too enormous, too savage for the sphere to contain. Similarly, in the totemic La routa, whose open-ended references range from ancient or exotic scientific instruments to Aztec calendars, Pomodoro took a form so familiar as to border on the generic, delved below its surface and revealed its inner, rather ominous but also fascinatingly complex, workings. As though examining Roman ruins, with smooth marble faces hiding the bricks-and-mortar reality of its long-ago workmen, he offers a peek at what was meant to remain hidden and unveils secrets that nevertheless remain unknowable.
During the turbulent 1960s, when he became involved in the ferment on U.S. campuses (first as a visiting professor at Stanford University in 1966 and then at Berkley in 1968), Pomodoro continued to expand his scale and to explore new forms. He had purchased Mangiagruppa, a farmhouse in La Lomellina, as a place to relax, and in 1967, after displaying Sfera grande at the Montreal Expo’s Italian pavilion, installed the work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome and continued to ork on its underlying core concept with such variants as Sfera con perforazione. Works like Cubo IV and the “Rotante” series also explored new formal ground. Cubo IV, which appears to have fallen from a great height, cracks apart; portions of its flat sides have fallen away, and deep gouges on either plane reveal the shadowed, highly articulated gears and levers of a broken machine.
Unlike Rotante primo sezionale n. 3, with its split and eroded sections tilted at a dizzying angle to allow the observer a long look at its articulated interior – both from a distance and up close – the slightly later Rotante missimo IV appears almost intact. Only a cleanly cut channel and a few neatly machined circular areas penetrate a curved surface so brightly burnished that it acts as a huge convex mirror reflecting everything around it. It appears to be a huge toy of some kind, resting not on a pedestal or special podium but, simply, on the marble tiles of its site, the garden of the Royal Palace in Paris. Stationary, for the moment, it looks as if it could begin rolling in any direction with the slightest touch. That sense of instability increases in such recent sculptures as the severed, barely balanced sections of Colpo d’ala: omaggio a Federico Fellini, the dramatically inverted pyramidal bronze tomb marker he dedicated to the filmmaker, a dear friend, and to his wife, Giulietta Masina.
La grande prua rises like a truncated ship’s prow, 375 centimeters above its reflective stone base in the cemetery of Rimini, revealing extensive, eloquent, and unreadable signs on parts of and between the two triangular wings. The bare sections, free of the frenetic conversation or energetic actions evoked by the deeply incised hatchings, push this work beyond all that preceded it: polished not to a mirrored surface, it is rippled, lyrically distorted, as if by a thin, constant flow of water. Eternally moving into the future, bearing messages that might have been meant for or come from an alien race or, perhaps, the filmmaker’s future and otherworldly audience, La grande prua is a transcendent statement that draws on its roots but, like the rest of Pomodoro’s work, also on the wealth of fresh signs and forms he discovered as his mature style evolved to new heights.
La battaglie (1995), Arco (2000), and Novecento refuse to stand still. With its overtones of both a battle and a ship, the reclining crescent of La battaglie provides a fresh image that draws on such compositions as the horizontal, curving Radar n. 1 (1962) and Papyrus per Darmstadt (1990), a seemingly pliable, articulated bronze, cement, and Cor-ten “scroll” that appears to roll in and out of the ground. La battaglie is equally dynamic but more nuanced and provocative; set on its back like a leaf floating in water, it looks as if it is rocking, bearing on its slashed sides the bas-reliefs of early signs and splitting from its broad tail toward its pointed prow.
Still more tightly held in check, if only for the moment, is the twisting, towering, tortured skin of Novecento, its core hollow and its rough, patched skin almost too thin to bear its dense accretions of projecting spikes and bars, wedges and disks. Like a modern, disarticulated Trajan’s Column, it urges the observer to move in circles around the hollow pyramid that rises to a flourish seven meters off the ground. It’s a towering triumph, but only one of the latest in a long career that has seen many, and that continues to flourish, develop, and enlarge on its antecedents while reaching out for new sources of inspiration.
Pomodoro constantly finds new visions and vistas, interior and exterior, as he did when he interacted with the Beat Poeats, collaborated with some of history’s great theater and cinematic directors, faced Brancusi’s genius and adapted its lessons to his own formal vocabulary, and looked out over Death Valley from Zabriskie Point with another filmmaker friend, Michelangelo Antonioni. Some visionary concepts, chief among them the transcendent Progetto per il nuovo cimitero di Urbino, still wait for their realization; others, from the virtuosic Il cercatore oscillante to the gem-like Scettro and surprisingly playful, lyrical Centenarium, with its jetting, cascading water and gilded, joyous flourish, are major, visible milestones on the artist’s long, celebrated path. But they are only milestones, permanent and masterful monuments on a journey that still moves upward and that will include many more.
1 Sam Hunter, “An Interview with Arnaldo Pomodoro,” in the Pomodoro exhibition catalogue, (Milan: Rotonda di Via Besana, 1974), n.p.
2 Arnaldo Pomodoro: Catalogo regionato della scultura, Tomo I, edited by Flaminio Gualdoni, (Milan: Skira, 2007), p. 367.
3 Ibid., p. 59.
4 Ibid., p. 368.
Sam Hunter’s numerous publications include recent monographs on Arnaldo Pomodoro as well as Noguchi, Marini, Segal, and Rauschenberg.