The Emptiness of Space: A Conversation with Gio’ Pomodoro

Gio’ Pomodoro was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2002. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.

Gio’ Pomodoro’s work is widely known in Europe, the United States, South America, Israel, and Japan. He was born in 1930 in Orciano di Pesaro, where he attended the Technical School for Land-Surveyors. In the mid-’50s, he moved to Milan. He began exhibiting in 1954 at the Galleria Numero in Florence and the Galleria Montenapoleone in Milan. By 1955, he was showing at the best Italian galleries of the time: Galleria del Cavallino (Venice), Galleria del Naviglio (Milan), and Galleria dell’Obelisco (Rome). In 1956 he was invited to the Venice Biennale, and in 1959 he exhibited in Kassel at Documenta II. At the beginning of the ’60s, Pomodoro was an established sculptor with a long curriculum of solo exhibitions throughout Italy and Europe. In 2002, Gio’ Pomodoro is the recipient of the ISC’s Outstanding Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award.

Place of Measurements, 1977–80. Trani stone, 800 x 800 x 375 cm.

A certain continuity characterizes Pomodoro’s long career. As the artist has stated on many occasions: “Each of my works is tied to the previous and following one, even if this does not always happen in a linear route.” He divides his work into four moments: “Signs in the Negative” (1953–59); “Surfaces under Tension” (1958–72); “Works in Stone” (1970–80); and “Monumental Works in Stone and Bronze” (1980–present).

In “Signs in the Negative” Pomodoro created silver-cast signs laid on supports, often made of wood. The “signs” were made by hollowing out cuttlefish bones and using them as casting shells—a technique that recalls an ancient method used since the Bronze Age to prepare molds for metal casting. To make the molds, Pomodoro used a wide variety of materials: stone, clay, plaster, talcum, blocks of charcoal, plastic, and concrete. The choice of material was part of the artistic process: the signs’ surfaces bear the peculiar characteristics of the mold’s material.

In Matrix I°, exhibited at Documenta II, Pomodoro began to experiment with a different technique, initiating a new series of works he calls “Surfaces under Tension.” To create these works he stretched canvas or rubber and modified the surface by tying, pressing, and pushing. Once the desired “tension” was reached, liquid plaster was poured on the manipulated surface. After the plaster had solidified, the canvas or rubber was removed. The solid plaster form reproduced the modified surface, and it was used to create the mold for the bronze cast. In these sculptures the “pulsion” of the surface under tension is constantly and simultaneously directed in two contrasting directions, as in a spiral movement. Emphasized by the polished bronze surface, this movement of uninterrupted energy acts as a metaphor for the varying tensions of society.

Il luogo dei quattro punti cardinali (Locus of the Four Cardinal Points), 1991. Granite, iron, and water, 18 x 18 x 8.64 meters

La Grande Ghibellina (1964–65), one of the first “Surfaces under Tension” not cast in bronze but reproduced in marble, gave the artist the possibility of modifying the final form. Between 1970 and 1980 Pomodoro devoted all his time to creating stone sculptures. His working method followed the rule of “removing” or “replacing” matter with space and emptiness. The tension artificially created in his previous pieces became torsion: the spiral torsion in three dimensions (horizontal, vertical, and circular) that is a constant in Pomodoro’s work.

The large sculpture La porta e il sole (The Door and the Sun, 1975–77) was commissioned by a private collector and conceived for an open private space. In this work, Pomodoro developed his idea of “dimensione esterna” (external dimension). For Pomodoro, external dimension not only deals with the idea of empty space, it also includes the idea of a space open to people and used by the public—giving back to sculpture the value of belonging to public space and being used and enjoyed. In Piano d’uso collettivo: Ales, a Gramsci (Collective Plane of Use, for Gramsci, 1975–77), which Pomodoro created in Ales (Sardenia), the idea of sculpture’s “collective use” is extended to the use of local stone and the participation of the community in building the space to erect the sculpture.

La porta e il sole (The Gate and the Sun), 1975–77. Trani stone, 450 x 1,000 x 500 cm.

The last important urban project Pomodoro realized during the years 1981 to 1991 is Parco Pubblico di Taino—Il luogo dei quattro punti cardinali (Taino Public Park—Locus of the Four Cardinal Points). Taino is a small medieval town (fewer than 3,000 inhabitants) in the district of Milan. Pomodoro’s idea was to transform the park into an urban meeting place, where people could pause and relax in a comfortable human-scaled space based on Leonardo da Vinci’s “sezione aurea” (golden section). As Pomodoro himself stated, this work is not an architectural intervention but a sculpture—a sculpture made of different pieces, which relate one to the other as in a planetary system.

Pomodoro’s more than 100 solo exhibitions include shows at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, the Kölnische Kunstverein in Cologne, and the 1962 Venice Biennale. He has participated in the São Paulo Biennial, and his work has been included in many important museum shows, including “The Italian Metamorphosis 1943–1968” at the Guggenheim Museum. His public sculptures can be found in such cities as Prato, Milan, Frankfurt, Lugano, and Tel Aviv; other works have been acquired by museums and private collections around the world, including the Tate Gallery in London, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome.

Gio’ Pomodoro continues to live and work in his studio in Querceta (Forte dei Marmi, Tuscany) and Milan. Years, experience, and success have not dampened his engagement and enthusiasm for experimentation. As Pomodoro says, “Work, it is the result of work.”

Piano d’uso collettivo: Ales, a Gramsci (Collective Plane of Use, For Gramsci), 1975–77. Trani stone, basalt, and limestone, 28 x 29 meters.

Laura Tansini: Many sculptors share a strong interest in form, space, movement, equilibrium, and matter. These elements are fundamental to their artistic practice, but each sculptor looks at them and uses them in a different way. Which of these elements, together with its manipulation, movement, and dynamism, is the most crucial for you?

Gio’ Pomodoro: Sculptures are tangible works, made with solid matter, and sculptors have a large choice of materials, natural and artificial. When I was young, I worked with lead, copper, iron, silver, and gold, as well as wood, clay, cloth, rubber, synthetic resin, and plaster. However, for many years now, I have used only marble, stone, and bronze. These materials comply with my ideas about sculpture, ideas and considerations that I developed through 50 years of work and that come not only from my experience as a sculptor, but also from my personal life and the history and culture of my country, with its ties to Mediterranean culture. A sculptor must have deep roots in his country.

In ancient times, menhirs were raised around the Mediterranean coasts: mute, lonely, strong stone presences. Stuck into the ground, they are the testimony of humanity’s ancestral will and fundamental necessity of putting down roots and identification with the land. The monumental stone that we call “menhir” stands in the open space: a totally empty space. Menhirs witness and represent contrasting elements: air and earth, movement and stasis. They represent the centrality of earth and point in all directions. They symbolize the meeting and co-existence of differences. I consider the menhir to be the prototype of all sculpture.

La Grande Ghibellina II, 1965. Polished bronze, 217 x 205 x 75 cm.

LT: What about the meaning of your own works? What type of dialogue do you seek with stone and bronze, and why do you value dynamism?

GP: Polished bronze, stone, and marble are the materials I love most and use constantly to create my sculptures. They fully respond to my needs. Polished bronze best complies with the “vitality” of the continuous fluxes of my “Superfici in Tensione” (“Surfaces under Tension”). While the polished bronze “Superfici in Tensione” have a bright appearance, those in polished black Belgian marble have a mercurial atmosphere.

Bronze and stone with an unpolished surface are good to fix and scan the geometric structure of the form. I deeply love stone and marble. The kingdom of stone is extremely extensive, varied, and rich. I feel and love its beauty. Works such as Il luogo dei quattro punti cardinal (Locus of the Four Cardinal Points), which I created at Taino Park, could only have been done in stone.

My first “Superfici in Tensione” are dated 1958. I pursued and tried to focus on the “nature” of emptiness. Emptiness includes a continuous flux of contrasting energies. With “Superfici in Tensione” I gave form to the not-visible forms of emptiness that complete and compete with the visible solid forms of the sculpture, being part of it in an endless tension and contrast. The contrasting movements that agitate the “Superfici in Tensione” are provoked by the presence in the same space of emptiness and fullness. I make visible the pre-existing tension and energies in what we call “empty space,” which is the space of sculpture. “Superfici in Tensione” do not represent contrasting tension but are the contrasting tension. In them, action exists and was caught in the sculpture.

Large Crowd, 1961–62. Carrara statuary marble, 197 x 224 x 50 cm.

LT: How important are size and scale in sculpture? How does context affect your handling of these elements, especially in the urban spaces in which many of your public works are located?

GP: There are sculptures measuring a few inches that are “monumental,” and there are sculptures that will never be “monumental,” notwithstanding how big they are. Between the size of the sculpture and its surrounding space, connections of interdependency and of confrontation exist, which are very difficult to handle. There are no rules to follow in order to find and to keep the “right balance,” because “connections” change continuously, and each time I have to face and solve new problems and unknown factors. These problems become even more difficult when the sculpture is in an urban setting and has to confront architecture.

Today, too often urban sculptures are not integrated into the urban context. They lack understanding of the relationship, of the integration, that links sculpture to architecture, “the sister art.” Each time I created an urban sculpture, its relationship with the surrounding territory was primary, essential.

Sun Crystal II, 2000–2001. Carrara statuary marble, 315 x 250 x 125 cm.

LT: You are an extraordinary draftsman; is drawing an important part of your daily activity?

GP: For me, drawing represents the germinal moment of my creative process. The act of drawing is synonymous with freedom. At the beginning, what I am drawing is still immaterial—no size or static problems to solve: it is the projection of an abstract, mental idea. Once the idea is fixed, the next step is the choice of the material with which I will realize the idea. At that point, drawing becomes subordinate to the necessity of the project in progress. Sometimes I will continue drawing on the marble piece to indicate where the marble has to be cut. Carving is a way to keep drawing inside the marble. To sculpt and to carve is to draw inside matter. My way of drawing is very different from that of the painter; it is nearer to that of the architect.

LT: Do you consider yourself a sculptor who builds or a sculptor who models his works?

GP: I modeled occasionally in the past, with clay and wax. To build in space and “with” space is what I do and what I want to do. I need to model in spaces and with space. I am aware of space and the living emptiness of space. Space is infinite, imperishable. Emptiness is the space of sculpture. Space/emptiness surrounds everything, and we cannot do without it. As a sculptor, I have a strong consciousness of it. Perhaps the awareness of space leads to a strong communion with the universe. To be in communion with the universe and the idea of death is the reason why I sculpt.

Laura Tansini is a writer based in Rome and a frequent contributor to Sculpture.