photographic self-portrait greeted visitors at the entrance of “To Be or Not to Be,” Giulio Paolini’s first major UK exhibition since 1980. The artist, wearing dark glasses, peered out of it, half hidden behind a painting stretcher. Titled Delfo (Delphi, 1965), the piece heralded Paolini’s playful interrogation of representation and the role of the artist.
Throughout the exhibition works by the Italian conceptualist, who came to prominence in the 1960s with arte povera contemporaries Mario Merz and Michelangelo Pistoletto, deflated the image of the artist as heroic creator. The floor installation Essere o non essere (To Be or Not to Be, 1994–95) featured a potentially infinite checkerboard of canvases—some blank, some bearing diagrams, and others turned on their faces—emanating from a central photograph of two men, one with a pencil positioned over an empty sketch pad, the other observing. It neatly encapsulated the fraught (perhaps even ridiculous) task of creating an artwork and the crucial role of the viewer in bringing it to life.
Other pieces obfuscated distinctions between artwork and reality, artist and subject. Giovane che guarda Lorenzo Lotto (Young Man Looking at Lorenzo Lotto, 1967), for instance, retitles a reproduction of the Italian Renaissance painter’s Portrait of a Young Man to privilege the sitter’s gaze, rather than the artist’s or viewer’s. Elsewhere, footmen in wigs and breeches, painted onto transparent screens, held up canvas-size square holes, making the gallery part of the picture.
Parallels with dramatist Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 absurdist play Six Characters in Search of an Author appeared deliberate given works such as Paolini’s theatrical 2013 installation L’autore che credeva di esistere (sipario:buio in sala) (The Author Who Thought He Existed [Curtain: Darkness Falls over the Auditorium]), which closed the show. Here, in a darkened room strewn with reproduced images of classical ruins, planets, and geometric designs, a projector flashed diagrams onto a wall of blank canvases, and studio and gallery merged in a grand finale from which the artist had already exited.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 125.