Articles and Features

In Praise Of The Ellipse: A Tribute to Turi Simeti

Turi Simeti at the work table in the Studio on Viale Bligny, Milan, 1971. Photo by Enrico Cattaneo.
Turi Simeti at the work table in the Studio on Viale Bligny, Milan, 1971. Photo by Enrico Cattaneo.

By Adam Hencz

“The elliptical form reflects my nature. The oval is soft. In the area of the oval the surface gains an excitement, a vibrancy, the light gives it a depth.”

Turi Simeti in conversation with Federico Sardella in 2017

Turi Simeti, known for his monochrome shaped canvases and focus on light, geometry and colour, passed away unexpectedly in Milan on March 16, 2021. His contribution to the vast field of contemporary art, most notably Minimalism, is mirrored in the major influence to the Zero Group of the 1960s. Simeti’s oeuvre is an abundant example of pure formalism that helped pioneer the now well-established idea that paintings can be three-dimensional art objects and was a pioneer in capturing the dynamism between simple aesthetic elements.

Early Life and Meeting Alberto Burri

Turi Simeti was born in Alcamo, in Sicily, Italy in 1929. After studying veterinary medicine in Bologna, then law in Palermo, he moved to Rome in 1958 where he started painting as an autodidact. He quickly found access to the studios of important artists, including Alberto Burri, who was already well known for his Sacchi series (1950s), and his recent works with burns on paper that gave birth to the series Legni, Plastiche and Ferri (1956-1958). He spent a lot of time in Burri’s studio, and at the same time made extended stays in London, Paris, and Basel where he absorbed the international climate of questioning of artistic bases, cancelling out pictorial traditions and the pre-established codes of artistic expression.

Turi Simeti, Legni Ovali, 1963. Painted wood on wood. Courtesy of UNIX Gallery, New York. Available on Artland.
Turi Simeti, Legni Ovali, 1963. Painted wood on wood. Courtesy of UNIX Gallery, New York. Available on Artland.

In Praise Of The Ellipse

In the early 1960s, these inspirations led to Simeti’s first mixed media works. In the wake of fellow Italian painters Agostino Bonalumi and Enrico Castellani, Simeti embarked upon a successful career as an artist as he produced Legni Ovali (1963) and Cartoni Neri (1963), developing the elliptical motifs that would be a keystone of his work and would become a defining element of his oeuvre for the rest of his life. The relief-like elevations achieve a unique, three-dimensional effect thanks to their interplay of light and shadow. This impression is reinforced by the monochrome colour scheme white, blue, red, green, black or yellow. He gives his paintings names like Un Ovale Nero (1986) or Due Ovali Bianchi (2009), depending on how many of these mysterious elevations are hidden under the canvas and which shade he chooses.

Simeti drew close to the visual and structural innovations of Arte Programmata, the Zero Group and the Nuove Tendenze (New Art Practice). On the contrary to many of his contemporaries, who abandoned Minimalism and moved on different terrain, Simeti took the rigour and control of the artistic gesture to the extreme and elected a primary element as a multiplying sign of his artistic action and transformed it into an identifying cell of his being as an artist. Simeti used decentralised elements, various opposing arrangements and experimented with depth and perception in order to achieve a unique style and a particular aesthetics.

From 1963, he participated in several European exhibitions like “Rassegna Arti Figurative di Roma e del Lazio”; in the Premio Termoli prize and the “Arte Visuale” show at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence; the “Nuove Tendenze 3” show in Zagreb in 1965; “Arte Programmata – Aktuel 65” and “Weiss auf Weiss” in Bern in 1965 and 1966. He moved to Milan in 1965 bringing him regular exhibitions at the Il Cenobio gallery in Milan, Modena and Reggio Emilia in 1967. Moving to Milan he soon found contact with the environment of the active art scene around Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni. As part of this new generation, he participates with Agostino Bonalumi, Enrico Castellani, Dadamaino and other pioneers from Europe and the founders of the Zero Group: Heinz Mack, Otto Piene and Günther Uecker in the exhibition “ZERO Avantgarde” in 1965.

“Zero is silence. Zero is the beginning. Zero is round. Zero spins. Zero is the moon. The sun is Zero. Zero is white. The desert Zero. The sky above Zero. The night.”

Excerpt from a 1963 poem by Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, and Günther Uecker.

Thriving For Dynamism

A major shift in Simeti’s creative practice took place in 1971. In an act of radically challenging his artistic vocabulary and in some ways questioning the very existence of the “work of art” as such, Simeti staged a performance at the Galleria La Bertesca in Genoa with the Distruzione di un aliante. In 1980, the Pinacoteca Comunale di Macerata devoted an exhibition to him. The same year he set up a workshop in Rio de Janeiro, where he spent long stretches of winter and later exhibited his work, which was successfully received. Simeti’s work underwent another formal metamorphosis in this period. He shifted from single works to diptychs and polyptychs, often featuring a decentralized protruding element; he experimented with different formats and shapes, creating effects of increasing spatial complexity throughout the 1980s.

Turi Simeti, 5 Ovali Rossi, 2017. Acrylic on shaped canvas. Courtesy of Dep Art Gallery, Milan. Available on Artland.
Turi Simeti, 5 Ovali Rossi, 2017. Acrylic on shaped canvas. Courtesy of Dep Art Gallery, Milan. Available on Artland.

After years abroad, Simeti returned to Milan in 1989 with a solo exhibition at the Vismara Gallery. A year later, the Milan gallery Millenium presented the exhibition “Bonalumi – Castellani – Simeti”, paying tribute to the three most important Italian representatives of the Zero movement. In the 1990s, his works are characterized by a multiplication and scattering of oval elements on the surface and a more intense and varied colour scheme. Since the 1990s, Simeti had been developing a language that places the notion of dynamism at the center of its research, and had been living and working in Milan. He had solo exhibitions around the world, such as the prestigious Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.

Installation view of Turi Simeti. Works 1960-2020 at Dep Art Gallery, Milan. Courtesy of the gallery.

Relevant sources to learn more

Art Movement: Zero Group
Ongoing exhibition at Walter Storms Galerie (18 Mar – 29 May 2021)
3D walkthrough of Turi Simeti. Works 1960-2020 at Dep Art Gallery (8 Sept – 22 Dec 2020)