Pier Vittorio Aureli: The Marriage of Reason and Squalor
The Marriage of Reason and Squalor
The set of 36 pencil drawings exhibited at Betts Project present a previously unseen artistic dimension to an architect and historian more famous for his writing and teaching. Pier Vittorio Aureli has been working on these drawings since 2001. Largely produced late at night, from his studio desk in Brussels, they offer further surprises in suggesting a hub, or for want of a better word, ‘home’, for a figure who seems to defy the comforts such a space might provide, travelling constantly as he does throughout Europe and the US to lecture and to teach. The drawings are therefore part of another life – artful, unmoving and Belgian (three things that don’t normally go together, at least since the sixteenth century). And although Aureli would really hate to be associated with anything even mildly Flemish, the heroic, if not romantic, associations of a northern Renaissance and of spare interiors cast in soft light offer a nice counter to the more obvious Latin and Italianate backdrop to Aureli’s childhood and education.
More immediately, the context of their making provides another reference for someone whose work (in both his practice and scholarship) is infused with an incredible level of erudition and allusion. The drawings, in this sense, are no different. Bound by their 50 x 50cm paper and defined by their pencil planometrics, the evocative title of the series pays a debt to Frank Stella, but they also make nods to other abstract expressionists, notably Barnett Newman, to the earlier suprematist paintings of Kazimir Malevich, to Sol LeWitt and Agnes Martin, to ancient Chinese cities as squares, to Islamic caravanserai and Italian cloisters, to the houses within houses of Oswald Mathias Ungers, and even to the composition of Greek chorus and 1970s CBGB punk – that is to say, to all the good things in life.
But just like his writing, this is in no way fandom under the cover of collage, for the drawings also have their own distinct identity. And part of this identity can be found within biography, despite Aureli’s admirable reluctance to talk about himself. In particular, prior to his architectural diploma from the University of Venice, it seems important to note that Aureli studied art, notably a series of very influential summer courses in Salzburg led by the artist Hermann Nitsch. Celebrated as the Pope of Viennese Aktionism, Nitsch staged performances, created collages and produced his famous Splatter paintings, framed always through a religious and ritualistic subversion. He also presented an imprint of the artist and intellectual as someone defined by their conceptualism, their project and their theology – three qualities quickly absorbed and soon championed by his student.
It was also in Salzburg that Aureli met Roman Opalka, the French-Polish artist, whose influence he would feel even more strongly. In 1965 Opalka initiated a project that he would continue his entire life, painting with a fine brush in neat rows consecutive white numbers from one through to infinity. Each piece was titled Opalka 1965/1–∞, with the size of the work (196 x 135cm) matching that of Opalka’s studio door. Once he reached the bottom right-hand corner of the canvas – typically between 20–30,000 numbers – the painting was complete and the ending number established the starting point for the next one. In the late 1960s Opalka changed his background colour from black to grey, and soon afterwards added one per cent more white for each successive painting. The ambition was that by the time he reached seven million (or more precisely, 7,777,777), the paintings would be completely white, but Opalka’s death in 2011 left his final, still very pale, works in the five millions.
It therefore seems as if in Salzburg Aureli learnt about a required level of obsessiveness and detail, amply demonstrated by The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, and soon afterwards, in moving from his home in Rome’s EUR district to university in Venice, he looked to apply the same sense of dedication to architecture. In this ambition he was also conveniently assisted by the only rooms available to him. Having just arrived in the city with his bags in tow, Aureli found that the student accommodation provided by the university was beyond his means, and he had no other contacts or companions with whom he could share. With all of the city’s hotels out of the question the only option was a religious guesthouse provided by the Convento dei Gesuati. Led by the Dominican Padri Orionini (followers of Beato Luigi Orione) the monastery had operated as an orphanage but later accepted disadvantaged students who were willing to live according to their rules. Aureli moved in, while vowing to himself to find more suitable accommodation as soon as possible. But with his limited budget there was just nothing else available. And so as classes at the university began, he would return each night to his monk’s cell. Weeks went by, and although still looking around for alternative rooms or shared apartments, he found that the monastery was not without its advantages – not least the spectacular site it occupied on the Zattere with direct views towards the Giudecca, and the spacious series of cloistered buildings it occupied. He also discovered that the rules required by the Dominicans meant he could concentrate on his school designs and essays without any interruption – his work quickly developed a focus – and the monks around him were friendly and very knowledgeable. Even the refectory was okay. In the end Aureli stayed six years.
Perhaps we are all the product of our own histories, of the homes we inhabit and the heroes we venerate, but for Pier Vittorio, this biography seems so manifest in his books and essays, design work, lectures and teaching, and also in his wonderful drawings. It also enriches what we immediately read or see, for there are clearly more marriages here than just reason and squalor – marriages like exuberance and denial; of the cerebral and emotive; the didactic and the intuitive. All of these things seem apparent in these 36 drawings, which are the product of a precise set of rules, but at the same time have a kind of alluring waywardness to them. In making them Aureli begins with a simple geometrical form, but usually a square or quadrilateral, and then develops its further articulation (in impeccable pencil cross-hatchings) using only the logic of the perimeter form. So every proportion, all the symmetry and detail of its internal relationships can only be a consequence of the initial enclosing geometry. The results are deeply cerebral and oddly lunatic. But they are also utterly compelling, even more so when presented en masse, allowing other formal relationships and adjacencies to emerge.
Working on these each night over the last decade or so, Aureli has obviously found a form of release and detachment, far from transport terminals and lecture halls, where he can figure things out and focus, and where he can also relax. These drawings, then, are a kind of prayer- or worry-bead – to be affectionately fondled – even if their magnetism and charm reveals that there really shouldn’t be anything to worry about. They also unify Aureli’s architecture and art, his thinking and making selves, in ways his mentor Opalka would have known only too well.
‘All my work is a single thing, a single life’ – Roman Opalka
- Thomas Weaver, September 2014