Speed freak and uncompromising artist, Gianni Piacentino talks bikes, jazz, and shades of blue ahead of a London retrospective
Gianni Piacentino answers the door to his home/studio in a blue polo shirt and jeans, his silver hair cropped into a mini-mullet, his eyes the same colour as the cloudless Turin sky. The building, on a skinny side street on the outskirts of the northern Italian city, was once a factory where architects’ drawing boards were made. But for 12 years now it’s been the centre of the Italian artist’s amazing industry, its 300 sq m taken up by a seamless sequence of studios and workshops, offices, living rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom that leads onto a large roof garden filled with the sound of bird song and a verdant lawn. “It’s the perfect place to have a glass of wine in the evening,” says Piacentino, gesturing towards a gazebo in one corner, furnished with a rustic wooden table and chairs.
Piacentino, who is 71, is an artist whose minimalist geometric forms and machine like confections are ferociously sought after by some of the an world’s most serious collectors (among them German collector Reinhard Onnasch, and Prada’s Patrizio Bertelli, who will most likely be putting on a Piacentino show at the new Prada Foundation in Milan next year). But it’s quite possible you won’t have heard of him. A self-confessed solo traveller (even his girlfriend, who looks after stray cats, seems to live elsewhere), he has always preferred the approval of the special few to a life in the artworld limelight, and it’s quite possible that his favourite companion is his bright yellow Aprilia RSV 4 1000. Every Saturday at 11 am he hops on his motorbike and burns up the same road he has followed for years now. The week before my visit he’d reached a speed of 274 km/ h.
He tried the group thing once, as a founding force of the Arte Povera movement which swept through Italy in the late 1960s, flying in the face of the art world’s accepted traditions and finding a new repertoire of everyday materials, radical propositions and unconventional production processes. But after just two years, he’d had enough. “Being in a group protects you, it doesn’t encourage you, and Arte Povera allowed people to become lazy artisrs,” he says, managing to damn Michelangelo Pistoletto, Mario Merz and Alighiero Boetti in one fell swoop. “Besides, maybe I’m too sure of myself, but I compare my work to the history of art, nor to my neighbors. I’d rather be the last one with great ambition. I had my first museum show when I was 27, so the person I’ve needed to satisfy most is myself.”
Looking back, Piacentino’s place in Arte Povera was tenuous at best. Central to his work is a polish and perfection that makes it almost otherwordly. “It’s something zen, it’s never perfect enough,” he says. “And I like to have a detail in a work that only I know about. That way I own it.” Once, he tells me, he plated one of the wing pieces he starred to make in the mid-1970s with the incredibly expensive metal rhodium. “It costs 20 times more than gold, and it would only mean something to, say, 0 .5per cent of the population. But it meant a lot to me.” (I happened to notice, as we sat in his kitchen, that all the hardware on his stove top was gleaming bright. Herold me he’d buffed up every clement the day before on his metal polishing machine.)
The earliest pieces – explorations in geometric forms, like lines drawn in space and painted in the offbeat colours that he first saw in the work of Piero del la Francesca – are reminiscent of those that were being made simultaneously in the United States by John McCracken and Donald Judd, though the Italian only became aware of their existence when he travelled to New York in 1970. Subsequent work – the wings and the triangular vehicle sculptures, each bearing his initials formed into the sort of decals you would more likely find on vintage motorbikes – seems to nod to post-war Italy’s increasing seduction by design. In fact, in 1967, Ettore Sottsass designed the poster for a show of Piacentino’s work at Gian Enzo Sperone’s influential gallery in Turin, while the use of marbled paper to create a decorative surface on a Piacentino piece from 1969 (Marbled Vehicle), prefigures Sottsass’ subsequent love decorative laminate finishes. On another occasion, Olivetti used a Piacentino sculpture to fill a void at a trade show when its latest typewriter wasn’t finished in rime. “Sottsass was working for them at the time, and he’d always liked my work,” says Piacentino.
In a large and windowless double-height space in Piacentino’s building is a facsimile of the exhibition which is to be installed in the Michael Werner Gallery in London, opening on 23 April. There is a slender pink pole rising to the ceiling (Cool Red Pole, 1966-67); the Marbled Vehicle from 1969 (exquisitely restored); and another dazzlingly polished vehicle where the steel frame is grey against the yellower metal of the nickel wheels. Blue paintings showing abstractions of plane wings in silver are hung on the wall. In the centre is a blue table (Petroleum-BlueTable Sculpture, 1967). “There are thousands of blues,” says Piacentino. “This one I called petroleum blue and I could never use it now.
These days, I prefer a cooler, softer blue—a Bugatti blue, which is medium-light, a little cool, more towards red than green.”
Blue, it turns out, is everywhere, and not just in his polo shirt and eyes. In his office, volume after volume of assiduously collected stamps – each containing an image of flight, from Icarus of the Greek myth to new aircraft – each kept between bespoke azure covers. The worktop of a traditional wooden dresser that he has recreated derail for derail in steel is blue. And in his collection of hundreds of miniature cars there are plenty that are blue. (His four grandchildren, he tells me, are not allowed to touch them.)
Even the music that curls out of the outsize speakers – by MartinLogan in the living area and Magnepan in thr bedroom is Miles Davis’ “All Blues” (a crack on Kind of Blue). Piacentino loves jazz (Sonny Rollins most of all) and downloads the very best version of every song he can find on the internet, meticulously transfers it onto a CD and then reproduces the cover artwork too. (Indeed, he is the master of his universe. When the artist realised a few years ago that he should have a website, he taught himself Java and set about making one. He produces the artwork for all his exhibitions and catalogues.)
But more than cars and stamps and jazz, it is motorbikes that have the central place in his life and work. “In 1967, I broke away from the Arte Povera guys,” he explains. “I hate what Boetti was doing to stamps. So I took time out and restored a beautiful American bike, an Indian from the 1930s.” He went on to race professionally, as a sidecar driver, for six years from 1971 to 1977, carefully balancing the bike as it decelerated from 200 to 70km/ h over just 100m. “Racing taught me to be more technical, to be my own engineer,” he says.
It also provided an opportunity to use the paint and colours he has developed since the 196os, when he worked in a paint factory and helped its chemist develop the first synthetic iridescent paint. He customized bikes and helmets for himself and friends, in dazzling combinations of mother of pearl shades. “I loved to drive the colours I’d made myself,” he says. “It felt so comfortable.”
Once, Gianni Agnelli, scion of the Fiat family, asked Piacentino to customise a bikefor him. “I told him: “It’s not what I do fora living, it’s what I do for my friends.” I don’tthink anyone had ever said no to him before.”He pauses. “The satisfaction of saying no is great, and I did it a lot when I was younger,but it’s too easy in a way. Now what isimportant is to make things that are real butwhere there is a magic. Some of the work you just don’t understand. And it’s important that you don’t.”