Giulio Paolini (born 5 November 1940) is an Italian artist associated with both Arte Povera and Conceptual Art.
Paolini was born in Genoa. After a childhood spent in Bergamo, he moved with his family to Turin where he still lives today. He attended the Giambattista Bodoni State Industrial Technical School of Graphics and Photography, graduating in the Graphics department in 1959. He had been interested in art from an early age, visiting museums and galleries and reading art periodicals. Towards the end of the 1950s he approached painting, trying some pictures of an abstract nature, close to monochrome. The discovery of modern graphics during his studies and the fact that there were architecture magazines around the house – his elder brother Cesare (1937–1983) was an architect – contributed to orienting him towards a line of research aimed at zeroing the image.
He did his first work in 1960, Disegno geometrico (Geometrical Drawing), which consists of the squaring in ink of a canvas painted with white tempera. This preliminary gesture of any representation whatever would remain the point of “eternal recurrence” in the universe of Paolini’s thought: topical moment and original instant that revealed the artist to himself, representing the conceptual foundation of all his future work.
In the early 1960s, Paolini developed his research by focusing on the very components of the picture: on the painter’s tools and on the space of representation. For his first solo show – in 1964 at Gian Tommaso Liverani’s La Salita gallery in Rome – he presented some rough wooden panels leant against or hanging on the wall, suggesting an exhibition in the process of being set up. The show was seen by Carla Lonzi and Marisa Volpi who would shortly afterwards write the first critical texts on the young artist. In 1965 Paolini began to use photography, which allowed him to extend his inquiry to the relationship between artist and work (Delfo, 1965; 1421965, 1965). In the same year, through Carla Lonzi, he met Luciano Pistoi, owner of the Galleria Notizie in Turin, who introduced him to a new circle of friends and collectors and became his main dealer until the beginning of the 1970s.
Between 1967 and 1972, the critic Germano Celant invited him to take part in Arte Povera exhibitions which resulted in his name being associated with that movement. In fact Paolini’s position was clearly distinct from the vitalistic climate and “existential phenomenology” that distinguished the propositions of Celant’s artists. He repeatedly declared an intimate belonging to the history of art, identifying programmatically with the lineage of all the artists who had preceded him. Some of his best known works can be traced back to this purpose, extraneous to the militant scene of the late 1960s: Giovane che guarda Lorenzo Lotto (Young Man Looking at Lorenzo Lotto, 1967), the “self-portraits” from Poussin and Rousseau (1968) and the pictures in which he reproduces details of old masters’ paintings (L’ultimo quadro di Diego Velázquez, 1968; Lo studio, 1968). Among Paolini’s main references in those years were Jorge Luis Borges, to whom he paid homage on several occasions, and Giorgio de Chirico from whom he borrowed the constituent phrase of the work Et.quid.amabo.nisi.quod.ænigma est (1969).
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