Sculptural Chemistry: Spatial intersections in steel works of sculptor Alfio Mongelli

by Genny DI BERT

“The field of physics/mathematics that characterizes the imposing works of Algio Mongelli is transformed by an expressive freedom that confounds any scientific pattern. The unity and syth­nesis achieved in his creations, whether large sculptural manifestations in stain­less steel or geometric graphic forms, re­veal the exceptional quality of this artist among the most successful contempo­rary artists.”

Thus wrote Nobel prize winner Rita Levi Montalcini in 1994 referring to the Roman artist Algio Mongelli (born 1939). An astute observation on the part of a perceptive scientist who, oblivious to the writings of the most renowned and profound art critics (Mussa, Masi, Strina­ti, Benincasa, Crispolti, Restany, Berger) arrived at the most defining aspect of the artist’s work: sythesis. It is from this core that his works originate––seemingly simplistic, oddly logical in content, their structure a relationship between space and substance.

To achieve such an effect, the author expands his knowledge and experience by conferring with other artists like Le­oncillo, Colla, Fazzini; he learns architec­tural theory and practice by frequenting professional design studios, like that of Anselmi.

Initially a student of painting, Mongel­li soon decided to direct himself towards sculpture. “I felt that painting was not a route I could continue becuase I saw it as limited, and I had a different urge. I did not want to be a painter, I wanted to be a sculptor. I observed the third dimension, and I had inside myself a strong interest towards the idea of mass,” said Mongelli. The artist began to immerse himself in studies related to environmental space, and the expression of his creativity through sculpture, always searching for synergy between his concept of the work (short notes), its production (preparatory studies and sketches), its realization (the interpration in and around space), and the message ultimately transmitted by its presence.

For Mongelli, art and science were fused in sixties, with works like Pythago­rus Theorem (1968-1970), and in the sev­enties opposed eachother with works like Flight (1976), Ohm’s Law (1977-78). The artist’s idea was to create sculpture that was somehow unsettled or unfinished with itself, ultimately expressing the hu­man condition. In short, to think and create non-stop, probing for new forms of expression; through visual messages, express one’s vision of the world, moving them into three-dimensions; to see and to construct a world.

From this point, his artistic track of 13 years suddenly shifted to involve the fields of logic, mathematics and as­trophysics, elements that became the touchstone of his artmaking. “Let’s say that from infancy I had a predisposition for math and chemistry problems. Sci­ence magazines fascinated me, especially astronomy. These held my curiosity, but my studies were naturally different. My love for math was inspired by the teach­ings of one particular, eccentric professor who did not just solve equations but of­ten made us prove absurd theorums –– those I tried to solve with a lot of care and interest.”

This thinking would enter his artistic production, along with the ideas of nega­tive space, perspective, symbolism, aper­tures/closures and future projections.

In his long artistic career, Mongelli has had much recognition. He has re­ceived numerous national and interna­tional prizes (USA, Canada, Hungary, Japan, and China). A participatant in the Venice Biennale, he also represented Italian sculpture in the International Expo of Seville. He was the winner of an international competition to create the sculpture in the swimming arena of the Peking Olympics, and, is currently in the production phase of installing a large sculpture in Shanghai for exhibition in 2010. In the world of academic research, Mongelli has received several prestigious appointments: lifelong Chair of Sculp­ture of the Accademia di Belli Arti, Rome (since 1971), Director of the Ac­cademia di Belle Arti, Frosinone (1977- 1984), and President of the Libera Acca­demia di Belle Arti, Rome (since 2000).

Thought and act: we enter the works of Mongelli. Mass displacing space, ma­terials rendered in formulaic expressions, hypotheses; theories that fill the space or leave it empty, form defining itself in an ongoing dialogue between nothingness and solidity. A profound homage to hu­manity, a kind of message for our future identity. The artist’s preparatory sketches capture a sense of experimentation, an alternative sensibility, and a need to discover novel techniques. Elements of Mongelli’s sculptures recall the spatial ideas of Piero della Francesca, daVinci-esque riffs. We understand the critic Restany when he spoke of the “beyond­

ness” present in Mongelli’s sculptures, inviting a discourse “that gives us the opportunity to transcend the tension be­tween the immediate appearance of the sculpture with its logical composition.”

This accomplishment is found in the material, which conveys both an easy visual impression (logical, mental) and simultaneously, a bold and intellectual statement (mathematical, theoretical, formulaic). “At first, I was using iron, with stepped intervals to distinguish the geometric elements. Surpassing geomet­ric forms and aiming more to express mathematical and chemical formulas, I felt the need to work with a more appro­priate substance, one that would come closer to the resiliancy, brilliance and light in my pieces. So I chose steel. This metal defies cultivation, it’s a substance that you have to know how to accept and live with. It’s also elegant and harsh,” ex­plained Mongelli.

From this thinking works like H2O (1979-1988), Man (1987), Square Root (1988), XYZ (1991) were born. Through these, he arrived at the creation of “pho­to sculpture” in the last few years. His ex­ploration of speed in time, space, move­ment, air, color, shadows, refractions, in length, atmosphere and communication, Mongelli’s third dimension surpasses trends. With artistic rigor, his works put forward the essence of art itself: tech­nique plus investigation.

About the Author


A graduate of Art History, art critic Genny Di Bert is Professor of Modern Art for RUFA Academy in Rome. She has been lecturer on “The Phenomenology of Contemorary Art” and “Art History” for the Accademia Brera of Milan, Accademia Belle Arti of Palermo, NABA of Milan and Catholic University of Milan. She is curator of the Eleutheria Art Foundation in Prague. In Italy, she is Tribunal expert on Modern Art and a member of the National Association of Journalists. She has authored several non-fiction books and has published several articles about art, costume and society. She is also columnist in Progetto Repubblica Ceca and Il Domani d’Italia. She collaborates with museums, galleries, publishing houses and international institutions. Among the exhibitions she has curated: The New Europe in Biennal of Venice 1995, Unimplosive Art in Biennal of Venice 1997 and many initiatives within the European Mediterranean Cultural Exchanges. Most recently, she has collaborated with Vittorio Sgarbi for the Biennale of Venice 2011 and for all Special Art Events for Italian Pavillon, in occasion of the Century Italy’s Unity.