The Nino Caruso (1928-2017) retrospective “Forms of Memory and Space” at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto (MoMAK) is solicitous to celebrate both the art and industrial elements of the Italian postwar ceramist-cum-sculptor’s oeuvre. More than 100 works, documents and designs have been selected to capture his preferences for art and commercial applications over art-world trends.
Caruso was born in Libya, then an Italian colony. While on a summer holiday to the Adriatic coast in 1940, the hostilities of World War II left the young Caruso unable to reunite with his family for years. Later, when back in Tripoli in 1947, he worked at an automotive plant as a mechanical turner, before being expelled in 1951 for political activities involving the Communist Party.
It was in Rome that Caruso embarked on a ceramist’s career. His first solo exhibition in 1956, however, fell victim to a fire. Nevertheless, international recognition followed. His “Archaic” series favored comparatively conservative vessels formed from coiled clay and rough glazes inspired by Greek amphorae, decorated with human figures, as represented in the MoMAK exhibition by “Embrace” (1957).
A foray into using iron resulted in spiky sculptures like “Monument to the Resistance” (1964), fashioned from handrails leftover from a supermarket project in Rome. Further ones followed, including an aluminum columnar sculpture mounted on a pedestal titled “Homage to Kyoto” (1972), though it wasn’t until 1982 that Caruso first visited Japan.
Caruso engendered a revolution of sorts for ceramics when in the mid-1960s he began producing prototypes made of expanded polystyrene (EPS). By making modular units, he was able to realize the possibility of creating large-scale ceramic public space monuments. Using electrically heated wire to cut up blocks of EPS, Caruso made plaster molds of the foam resin shapes into which slurry was poured and set. The resulting mass-producible units could then be assembled into variant forms, including enormous architectural partitions, such as his wall-like “Itinerary of Memories” (1974). The “Homage to the Etruscans” (1984-85) series is among Caruso’s most notable architectural contributions to the concept of ceramic walls, columns and gates, which he made to recall the ruins of ancient Mediterranean civilizations.
Continuous bas-reliefs (usually as interiors) were a congruent architectural concern for Caruso, who had been developing the potential of ceramic wall and floor tiles since the mid-’60s. Decorative visual effects of geometrically patterned tiles were one aspect, as in those he designed for the tile producers Ceramica D’Agostino (1970). Another was the use of variegated wall surface protrusions and recessions. This sculpting of Caruso’s modular tiles generated novel lighting and depth effects, constituting a form of architectural chiaroscuro. His work furnishing the interior walls of the Evangelical Church, Savona (1967-68), serves as an exemplar.
With Caruso’s work serially exhibited in Japan’s international exhibitions since 1964, — and his book on Japanese Raku ceramics (“Ceramica Raku,” 1982), five appointments from 1986 as a judge in the International Ceramics Competition Mino, collaborations with ceramic companies like Shino Toseki,, and Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park outdoor monument “Wind and Stars” (1991) — Japan is fertile soil for “Forms of Memory and Space,” which is also the world’s first posthumous Caruso exhibition.
“Forms of Memory and Space: Nino Caruso — Giant of Contemporary Italian Ceramics” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto runs until Feb. 16; ¥1,000. For more information, visit www.momak.go.jp/English.