Born in Livorno in 1924, Gianfranco Baruchello graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in law in 1946. He began experimenting with images through objects in the mid-1950s, but he soon ended his studies and work in economics to fully devote himself to art. Baruchello’s readings heavily influenced his perception of post-World War II Italy, the economic boom, and the signals coming from the American world. From an early age, he consumed Italian and French poetry, philosophy, the history of politics, psychoanalysis, and literature. An avid reader, Baruchello collected more than 30,000 volumes over the course of his long life. His library, which stands as a symbol and portrait of his interests that have inspired his research, now belongs to the Fondazione Baruchello and is available to the public. In a text written for the first exhibition at Galleria Schwartz in Milan, Baruchello’s works were described by journalist Giorgio Manganelli as “aquarium, toy, machine, grammar: places, illusionistic propositions, metallic mirages that involve us in a network of microscopic, absurd, euphoric adventures” (Manganelli, 1965). In the early 1960s, Baruchello participated in the most experimental trends of the time, employing intertextuality and writing as conceptual practices through which image and word could be substituted by one another.
A friend of Mario Schifano, of Tano Festa, of the poets and writers of Group 63, including Nanni Balestrini and Elio Pagliarani, Baruchello’s perception of art was characterized as an exploration of knowledge and the refusal to adhere to styles and trends with which he does not identify.
Baruchello’s own intellectualism coincided with his practice of art in a way that is almost always independent and courageous, choosing to commit to critiquing ethics and politics through his work.
The collective Collages et Objets was exhibited in Paris in 1962 at the invitation of Alain Jouffroy and Robert Lebel; in New York, Baruchello exhibited the collective New Realists at the Sidney Janus Gallery.
This first entry into the European, mostly French, and American artistic universe was an opportunity to become part of international collecting. From the outset, French and American writers, poets, artists, critics, and philosophers have accompanied Baruchello’s art with texts that describe the complexity of the work of an “artist–philosopher”, an artist always on the edge of experimentation. They paid tribute to the past and to history, producing an “intellectual vocabulary, rich in references – a Proustian set of personal memories” (in “Time”, 1966).
Baruchello’s first solo exhibition was held in 1963 at the La Tartaruga gallery in Rome. This exhibition was an opportunity for Baruchello to make his work known to other artists and intellectuals of his time. Palma Bucarelli acquired one of his works for the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna at the end of the decade. He was also invited by Giulio Carlo Argan to the Biennale di San Marino, where Giorgio Manganelli approached his work.
In 1964, Baruchello exhibited a significant culmination of his research at the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in New York, accompanied by a text written by author Dore Ashton for the occasion. Themes of fragmentation, dissemination on the canvas where images are reduced to minimal elements, and conceptual decentralization of space, characterized this exhibition, which is epitomized by Ashton in her text:
“Whatever Leonardo (da Vinci) may have meant when he said ‘painting is a mental thing’, […] Baruchello, a 39-year-old Roman painter whose interests in science and philosophy are readable in his work, belongs to a growing category of artists who move freely from the territory of written and spoken discourse to that of painting and colour. These artists attack the conventional boundaries of painting with their ‘mental’ concerns (it is true that Leonardo made many graphic representations of his scientific observations, but he did not consider them works of art. This generation does and can justify it). The artist as an intellectual is not a new entity but still can be questioned both for his ability to think and for his formal capabilities.” (Ashton, 1964).
In his second solo exhibition in 1966, at the same American gallery, he collaborated with Italo Calvino who published his first Cosmicomica in place of a critical text in the catalogue accompanying Baruchello’s exhibition. The Guggenheim Museum in New York acquired one of Baruchello’s works, and in 1966 showcased three other drawings following the exhibition European Drawings. Works by Baruchello entered the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.
From 1960 he began to produce short films including Molla (1960), Il grado zero del paesaggio (1963), and Verifica incerta (Disperse Exclamatory Phase) (1964-1965), the first experiment in “found footage” montage made in Italy and Europe. Umberto Eco spoke of Verifica incerta as “an innovative system of expectations and aesthetic solutions” (Eco, 1965). Baruchello brought the very idea of fragmentation and montage to his experimentation with the moving image, which, between 1964 and 1965, led him to projects such as La quindicesima riga (lines of text taken from hundreds of books) and the book Avventure nell’armadio di plexiglass. In 1962 he met Marcel Duchamp, to whom he dedicated the book Why Duchamp, published by McPherson, New York, in 1985. Montage is conceived as a procedure of juxtaposing materials, semantic overturning, and experimenting with narrative systems.
Jouffroy described Baruchello’s painting and way of assembling the most diverse materials as a “writing of chance” (Jouffroy, 1966), while novelist Gilbert Lascault viewed Baruchello’s art as a more deliberate representation of chaos:
“Some people these days cannot stand the ways in which our society wants to organize them, categorise them, define them. So, they escape. They choose the bewilderment of the heart and the spirit. They reject barracks and motorways, preferring paths that offer alternative directions, paths that forked roads, pleasing errors. Temporarily at least, they have ceased to grow, to build, to live. They fight against every installation, against all institutions. They wander, irreverent vagabonds, avaricious sorcerers. Baruchello in (in his artwork) a brother of theirs.” (Lascault, 1977).
Baruchello’s independence, intelligence, and eagerness to discover potential and new paths of knowledge, led him to explore themes and practices of making. His research into knowledge did not exclude more abstract concepts, such as dreaming, archiving, the fairy tale, the home and living, or the politics of the visible. Baruchello also founded artistic enterprises in the modes of invented societies that practiced criticisms of the happenings of consumer society. In 1968, he founded a fictitious company by the name of Artiflex that set out to “mimic the ways of industry” with aims to criticize consumerism. In 1973, he launched the Agricola Cornelia S.p.A. project, an experiment between art and agriculture with a transdisciplinary and, as he himself declared, “trans-aesthetic” approach, which took him eight years to complete.
Baruchello is first and foremost an artist – a creator of happenings and events, but above all a painter of large canvases covered in minute details. He also made assemblages and other books and cultivated sugar beet. How to Imagine is about a farm called Agricola Cornelia, a creation of Baruchello’s, to which he moved in 1972, and on which he cultivated, painted, meditated – and talked (Hall, 1984).
Jean-François Lyotard, in the book he dedicated to Baruchello in 1982 (Feltrinelli, Milan), addresses precisely Baruchello’s intellectual yet timeless complexity:
“The small images scattered on G.B.’s surfaces or in his boxes are part of these monograms. They have no didactic function. They prescribe nothing to the activity of painting. Neither their outline nor their arrangement in space are fixed according to plastic purposes, as was the case with Klee. If one were to read them as visual symbols put in place of notions, one would still be mistaken. They are repositories of narrative energy. Little mothers of affabulation. They call up other possible monograms, at the price of individual stories. Which one must create rather than find. Take a painting, a box, a book by G.B. They are “great warehouses” of invisible, barely audible stories that emerge in the visual and are incomprehensibly signalized through monograms.” (Lyotard, 1982).
In 1998, he built Fondazione Baruchello with Carla Subrizi. Fondazione Baruchello was a way for Baruchello to bring together his interests and ideas that over time have been compiled and collected into material assets (books, works, documents, archives) to act as a starting point for young people, both artists and scholars. A concept that has always been present in the Baruchello universe is that of making every archive, and thus also its long life, a place to be continually reactivated, so that different perspectives and starting points for research and study can always emerge from it. His library preserves valuable editions of Italian colonialism, naval history, as well as entire issues of some of the most important magazines of 20th century Italian culture. In addition, it holds books on poetry, art, philosophy, politics, fairy tales, adventure, agriculture and zootechnics, and psychoanalysis, all of which outline the encyclopedic complexity of an artist, now transformed into a public asset.
In recent decades, Baruchello’s works have been acquired by important international museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia), MACBA (Barcelona), Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), MAXXI (Rome), Madre (Naples), ZKM (Karlsruhe), Deichtorhallen (Hamburg), and more. He has repeatedly participated in the Venice Biennale (1976-80, 1988-90, 1993, 2013) and Documenta in Kassel (1977, 2012). Since 2011, a series of retrospectives have been held in Italy and abroad (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome, 2011; Deichtorhallen Sammlung Falckenberg, Hamburg, 2014; ZKM, Karlsruhe, 2014; Raven Row, London, 2017; Villa Arson, Nice, 2018; Mart, Rovereto, 2018). In 2020, with the project Psicoenciclopedia possibile, promoted by the Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana Treccani, he created a work-archive of partly unpublished words and images, and developed a system of surprising relationships between images and headwords that subverts the very concept of the encyclopedia as a closed and defined system.