A colorful life
Sergio Zen is a painter who loves a secluded lifestyle. The colours of his palette,
the lines of his thoughts, together with meditation and memories that later live again
through pictures and images as though reborn.
Painting, as a method? Not at all. Said in this way it may sound restrictive even
inappropriate. As an objective then? There is no doubt about it, even if… but is it
really necessary to carry on so technically? Why not trying following a less precise
Let us then say that Zen’s paintings represent a vibrant succession of realities perceived
and expressed in painting after painting. If this is true in general, it is even more
evident in his works of the last decades. It is the result of a subtle meditation
transformed into an unexpected and happy state, or in other words, in painting as
a source of joy.
Vicolo Valle,15. The studio is crammed with paintings that are leaning on the
walls almost completely surrounding the easel. The studio is on the ground floor of
a tiny old house located in what were once the outskirts of Valdagno. Not far away,
a stream with an old water mill and further down, where the city ends is the countryside.
At first sight it seems that Zen’s world is contained between these walls. Let us
stop for a moment, certainly this is not a nostalgic trip around one’s own room. At
least not entirely. Let us explain this concept.
Zen’s paintings suggest a world that surmounts the boundary of the place from where
they are created. Of this there is no doubt. But to surmount, is it not the same as
saying to go beyond? It is obvious. But pay attention! The painter here is harking
back. Therefore why not speak about an intimate circumnavigation that from the outside
finds here its landing place? Would you agree?
At first it is essential to cast your eyes upon this part of Veneto. Here the gentle
slopes of hills alternate with the crops and orderly rows of trees. There are lights
and colours that in the succession of seasons turn from soft and shaded to blazes
of resounding intensity. Changing from a delicate green to a brighter hue, to fiery
red tones to a deep black, and thick pastes of ochre to a multi-hued blue and to triumphant
whites. Sergio Zen has indeed been inspired – by being a son of this area -
from the fascinating kaleidoscope that presents itself every day in front of his eyes.
And he will not be diverted from it even when abstraction will prevail.
Retired painter but surely not isolated. On the contrary. It is enough to consider
attentively his paintings from any period they belong to. Even at the beginning when
in the early sixties he left the first stage of a definitely figurative style, he
began looking around in order to identify the foundation that would later develop
in his style of working.
“Casa di campagna” (1961) (Countryside houses) is an eloquent witness referring
to the concrete abstract of the “Gruppo degli Otto”, that nine years before, had been
presented at the “Biennale di Venezia” (an art exhibition held every two years in
Venice) by Lionello Venturi.
The landscape, grasped at once, is marked by a progressive increase of intensity and
vigour. Ochre alternates with green solemnly and calmly. Precise and dense brushstrokes
shape intersecting surfaces. Reality rather than being disowned is idealized. Shapes
in their gist are at the limits of abstraction, at least as a starting point and then
they find in the paintings new concreteness. It seems that the artist wants to lead
us beyond that harmonious whole.
The same applies to other paintings, I am thinking about “Paesaggio marino” (1963)
(Seascape). Zen has painted this, adapting it without disowning his relation with
nature, he has created an overall effect of exalted hints. The result is a succession
of feelings. The combination of lights, colours and shapes are such to create in a
figurative way a similar expression of chromatic moods.
Despite being only at the start, Zen has detected the basis for what his poetic will
be and with significant results.
It is not sufficient though to paint and make experiences on canvases. It is necessary
to widen the horizons and discover the art world. The instruments used up to that
moment were not enough anymore, therefore in order to be fully aware of the cultural
debate and especially to be able to evaluate directly the results, Zen often travels
to Venice and Milan.
His objectives. First, to deepen the knowledge of the past in order to examine the
art work more congenial to him, he spends long hours in picture galleries, churches
and wherever he can find some other significant paintings. The same can be said for
the collection of contemporary art that museums, The Biennale di Venezia,
Marzotto’s prizes and the main private art galleries, especially those of major importance,
can offer. In the meantime together with two other friends, painters as well, he establishes
an art gallery in Valdagno called L’Impronta (The fingerprint). It becomes a tangible
cultural point of reference, through the organization of various exhibitions it will
reveal to be an useful instrument to meet some of the most avant-guarde representatives
of today or, otherwise, in order to have the possibility to borrow some paintings
from other qualified art gallery managers. In fact the paintings for the opening exhibition
of De Luigi, Fontana, Music, Licata, Santomaso e
Vedova, were all coming from the “Il Traghetto” of Venice.
In the course of these years, trips have become even more frequent with the consequent
interchange of ideas and impressions. If this is generally useful, for Zen it is fundamental.
What really matters to him is the implicit significance and the quality of the paintings
and this does not involve only a formal-technical aspect. The secrets of paintings
conceal those of the soul. They are their agents. We need to be able to examine them,
to catch the meaning and the taste. Only in this way, working out its message, it
is possible to enrich and at the same time defend our own autonomy. Only in this way
will it be possible to avoid the snares of evident dependency and the simple imitations.
Zen is very keen on being aware of the development of art in its various expressions
regardless of the ideological concepts particularly emblematic in that period. In
other words, beside painting, he carries out an accurate research of both history
and art criticism. All of this is recorded in the diary that the artist has written
since those years. Published in 1998 with the expressive title “Nessun giorno è senza
colori” (No day is without colours) it thus represents a useful method to deepen the
knowledge about the painter and his work.
The method adopted in order to reach the chromatic and compositional resonance of
these last decades, developed from the sixties, painting after painting through several
From that point a dialectical link that surely required some revisions, although short,
which enabled him to detect the expressive methods that has led him to a happy maturity.
To give some major information, we should mention works as “Paesaggio” (Landscape)
1964 and “Lungo la strada” (Along the road) of the following year. In the first of
the two works the backgrounds are animated by definite underlining and scenic structures.
In the next painting, the whole of such pauses and revivals change in a more categorical
linear structure. A dazzling intersecting and a marked highlight of shapes prevails.
Like rhythmical compositions, they represent the finishing point as regards the following
works, despite the still stuck formal establishment, “La vigna è verde” (The
vineyard is green) 1966 and “Volo notturno” (Nocturnal flight) 1968. Here we
are in front of a prelude of one of Zen’s outstanding paintings “Notturno” (Nocturnal)
also 1968. The echo and resonance among black structures of dense and emerging blue
go beyond the mere transcription. They introduce us in dreamy throbbing and puzzling
Zen’s research carries on in every direction. And now new scenic structures animate
the composition in a greater scale. Moreover it is possible to notice a different
articulated dynamism that in “Incendio notturno n° 2” (Night fire) 1969 aims to a
constructive uprightness. In the series of tempera paintings “Paesaggio dall’intimo”
(Inward scenery) 1970, the signs becomes gesture and colours fluctuate overlaying
with various intensity.
The same can be said for “L’estate” (Summer) and other “Paesaggi” (Landscapes)
all 1970, from which more works follow with quick and clear cut brushstrokes as “Opera
n° 32” (1974) and “Volo azzurro” (Blue flight) 1975, and especially “Verso sera” (Toward
evening) 1977 that we can consider as a type of summa. The result is varied and definite.
It seems to be in front of chasing and sudden gust of wind caused by the excited dynamism
pervading the painting. Colours dazzle and interweave. They go from bright red to
white up to a softer blue verging to grey, sign of the impending night.
That is not all. Between the end of the seventies and the beginning of the following
decade, Zen makes a sudden change of turn with a series of collage on canvas: "Venezia
Giudecca" of 1979, “Per fare un ritratto ad un uccello” (To make a portrait of a bird)
of the same year, “Notte di primavera” (Spring night) 1980 and “Presenza nel tempo”
(Presences in the course of time) 1981, "Mare di luna" (Moon sea) 1983. The rhythm
does not depend anymore on the signs and on the orchestration of colours, rather it
depends on the open spaces and the way of painting which, considering the future outcome
of Zen’s works makes a sense of an important harbinger of what will happen afterward,
when having abandoned collage work, Zen will go back painting in his natural and exceptional
way of expressing himself with paint brushes and colours.
At this point, why not allow ourselves a retrospective parenthesis to conclude the
discussion we did not finish about the cultural interests of the artist and his reflections
on painting? As you might remember it had to do with a direct comparison with other
artists’ works, or with a continuous verification that allowed him to better understand
what was more appropriate for him and to find a background to work on. So, in which
artists was he more interested in? We can start – he himself never hid it – from Afro
and Santomaso and then carry on with Birolli, Pollock, Gorky, De Kooning up to De
Staël and Kline.
Before continuing with the examination that leads us up to what in recent decades
constituted a fine expansion towards abstract style, it is useful to take a step backward
and analyse, together with the evolution of his way of painting, the developing
of Zen’s thinking. In the painting entitled “Nessun giorno è senza colori” (No day
is without colours) let us ponder on a record written in 1966.
Referring to the paintings lent by Gianni De Marco for the first exhibition of the
Valdagno art gallery, and to the new works displayed at the Marzotto’s prize, Zen
lingers over a painted paper of Scanavino. “With his nervy and thick marks as an X-ray
picture - he will write – he makes me think of the pain of life”. Then a sudden turn
back, an enlightening declaration: “All signs I paint on canvas, all colours I use
are always present in nature.”
Considering not only the works of those times, he had many strings in his bow to state
the above. But why quoting it exactly at that moment? First of all, because the link
between the artist and nature has never been interrupted. But has not this concept
already been pointed out? Surely, but we should now give emphasis to the complexity
of the relationship that has always linked Zen to nature. Even when he was presenting
more concrete references – here is the heart of the matter -, he tended to put his
work in an, as to say, eccentric position because of the determined refusal of any
The main point of the concept is hidden in the statement “They are always present”.
In other words, Zen implicitly confirms that despite a persisting of references to
the reality, in which he is really involved, he does not want to make an obvious representation.
What more evident demonstration but not the next paintings? They will, moreover be
a gradual harbinger of the paintings in which will prevail a marked tendency for further
figurative abstraction works, as a result of a relaxed “dimension of memories, as
dissolving pages” (1967).
Even concerning this definition, also taken from his diary - and it is also appropriate
to talk about the preceding mention about the “lake of memories” -, there is an acuteness
to consider. Zen uses the noun “dimension”. He could
have avoided using this, limiting himself in utilising the word “memories”.
But it would have been a contradiction, because he was already clearly aiming
at verified memorial component, surely very different from an easy embodiment of self-memories.
In this regard the two “Notturni” (Nocturnes) of 1968 and 1971 are more than eloquent.
In the first, an interweaving of realities can be noticed that, tending to unify,
reach solemn refractions by means of a constructive formal invention. In the other
painting the black that in the preceding one was vigorously standing out is now conversing
in softer tones giving way to reflection and emerging lights.
In both works, the feeling of Zen’s existence, his way of translating memories and
moods with the painting items is explained through the use of different types of canvas
and by the choice and application of colours. The chromatic mix is not let on the
loose unconditionally, but it is held back, or better still, disciplined. Emotion
never prevails. Every painting is the result of a musicality that starts from a beginning,
being born from a focal point, a sign, a hint of colour from a nucleus.
The relation between meditation, self-emotional control and freeness of expression
that will come out with exemplary balance in the paintings made more recently, had
greatly benefited from the brief but intense parentheses (1979-1981) almost exclusively
dedicated to collage.
Let us go back therefore and start the topic from where we left off, immediately considering
the technical aspects. The already mentioned collages “ Venezia Giudecca” and “Per
fare un ritratto a un uccello” (1979), “Notte di primavera” (1980), Presenza nel tempo
(1981) etc.) present, since they are collage, a significant peculiarity. The balancing
mix of colours matches of course, with the elements composing the collage, thin strings
of material that will later be applied. A series of values then follows.
First of all, without changing the characteristics of the material used, there is
a relevant chromatic thickness( on this regard we could think of an osmosis between
the informal and the Pop, as to say like Burri, from his transforming various materials
in painting, like Rauschenberg). Furthermore, because of the whiteness, of thematerial,
the fine harmonious blending that links it to the oil painting of the background stnds
out, both because of the way the painter had joined the collage together and by the
way he cut out and laid the various strings to the support. The margins are clear
but at the same time as irregular as the surface that, at work completed, will present
a wrinkleless of various sizes and shapes.
It is an exaltation to precariousness, or even to something ephemeral? Not at all.
There is rather the temporary feeling of the time perceived with quietness and, moreover,
the pleasure of creating images using the dense richness of the oils and the ductility
of the materials used.
Feelings and thoughts flying free spring out from a new born reality. It is a reality
that changes, as in a musical reverberation, in a counterpoint of whites verging to
a rarefied and soft green, now changing to shaded blue and than contrasted to the
clangour of black.
Life’s meaning has been translated in painting and entrusted to the canvas not in
order to make us aware of something ending, rather of something continuing. It could
be anything. Flights of birds, Venetians rhapsody, spring
breeze, or thoughts that migrate in time and space.
At the end of the collage season, Zen goes back to painting. It does not necessarily
mean there will be a complete break. This is shown by “Incontro in collina”
(Meeting on the hill) 1983 “Granada” 1986 And “Volo al tramonto” (Flight at
sunset) 1987. The interacting between the flow of signs is fast - sometimes there
are also frayed edges - and large geometrical shapes with borders that seems to be
cut out. Every painting displays a rigorous balance.
The influence of collage works cannot be denied. There is, anyway, a considerable
difference. In them the space between strings made concrete the creative process in
its act of dividing, despite the unexpected scraps of materials that, not being rigid,
was causing not at all regular results at the crossing of blades. Other irregularities,
always linked by sheer chance, - which realization was often chosen- derived from
the subsequent positioning of the scraps.
In the paintings the relation between the idea and its translation is instead totally
linked to the language of colours. While in the collages the strings and the colours,
despite being distinct, are melting in a sum of endings that remain in the merging
of two different valences (colour and material), in the paintings only the palette’s
law is in forge. The initial project, or better, the main idea from which the artist
has been inspired, is enriched even by the development of chromatic chords. There
is not the previous language between colours – materials and painted colours laid
on the same surface even though being distinct.
The colour and the consequent shape of the image, have an architectural balance that
the aplat make even more still. It is therefore possible to determine, by means of
the explicit juxtaposition of surfaces, the depth of the picture and, despite avoiding
every usual prospective fiction, the art work addressee is immediately drawn inside
the painting and involved in the atmospheres that the painter had caught and
As history can not be written only with dates –from that year, this happened and another
era starts etc. - to choose a painting and to give to it a certain key role is always
questionable. This does not exclude though, that sometimes a certain choice
and analyses, unless it is not too peremptory or instrumental, could be useful in
order to illustrate better the artist’s evolution and, in the case of Zen, the versatility
that distinguishes him in his scrupulous research.
It is not then a strained interpretation and neither a hazard if now I refer to
“Notte Andalusa” (Andalusian Night) 1989. In the painting we can perceive something
that helps us to understand that the rigour built in the previous works are going
to be abandoned as well as the aplat. The essential charge and the throbbing of the
whole, if they were first linked to the past, will soon have a new life force in a
Zen is forging ahead with “Il muro dei ricordi n°1 (The wall of memories n°1) 1990,
“Rosso incantato” (Enchanted red) 1990, and “Estate che cresce” (Arising summer) 1992.
The images on formal and context level give even more emphasis to what had from the
beginning been for the painter an overall theme running through his works: expressing
through memories and meditation the reverberations of life. The colours and consequent
hues are its vehicle and this song increases of intensity when tensions prevail. An
example? “Difesa estiva” (Summer defence) 1994.
The light that shines through from the decreasing and soon after from the increasing
of the flaming colours that compose the painting, is not an end in itself, it is rather
one of the many lights of existence. We need to know how to detect it and it must
be caught also in other paintings, when emotions and experiences, in strict union
with the succession of brushstrokes, will show up even more in unison.
As in music, the pitch of the notes descend from the clef marked at the beginning
or inside the stave, so every painting of Zen has its start from reality and from
colours that, with the following rhythms at first definite and then shaded, it does
not really matters if they are clear cut or jagged, renew themselves taking vigour
from each other or calm down in happy harmonies. Painting born from painting and for
painting. As for the parthenogenesis, from colours are emerging explorations that
sink in the unconscious. It is a long rhapsody. Every painting suggests something
new. Sometimes,- “Chiara presenza n°2” (Clear presence n°2) 1995 - it can be noticed
an adding of quivers among the echo of cobalt blue and a sudden appearance of whites.
In “Profondo blu” (Deep blue) 1995, framed by a black wing beyond which appears a
swift blaze, sudden depths are even more impending. The silence of night is opening
wide for our imagination.
Somewhere else- “Verso sud” (Towards south) 1996 – a fiery red lays down on what can
seem to be a cradle of light. The contrast is evident but it correspond to Zen’s lexicon
that often uses the language of the opposites. We could keep in mind “Per un solo
giorno” (Only for one day) 1999 that displays a square shape inside its support, which
it is square itself. A space inside a space not monotonous at all. On top a diaphragm
of sudden touches, blue and black. A little below a swift piece that plays as a contrast.
middle, green fading having a water scent.
The atmospheric matter, or to be more precise, the perceiving of nature, includes
again the existential one. Reality is expressed in the way, and with the same intensity
with which it is being lived by the painter. The same can be said for “Canto notturno”
(Nocturnal song) 1999 and “Dentro la notte” (Inside the night) 2000. The composition,
though, present some variations. In the first one everything is managed with ascending
rhythms; in the second one we can rather notice an overlapping of lights and shades
of different origins that could even make us think, - despite risking to be misunderstood-
to the simultaneity of moods aimed also by the futurists. Which – it is good to clarify-
without any forced splitting up of shapes and of lines, rather with traits that have
been often emphasized up to now, is possible to compare, because of similar placements
of other paintings, always distinguished by lyrical profusions.
It so happens for “Stagione aperta” (Open season) 2000, where the rapid colour patterns
move like reeds in the wind, or “Sera quieta” (Calm evening) 2002 with a transparent
light blue alternated with red and white flashes beyond which we are moved to perceive
evocative memories. But other paintings follow and with sequences, annotations and
surrendering that have always as main objective the passing of hours and moments in
their sensual developing. Here is “Stagione luminosa” (Bright season), blushing with
radiance and, always in 2003, the vehement “Passionale” (Passionate). To reach down
to more recent works what can we say of “Nostalgico” (Nostalgic) and “Rosso attivo”
(Active red) 2004 – and "Turno invernale" (Winter Shift) 2005 ? Once again colour