Originally published in Barry X Ball. The End of History exh. catalogue, Varese / Milan, Villa e Collezione Panza / Castello Sforzesco, Museo d’Arte Antica, April 12, 2018 – February 20, 2019; Published by Magonza editore

Fig. 1: The wall of the church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia

On November 4, 1966, an exceptional spell of bad weather caused the River Arno to overflow, resulting in severe flooding in Florence and much of Tuscany; thirty-five people died and there was serious damage to cultural and artistic heritage. A large number of ancient manuscripts and volumes in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, as well as historical monuments, sculptures and paintings, ended up in the water and mud. Some artifacts, such as the Cimabue Crucifix in the Basilica of Santa Croce, suffered serious and partially irreparable damage.

After the emergency, an unprecedented restoration campaign was mounted due to the number of damaged works and the type and severity of the damage. Florence’s Superintendent Ugo Procacci, together with the Florentine restoration laboratory Opificio delle Pietre Dure, dedicated themselves to the delicate work of restoration for decades, applying all the technical and scientific methods available and even developing new ones, studying ancient sources, such as treaties and manuals for painters which described how the artifacts had been made, and gradually acquiring an increasing competence and capacity to intervene.

This unavoidable revolution not only changed the history of restoration and the techniques it employed, it also involved a transformation in the concept of the work of art, which gradually evolved over the following decades. Paintings were no longer conceived merely as “images” or expression of “style,” but instead as three-dimensional objects characterized by specific physical features, and therefore constructed, classified and used as such. Whereas the nineteenth-century tradition of connoisseurs had focused on investigating the characteristic qualities of an artist by studying brushstrokes, composition and the most miniscule details so as to distinguish the hand of the master from that of the workshop, imitator, copyist, or forger, by the end of the twentieth century the attribution of an ancient canvas had become more and more frequently certified by means of chemical and physical analyses of pigments, infrared reflectography that gauges the underlying drawing or its absence, and radiographs which reveal alterations or other earlier paintings. The masters who painted on wood are distinguished according to their carpentry work, and the painters who used gilded supports by the different types of decorative punches they used. Similarly, the characteristics of the canvas (materials, weaving style, number of threads in the weft) and its preparation constitute specific elements.

Roberto Longhi’s death in Florence in 1970 also contributed to marking the end of an era. Thereafter, the most renowned foreign experts—contemporaries of Longhi who had practiced, however, a different approach to investigating art history—published books with increasing frequency and became known to the younger generations of Italian scholars. This led to paintings becoming examples of style, whereby “form” in cultural heritage took precedence as the foundation for investigating iconographic or historical content and identifying an anthropological aspect.

In 1981 Hans Belting published Das Bild und sein Publikum im Mittelalter: Form und Funktion früher Bildtafeln der Passion, which contained a new reading of the medieval artistic production of the imago pietatis, and advanced the thesis that “moveable” artworks as we call them—in other words made on wood or canvas rather than on a wall—constituted a new category of artistic expression that multiplied in the Christian West for precise devotional reasons, linked to the cult of the relics carried by Crusaders, and to the spirituality that the mendicant orders disseminated among the bourgeois classes.

It is within this cultural context, a far from obvious one for a California artist, that Barry X Ball’s production finds its place right from the earliest phase.

Fig. 2: Barry X Ball in front of ‘I Object’, 1986

Born in 1955 in Pasadena on the eastern outskirts of Los Angeles, the first of four children in a family of fundamentalist Protestants, Ball was raised by his grandfather, an evangelical pastor and car mechanic who taught him the rudiments of engines and transmitted his faith in technology as the route to progress. In the spring of 1977, Ball graduated from Pomona College in Claremont, California, where figures such as John Cage and James Turrell were alumni. Ball had initially enrolled to study mathematics and economics, but he signed up at once for a drawing course, even though art and museums were discouraged in the family for religious reasons. This was how he met the young and charismatic teacher, Timothy App, and the equally excellent art history professor Gerald Ackerman, both of whom encouraged him to pursue a career as an artist. Ball admired Marcel Duchamp, and the first conceptual drawings he produced, inspired by Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstrokes and Frank Stella’s Black Paintings, constituted his first acts of “appropriation.”

Ball’s return home after graduation proved very difficult from the outset and led him to move to Los Angeles where he set up his first studio. Six months later he decided to move to New York, crossing the United States in an old Volkswagen Kombi and making a sort of pilgrimage to the museums in major cities until reaching his destination in April, 1978.

Thanks to a mutual friend from university, Ball immediately contacted Joseph Marioni, a well-known monochrome painter who hosted him for some time in his studio before Ball found a large room of his own on the corner of 11th Avenue and 44th Street, where he lived and worked for about ten years.

Fig. 3: Barry X Ball, ‘Largen 1’ (Before / After Giotto), 1982–83. Wood, wax, linen, gesso, bole, 23K gold, 17 3/8 x 17 3/8 in; Barry X Ball Studio, NY

It was during this period that he developed his artistic identity. Through Marioni he got to know the group of painters who had taken abstractionism to its extreme consequences and, under the influence of Minimalism, had found in monochrome painting the most radical answer to the question: “What shall I paint today?” Despite the bond of friendship that united them, Ball judged them as the artistic equivalent of the rigid religiosity practiced by his family, since they had made their way of painting into a virtually incontrovertible cult. Within a short time he considered them “painters as radical as fundamentalist Christians.”

After the Second World War, the United States had seen several artistic movements burgeon and become established in fast succession while also overlapping, among them Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art, all of which created a particularly lively cultural climate and market, especially in New York. At the beginning of the 1980s, the rigor and theories of minimal and conceptual art were still exerting influence on the new generation, but no longer constituted a required canon to be pursued. From then on young artists no longer felt united by a single common denominator and so began to seek their own way. The period of “art movements” was substantially over, replaced by a multiplicity of individual responses about the how and why of making art, which expressive means to use, and the purposes of art in present-day society.

Fig. 4: Giotto, ‘The Adoration of the Magi’, c. 1320. Tempera on wood, gold ground, 17 3/4 x 17 1/4 in; John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1911, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Barry X Ball systematically visited the major contemporary art galleries, read the magazines Art in America, Artforum, and October, where in issue 25 from 1983 he was particularly interested by the first publication of Leo Steinberg’s text, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. The strict evangelical education he had received inclined him to take an interest in religious art, particularly medieval and Renaissance, which had formerly been prohibited to him due to its link with Catholicism. He visited museums and churches in New York, fascinated by their rich neo-Gothic style. At university he had received a sound historical and critical education, but he now felt the need to acquire an equally adequate artisan’s training. This led him to study Ralph Mayer’s renowned manual of painting techniques, The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, and he also taught himself woodworking, subscribing to the magazine Fine Woodworking and carefully reading Tage Frid’s books. He also devoted himself diligently to drawing, experimenting with different types of supports in particular. He studied gilded papers, Giotto and Simone Martini’s gilded wood panels at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cennino Cennini’s treatise, the ancient techniques of working with plaster and bole, and the preparation of wood panels for painting.

Ball created his first works in 1982 using unconventional materials, following the typical contemporary art practice of seeking technical means that would supersede the traditional idea of “art object,” and more particularly the separation between painting and sculpture. In this period his work focused on the materials and techniques used to create the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century polyptychs from central Italy. These works include Panel 1 and Panel 3: small square gold grounds made with extreme precision according to ancient procedures, without figures and each in a different gold, similar to type used for Italian polyptychs and Russian icons. These precious metals particularly interested Ball due to their quality of reflecting not only light but also the viewer’s face, whose reflection therefore becomes the only figurative element visible in the work (fig. 2). Ball attended to every detail with the utmost precision in order to accentuate both the technique and the meaning of the work: every part of these works, front or back, visible or concealed, has been treated as equally important and executed with the same degree of perfection. The small format of these pieces compels viewers to focus their attention, it emphasizes every detail, intensifies the importance of the spaces deliberately left vacant between the elements, and encourages the works being viewed from the front alone. Although some of them are wall-hung, and in principle could be considered as monochrome paintings, they are not paintings but complex, three-dimensional objects, as proposed by the restoration procedures prescribed after the Florence flood.

Fig. 5: Cimabue, ‘Crucifix (after the flood)’, 1272–80. Church of Santa Croce, Florence

Between 1982 and 1983 Ball created Largen 1 (Before / After Giotto) (fig. 3), inspired by Giotto’s Adoration of the Magi in the Metropolitan Museum of New York (fig. 4). This work could be seen as the first example of the series that Ball was to call Masterpieces: intensely re-elaborated works based on masterworks from the past. The Giottesque panel has been stripped of every figurative element and reduced to 400 square sheets of gold leaf laid in regular rows on a support composed of successive layers of wood, wax, linen, plaster, and bole. The original dimensions have been transformed into a 44 x 44 cm perfect square, a number that embodies various meanings. It was in fact at the Metropolitan Museum that Cimabue’s Crucifix (fig. 5), severely damaged in the 1966 flood and newly restored, was exhibited between September 6 and November 11, 1982. The work had an enormous impact on Ball. He carefully read the catalogue and studied the restoration procedures. However, as Jean-Pierre Criqui wrote in 1990, “Barry X Ball’s artworks have no archaic character. This is not only due to their aniconic appearance or the fact that they retain only the non-figurative elements of the fourteenth-century panels. It is the way in which they insistently oppose a single frontal view (made very seductive, however, due to the reflecting effect of the precious metal) that seems to me the most convincing clue to their rootedness in a formal line of thought whose main representatives are painters such as Mondrian and Ryman.” In 1984 Ball made his first trip to Europe, visiting Germany, where he met artists linked to the monochrome painters’ group, then Paris, Ghent, Colmar, Florence, and Siena, where he was finally able to see for himself the Tuscan Gothic architecture, sculptures and altarpieces of the artists he had studied in American books and museums. His subsequent visits to Italy became increasingly frequent and centered on Tuscany and Rome, until 2003, when he began to include Venice and Milan.

Fig. 6: ‘I Object’ (1986) in case

His investigations developed greater complexity and focused on a range of themes, such as the relationship between the artwork and the wall behind, and the artwork’s position in space, but also the dramatic event and our perception of dismantled and partially dispersed polyptychs, where any reconstruction attempt is always hypothetical.

The 1987–88 Twelve Identical Units series recalls the sequence of twelve gold panels depicting the apostles from a dismantled polyptych; it is the first work to hang floating in the empty space of a history unknown to us, suspended by taut wires between the floor and ceiling. This type of presentation also alludes to the interpretation of the crucified Christ as Man/ God who places himself between heaven and earth through his redemptive death.

Ejaculate n. from 1989 is a direct reference to the aforementioned text by Steinberg published in the magazine October. In it, divine fertility refers to man who generates other human beings, and to the artist who creates. Diptych, 1987–91, like Action Painting and The Art of Dying, 1990–91, investigates the various relationships between two works, in space and with light.

In 1982 Ball began to personally produce carefully constructed packaging for his work, which he considered conceptually part of the “moveable work” as such (fig. 6). In fact, the idea of a “moveable work” (already existent in the fourth century in the form of ivory consular diptychs, and later in the thirteenth century as small polyptychs for private devotional use, often depicting the imago pietatis) has been transformed in today’s world into an unprecedented practice, with paintings and sculptures traveling continuously from one part of the globe to the another, from one exhibition to another, from one art fair to another, and from one collector to another. Hence Ball’s containers constantly accompany the artwork: they can be exhibited together with the artwork they are designed to transport and are equipped with everything required to attach it to the wall, from different types of wall anchors to gloves, detailed written instructions, and maintenance tools. All these elements are considered part of a single entity. In this way they are transformed from simple containers into reliquaries or ostensories for displaying the artwork they hold.

The new series Ball produced between 1990 and 1993, significantly titled The Not Painting Collection, constituted a shift in his work towards greater conceptual and material complexity, in which the creation of his pieces entailed a specific prior investigation into materials—unusual in the arts—as well as the use of special equipment and engineering designs for their production. Since then, Barry X Ball’s work has depended on computerized design.

The complex combination of materials for the high reliefs of The Not Painting Collection (Corian produced by DuPont, glass, gold, and various types of pigments) refers to the main components that make up a picture: the glass show case placed above is the solidified binder that fixes the color (usually oil or acrylic) while allowing it to be seen; the pigment it contains in the form of powder is color in its purest state; the structure in Corian is the support for the color and its binder; the gesture of the painter who creates the painting is captured in the thick layers of drippings on the lower gold or silver panel. In this way Ball dismantles the painting into its separate component parts, recomposing it afterwards in such a different way that it can no longer be called “painting.”

The historical and artistic references in this series are also numerous and above all inspired by the Tuscan Gothic style: the alternation of black and white bands on church buildings, the spiral columns on aedicules (in Tableau Vivant, 1992–93), the square tiles often placed on the sides of portals, the widespread devotion to the Virgin and the written word (in The Birth of the Virgin, 1990–91), and the use of precious metals. The overall form of the bas-relief is that of an inverted cross, an allusion to the cross of St. Peter, the first Catholic pope, and to a doubt as to whether salvation can derive from a purely human entity. The artist wrote in a statement on this series of works: “All of my work from the early 1980s through The Not Painting Collection featured at least one gilded panel… My intention was to create a frozen ‘masculine’ mirror-fountain of cultured spontaneity, emanating from/reflecting the crotch, ‘spouting’ in heartfelt tribute to the heart-level ‘feminine’ vessel above.”

In addition to the decorative richness of the Gothic style, an interest in Baroque forms characterizing papal Rome began to appear. An early example is the small 1994 Signature Work, in which the minimalist purity of the early gilded panels is abandoned in favor of a greater three-dimensionality and a feeling of horror vacui.

The next step was A Profusion of Loss, 1993–95, Ball’s first large-scale work and one that “appropriates” a famous lost work: The Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, whose central part is still known thanks to a drawing by Rubens in the Louvre collection, which was either made from a cartoon or from a copy of the original. Ball’s title therefore underlines the concept of the loss of the masterpiece. For this work the artist created an installation of fifty-five elements that float suspended in front of the wall, evoking the movement of Ruben’s eleven figures. Each consists of a silver Victorian frame containing black and white stripes in Corian, a reference to the rigatino technique restorers developed at the time to integrate the missing parts of a painting. The stripes confer a strong and deliberate dynamism to the whole composition. The comments Ball wrote about this work can also be applied in general to the Masterpieces: “I have utilized The Battle of Anghiari as a point of departure, not as a creation codex. The resultant translation into three-dimensions of a venerable two-dimensional ‘warhorse’ is far from mimetic. … Bloody, beautifully rendered crucifixions, martyrdoms, torture scenes … and battles permeate the history of art. The combination of beauty and violence is powerfully seductive. With this creation, I too have succumbed. By isolating and abstracting selected elements of the Leonardo-cum-Rubens work, I have transformed an exquisitely balanced High Renaissance composition into what looks to be an au courant ‘scatter piece.’”

After this work, Ball definitively took the path of three-dimensionality, free from any relationship with the wall and devoted to confronting the surrounding space. Between 1995 and 1997 he made a series of works in black and white Corian, presented as objects suspended in the air by means of taut cables, and in which sculpture, painting and architecture are fused. Whereas the cables are lines in space reminiscent of the art of Fred Sandback, the weight of the synthetic marble is negated by the floating, airy and enigmatic appearance of the forms. These B/W Sculptures resemble bold contemporary buildings and play with mathematical aspects of perspective, but they also originate from Tuscan Gothic monuments (fig. 1) and could be rightfully included in the Masterpieces category.

After an experimental work in 1997–98, a self-portrait in which Ball tested the possibilities of Corian for making curved and complex shapes like those of the human head, he suddenly took an apparently different direction from his previous path and began to produce figurative sculptures in marble.

The use of synthetic materials presented what Ball experienced as limits to his creativity, such as the reduced number of available colors and the homogeneity of the texture.

Moreover, in creating his self-portrait he experimented for the first time with the new digital technologies, and although they were still at little more than at an embryonic stage, he saw in them new and exciting possibilities. The first stage in creating the self-portrait was a 3D digital head scan made in a special effects film studio, subsequently transformed by a rudimentary CNC milling machine into a three-dimensional prototype. Immediately after making this sculpture Ball contacted the Stone Division of Johnson Atelier in Mercerville, New Jersey, where some of the first CNC machines were being used cut stone.

This led to Ball’s decision to use the new technologies to create in creating the portrait of one of the people dearest to him: Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, who had collected about fifty percent of Ball’s earliest work. Made between 1998 and 2001, the portrait is one of by far the first marble artworks in the world to have been produced with the assistance of the new technological tools, now widely used in making sculptures. The process was complex and required several progressive stages: the cast of the collector’s head; the creation of the “positive” resin copy; the 3D scan of the resin head; the computerized processing of the virtual 3D image in order to accommodate the artist’s changes and determine the sculpture’s final size; the transfer of the virtual image to the computer-numerically-controlled (CNC) milling machine which carved the head in marble; and, finally, the long process of hand finishing the stone to create the definition of details and individual parts, such as the undercuts, which the CNC mill was unable to carry out (fig. 7). It is important to note that the work executed by the robotic diamond-tipped cutting tools leaves surface markings on the marble in the form of small raised flutes. Beginning with his first stone sculpture, Ball decided to leave visible at times these flutes that are deliberately carved in various directions as a sign of the creative process. Later the flutes are often modified or made more regular by hand. The tools used for the last, lengthy artisanal finishing operation are also very often developed or adapted by the artist, who “borrows” them from various fields, such as surgery, dentistry or precision mechanics.

The portrait of Giuseppe Panza is not only the result of a technical revolution that has radically transformed the millennial art of marble and stone sculpture, but also, from a stylistic and conceptual point of view, it has provided an opportunity to engage in the no less ancient tradition of portraiture that uses these materials. The sculpture’s resemblance to its subject is impressive because it recreates the facial details derived from the cast. The practice of remembering the dead through their death mask is very old, and in this regard, Barry was much impressed by the mask of Filippo Brunelleschi, located in Florence at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. However, Panza in his portrait is presented as completely bald, an unrealistic element, and also unclothed. The head without hair and the absence of any attire are features present in all of Ball’s portraits to date. The very radical explanation of this choice, especially for female figures, is linked to Ball’s desire to eliminate any precise stylistic element that might link the work to its time. In this way it is given a universal and objective character, even beyond connotations of gender or social status.

Fig. 7: ‘Pseudogroup of Giuseppe Panza’ in progress at the Johnson Atelier, New Jersey, 1999

The portrait also aims to interpret Panza’s character in a psychological and historical sense, according to a centuries-old tradition: his mild manner and his love of beauty are rendered with the purity of white Macedonian marble in the most refined classical tradition, devoid of imperfections; his expression is reflective and concentrated, sometimes depicted with closed eyes as if “looking inside himself.” The work, titled Pseudogroup of Giuseppe Panza, consists of nine heads in three different sizes that can be variously arranged with a freedom that contradicts the rules of academic perspective. As a whole, the composition is meant to evoke a museum hall from antiquity, specifically a portrait room from the Roman republican period or early imperial period, given the naturalistic nature of the sculptures from that era, which saw idealistic representations abolished in favor of ones of greater realism. Giuseppe Panza, who in his role as an enlightened collector of contemporary American art significantly increased the collections of important museums, is therefore represented as an art patron from antiquity, one of the men who helped found the civilization and art with which the Western world, after two thousand years, still identifies itself to this day. The collector’s portrait is created in a way that eliminates the “style” of the work, so as to place it at the point where art history ends: past and present merge into a new reality, which passes through technology.

Between 2000 and 2007 Barry X Ball produced a series of portraits of people linked to the art world and its entourage, including artists, collectors and dealers. A number of these works are on display at Villa Panza, demonstrating the different directions Ball’s work has taken.

For his sculptures, Ball uses highly colored marbles (such as Pakistani onyx), ones with “surface imperfections” (such as Mexican onyx with prominent cavities), ones with internal veins (such as honey-colored calcite), translucent ones (such as white Iranian onyx), or ones that are semi-precious (such as lapis lazuli). Many of these marbles were not historically used for sculpture because they would have shattered under the chisel blows. They can only be cut with the diamond tools used today, and they often require lengthy processing times.

Ball is able to develop new forms thanks to 3D computer design, which completely replaces the handmade preparatory sketch. The head becomes elongated, transformed into two joined heads, or made complex by superimposing different textures, such as relief patterns, over the flutes left by CNC cutters.

Fig. 8: Barry X Ball, Ca’ Rezzonico Photo Series, 2011–14. Manipulated digital photograph Epson Stylus Pro 3880 archival inkjet print on Slickrock Metallic Pearl 260 paper mounted on aluminium with 1-ply ragboard interlayer, print 15-3/8 x 23-1/8 in, framed dimension 24-1/4 x 32 x 2-1/4 in, artist’s proof 3/3, Fondation Mattioli Rossi, CH

Moreover, Ball carefully studies the possible relationship of the sculpture to its surrounding space, presenting different solutions at different times: he has placed some sculptures on a simple steel pole, or on a pure white base whose minimalist form and color announces its affiliation to the twenty-first century; some he has even suspended from the ceiling via a complex system of cables and stainless-steel javelins, which also alludes to the macabre tradition of displaying severed enemy heads impaled on poles. The series of photographic works Ball subsequently created for his solo exhibition at Ca’ Rezzonico in Venice reveal how he conceives and presents his sculptures not only as individual objects but as actual installations, not rigidly predetermined but with the possibility of being altered according to their relationship with a specific space.

The way in which Ball reworks his subjects might make them seem only a pretext for the sculptor’s imagination. Yet besides the facial resemblance guaranteed by the objectivity of the cast—the starting point of the creative process—the complexity of the final elaboration is always connected to a deep psychological reading of each individual, their personal story, and their relationship to the artist. The first of two examples of this is the portrait of Matthew Barney, whom Barry X Ball often sees as an artistic alter ego. He portrays Barney as a man imbued with an energy that comes from above, as if through a funnel, wrapped in his bodiless skin as if it were a cloak, pierced by a pointed, gilded javelin, and suspended in an ambiguous state between life and death, like a Crucifix between Heaven and Hell.

The second example is the series of portraits of Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, who was Ball’s gallerist at the time. Their complex surfaces and translucent marbles create blurred effects that nullify the perception of an essentially hard and heavy material. In this work Ball wanted to address the nineteenth-century tradition of the romantic portrait, capturing his female subject in a moment of tender emotion and melancholy, immersed in a daydream, far from her usual identity as a successful business-woman. For works from this period Ball chose particularly long, elaborate and poetic titles that give a detailed description of the character, the artist’s intention, and the materials used. At times they parody the expressions used by auction houses, while explicitly challenging the brief and enigmatic Untitled that so many artists have used for their work in recent decades.

Fig. 9 (left): Antonio Corradini, ‘The Veiled Lady (Purity)’, 1720–25. Italian marble, Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice; Fig. 10 (right): Giusto Le Court, ‘Envy’, c. 1670. Italian marble, Ca’ Rezzonico, Venezia

During the initial years of the twenty-first century Ball faced constant difficulties in having his works accepted since their formal nature was so different from those of his early production. He felt extremely alone in his radical choices, misunderstood by his first collectors, isolated from New York’s artistic scene, and far removed from the predominant taste of the time. His portraits often express not only the character of the personalities depicted and their relationship with him, but also feelings of anguish. This state of mind was mitigated solely by Ball’s strong desire to pursue his experimentation in total freedom from the conditions of the system and the market. 

The new Masterpiece series undertaken in 2008 reveals a new sensuality, expressed in more explicitly erotic forms, embodying a poetic spirituality.

Fig. 11: ‘Sleeping Hermaphrodite’, 2nd century BC. Greek marble, mattress by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1620), Louvre, Paris

References to ancient works were already present in Ball’s early works and again in the portraits, although in an intermediated form, such as the Roman portraiture in the Panza Pseudogroup or the Nefertiti Bust from the Neues Museum in Berlin in Hard Dark Soft Light from 2000–02. From 2008 on the artist relinquished this type of intermediation and began to work directly from the classical source via 3D scanning. This is the approach used for the Masterpiece series, which comprises several versions of Purity and Envy, inspired respectively by The Veiled Lady (Purity) (1720-25) by Antonio Corradini (fig. 9), and Giusto Le Court’s Envy (c. 1670, fig. 10). The series also includes the Sleeping Hermaphrodite based on the Hellenistic marble Sleeping Hermaphrodite, which lies on the mattress sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1620), now in the Louvre (fig. 11), and Perfect Forms from Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) by Umberto Boccioni (fig. 12), one of the avant-garde masterworks that marked the beginning of modern sculpture. Ball’s work continued in the direction indicated by the portraits, using stones with very particular characteristics or other materials, but always ones different from those of the original sources of inspiration, and with modifications to parts of the chosen models in order to transform their meaning.

Fig. 12: Umberto Boccioni, ‘Unique Forms of Continuity in Space’, 1913. Plaster, Museu de Arte Moderna, São Paulo

Although derived from artworks by different sculptors working fifty years apart, Envy and Purity, become a couple whose forms are mirrored and whose bases and rear views are similar. They are made from contrasting stones, and the serenely composed sensuality of the former is counterbalanced by the aggressive and anguished old age of the latter.

Employing a single block of marble Sleeping Hermaphrodite (fig. 13) Ball merges the two main elements of the work in the Louvre, made centuries apart in different locations and in different marbles. The Louvre sculptures is comprised of a Roman era marble statue based on an ancient Greek model, probably in bronze, and Bernini’s sculpted mattress, which lends the figure a more explicit and transgressive erotic character. In Ball’s work, the various effects achieved while processing the surfaces (polished, opaque, matte, and fluted), typical of all his marble work, accentuate the differences between the materials and increase their sensuality. The Belgian black marble (an exceptionally large block for this variety of stone) not only creates a separate unity unrelated to the original, but also emphasizes the inconsistencies present in the anatomy of the neck and the back, and in the proportions of the legs and the mattress (which in Ball’s version is stiff like a tray rather than bent under the weight of the figure). In this way, an image traditionally perceived as realistic reveals distortions that seem modernist.

Ball’s work based on Boccioni’s sculpture once again involves a significant change in materials: the Italian artist never used marble and gold, prohibited by economic reasons and because he considered them linked to an outdated artistic conception. Ball’s use of marble also replaced the “per porre” technique of using plaster (mostly practiced by painters who make sculpture) with the “per levare” technique used by sculptors such as Michelangelo. Boccioni quickly prepared his work in clay. A professional then made a plaster mold from it and also assisted in the static modeling, since Boccioni was inexperienced. The final result, extraordinary for the novelty and boldness of form and the dynamic result, was, however, rather coarse in the definition of surfaces and details, which is also true of the bronze versions. Ball amended every surface and every line, accentuating the aerodynamic form of the sculpture, which he likes to compare to the bodywork of a Ferrari. In his version, Ball exaggerates Boccioni’s idea that in the body in motion air and light are fused, by transforming the sculpture into a “liquid” form. In fact, in the gold version, the form dissolves via the reflective effects, whereas in the Belgian black marble version, it becomes a disquieting and indefinable presence due to the delicacy of its polished surfaces. Ball’s Perfect Forms is a mirror image of Boccioni’s Unique Forms. The technique of 3D scanning and subsequent computer processing that Ball uses for his sculptures is never explicitly shown in his work, except for the left-right reversal, which can only be perfectly achieved by digital technology.

Fig. 13: Scanning the ‘Sleeping Hermaphrodite’, Louvre

A further example of the Masterpiece series is the Pietà in translucent white onyx, [previously] on display in the Sala degli Scarlioni at Castello Sforzesco in Milan (a work which is discussed in Sergio Risaliti’s essay for this catalog). Ball’s monumental sculpture was inspired by Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà in the same museum complex. A number of other Masterpieces are in progress: San Bartolomeo inspired by the homonymous statue by Marco d’Agrate in the Milan Cathedral; Ilaria del Carretto, based on the funerary monument by Jacopo della Quercia in Lucca Cathedral; Le Marie e Maddalena, from the Lamentation over the Dead Christ ensemble by Niccolò dell’Arca in the church of Santa Maria della Vita in Bologna; and the Portrait of Michelangelo Buonarroti, based on the bronze version by Daniele da Volterra, also in the Civic Art Collections of Castello Sforzesco in Milan.

Ball’s most recent work, shown for the first time in this exhibition, is Pope Saint John Paul II, a portrait of the saint made in silver, palladium, rhodium and gold. This time the sculpture is not a work in marble but an object in precious metals fused by the highly experienced, technically skilled goldsmiths of Damiani, once again following a tradition that dates back to the Tuscan Gothic. In fact, Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti were both members of the Florentine order of goldsmiths or “Arte degli Orefici.”

The change of material arose out of practical necessity: in 2012 Ball resigned from the Digital Stone Project (the new foundation succeeded the Johnson Atelier Stone Division) to construct a spacious, fully equipped studio of his own where he could create large-scale works. At the same time he received a prestigious commission: the official portrait of His Serene Highness, Albert II, Sovereign Prince of Monaco. For this he invented new technologies, based, as always, on 3D digital modeling and, most importantly, a completely new type of portrait sculpture. Prince Grimaldi’s portrait (2012–15, fig. 14) is an 18-carat solid gold life-size head, now displayed in an artist-designed vitrine in the Gallery of Mirrors at the Princely Palace of Monaco. The work is exceptional in that it is constructed as a sort of armillary sphere in which different forms referring to the identity of the sovereign are contained one inside the other. Whereas Ball’s marble works elaborate the surfaces, superimposing the various textures of marble veining, the flutes left by the cutting tool, and Victorian floral arabesques, the Grimaldi portrait was created from the inside, moving outwards until the final external form was achieved, the result of the combined effect of centrifugal and centripetal forces. The variously patterned surfaces allow one to see the forms inside. The portrait faithfully reproduces the subject’s facial features and the heraldic emblems of the Principality, but in the form of marine vegetation (alluding to the sovereign’s oceanographic research and commitment to the protection of the seas).

The same idea is developed in the portrait of the Pope, which was elaborated and executed over a particularly long period of time: from 2012 to 2018. In this case the portrait arises from the sculptor’s interest in the figure of the Pope, whom Ball had seen while standing among the crowd on the papal visit to New York in October 1979, and from the desire to add to an important tradition, represented, among other works, by those Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The overall image (the head wearing the miter) and the material used (silver covered in palladium and rhodium) mark a return to the iconography of the silver half-busts of sainted bishops, one of the most widespread types of historical reliquaries. But Barry X Ball has constructed his Pope Saint John Paul II along the lines of the portrait His Serene Highness, Albert II, Sovereign Prince of Monaco, in other words as a three-dimensional succession of figurative elements, ranging from details of the Baroque decorations in San Pietro’s Basilica in Rome to the pontifical coat of arms, and from references to significant episodes of the saint’s life to his personal interests and his devotion to the Virgin Mary. The pope’s miter is thus transformed into a visual summa of his life, including the Second World War, the period spent under Communist government, his passion for skiing, the assassination attempt in Piazza San Pietro, his election to the papacy and the final years of his illness. This accumulation of details, easily identifiable for their realism, consciously incorporates popular devotion to the saint, which requires recognizable forms and events that follow the ancient tradition of narrative art, as opposed to the enigmatic modes of contemporary artistic expression or the banal stylization of forms.

Fig. 14: Barry X Ball, ‘His Serene Highness Albert II, Sovereign Prince of Monaco’ (the Princely Head, suffused with various species of intertwined marine vegetation, containing foliated symbols of the Principality of Monaco and the Prince’s monogram, with alternating polished and matte passages), 2012–15. 18K gold, 13.7 x 7.1 x 9.4 in

The challenge Ball encountered with this work was a real risk: he wanted to combine the excellence of the Renaissance and Baroque tradition of portraiture for popes and high prelates with the needs of today’s popular religiosity, in order to create, with the assistance of the most advanced technology, a work of contemporary art worthy of the name and on a par with those of the past. Pope Saint John Paul II is not only a technical tour de force, but also a challenge to the most accredited canons and dogmas of contemporary art, which are being called into question at their source: not in terms of the usual opposition of ancient and modern—which I would call consumerist and by now consumed—but in terms of a true reversal, like that of left and right, which only digital instruments are able to perform.

The idea that characterized Ball’s first gold leaf panels is still alive and recognizable here: the material reality of the object is still fundamental, so much so that on the Pope’s face there are small signs that demonstrate the ancient way in which the embossed precious metal sheet was attached to the wooden structure of the artifacts. Indeed, all these works originate from the same analytic procedure of dismantling and recomposing the parts of the object. The final form generated by this substantially conceptual approach can vary widely.

This then is a summary of the first thirty-six years of the art of Barry X Ball, a California artist working during both between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Ball’s appreciation for Duchamp has not changed even if his references have ranged widely across the centuries, until arriving at a tête-à-tête with Bernini in papal Rome and Michelangelo’s final Pietà. A work of art is a material entity, created by humans and dependent on the technical tools available to them at a given historical moment. The artwork “is what it is,” according to the American minimalist definition, but it also expresses the culture of its maker. Today this culture is represented by works from every period and every place, preserved in museums or historical sites and increasingly accessible to a growing number of people. In this way our “globalized civilization” has created a syncretism of substantially equal and interchangeable aesthetic models that has erased the notion of “art history” canonized in the nineteenth century as a development of typologies and forms, and in which the origins and purpose of the major and oldest museums are found. For contemporary art, finding inspiration in Giotto or Boccioni no longer entails a move between stylistically or historically contrasting models. For contemporary artists, “art history” is over.


  1. Published by Gebr. Mann, Berlin; English edition: Hans Belting, The Image and Its Public in the Middle Ages: Form and Function of Early Paintings of the Passion (New Rochelle: A.D. Caratzas, 1990).
  2.  Oral communication.
  3. Jean-Pierre Criqui, Barry X Ball, exhibition catalog (Centre d’art contemporain du domaine de Kerguéhennec, June 30 – August 26, 1990), n.p. (11–12).
  4. See Belting, The Image and Its Public in the Middle Ages.
  5. Barry X Ball, Statement for The Not Painting Collection, 1993.
  6. Barry X Ball, Statement for A Profusion of Loss, 1995.
  7. Barry X Ball, Statement for Panza Pseudogroup, 2003: “An alginate and plaster mold is made of my subjects’ heads and necks at my studio. I also take a series of reference photographs at that time (full ‘head shots’ as well as ‘details’ of cranial/facial features). The casting/photographing procedure takes about 4 hours. Immediately after life-casting, a polymer-modified plaster positive is derived from the initial head/neck mold. The positive cast is typically quite rough when it emerges from the mold and requires extensive hand-carving to be transformed into an accurate facsimile of the subject. Sometimes the plaster eyes are carved open. (The subjects have their eyes closed when they are cast.) An invented neck termination is shaped and appended to the head. To transform the completed plaster model into stone, it is first digitized via cylindrical 3-dimensional laser scanning. The entire virtual construction is then variously scaled (50%, 75%, 100%, etc.) before being converted into machine language. The initial stone shaping is accomplished on computer-controlled (CNC) milling machines. After diamond wire-saw and bridge-saw sizing, the trimmed stone blocks (white Macedonian marble for the Panza Pseudogroup) were diamond core drilled to establish the axis (corresponding to that of the model) that would eventually become the sculpture’s mounting line. Next followed many days of glacially slow computer-controlled carving, with multiple passes by progressively finer tooling, on a 3-axis CNC lathe. The final milling passes were specified so that the heads were encircled with dense webs of parallel micro-flutes in various sizes and directions (vertical, horizontal, diagonal). Months of hand carving/ polishing followed the CNC milling. The polished areas (eyes and neck recesses) were finally masked and the matte passages sandblasted.”
  8. Barry X Ball, Portraits and Masterpieces, Venice, Ca’ Rezzonico, June 4 – October 31, 2011.
  9. The technical difficulties Damiani encountered in executing the work have led to a delay in its completion. The sculpture will therefore be presented during the exhibition, at the beginning of the summer, rather than for the inauguration. For the opening, a work of smaller dimensions will be on show (Matthew Barney – BXB Dual Portrait), in gilded silver and black enamel, depicting the same subject, see pp. 94–95.