Mario Nigro was born in Pistoia on 28 June 1917, the youngest of four children. His father was a teacher of mathematics, his mother the daughter of one of Garibaldi’s officers. These origins are behind two aspects that are characteristic of his work: his interest in science and his passion for politics. And we might add a third: his fascination with music, for he started playing the violin and piano when he was only five years old. In 1929, Nigro’s family moved to Livorno where, in 1933, aged sixteen, he began to teach himself to paint in the local post-Macchiaioli tradition, working on expressionist and metaphysical motifs. His education took a decidedly scientific turn, for in 1941 he graduated in Chemistry from Pisa University, where he worked as an assistant in the Institute of Mineralogy until 1944. In 1947 he took his second degree, in Pharmacy, and in the following year he was appointed as Pharmacist at the Spedali Riuniti in Livorno. The political climate in Livorno during the war led Nigro to adopt civil and social ideals, and he began to view painting as an expression of freedom.
In 1946-47, his painting began to adopt a non-objective approach and it did so instinctively, as he himself claimed on several occasions. Naturally inspired by the neo-Cubist current of the time and by the cultural renaissance he witnessed in those years, he soon arrived at a highly original form of dynamic abstractionism, backed up by his scientific and musical training. In 1948 he visited the first great post- war International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia, where he was able to see how closely his research into abstract art was in tune with what was going on in the world.
His son Gianni was born in 1949. In December that year he put on his first solo exhibition at the Libreria Salto in Milan, where he met Lucio Fontana and the Milanese circles of the Movimento Arte Concreta (MAC). In the world of Italian and international concretism, Nigro offered a very personal approach of his own. This was linked to the Futurist dynamics of simultaneity and planned optical iterations, which emerged in his series of “Ritmi continui simultanei” [“Continuous Simultaneous Rhythms”] and “Pannelli a scacchi” [“Chequered Panels”], which offered a new take on Suprematist and neo-plastic roots.
His work of these years enjoyed immediate international success, as can be seen in his invitation to the Réalités Nouvelles salons in Paris in 1951 and 1952. In Italy, however, invitations to the most important exhibitions of the Movimento Arte Concreta (MAC) and to the one of Arte astratta e concreta in Italia [Abstract and Concrete Art in Italy] at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna Valle Giulia in Rome in 1951 were offset by rejections from major festivals such as the Venice Biennale and the Quadriennale in Rome. His work did not escape the attention of perceptive observers like the critic Gillo Dorfles, who in February 1951 wrote the catalogue essay for Nigro’s solo exhibition at the Libreria Salto and, in January 1952, included one of his works in an article in the Paris periodical Art d’aujourd’hui.
1952 also brought the first signs of his investigations of environment art: in January, at the Saletta dell’Elicottero in Milan, he showed a model for the creation of images in space on an environmental scale, using plastic materials, and in March, at the Casa della Cultura in Livorno, he designed the stage set for Nikolai Evreinov’s play Tra le quinte dell’anima [Theatrical Soul], using abstract rhythmic elements.
From the end of 1952, he created his first works in his “Spazio totale” [“Total Space”] series, in an investigation that was to develop over the following decade. He carefully codified this from a theoretical point of view in a series of writings published in 1954 and 1955. During this period his relations with art circles in Florence became more intense through his participation in the activities of Fiamma Vigo’s Galleria Numero. In addition, his contacts with art circles in Milan continued: in May 1955 he took part in an exhibition at the Galleria del Fiore, devoted to a fusion of the arts that led to the founding of the MAC/Espace group, and the merging of the Movimento Arte Concreta (MAC) and the French Groupe Espace.
In 1956 a dramatic tension with a strongly expressive basis developed in Nigro’s work; this was, at least in part, linked to contemporary political events such as the uprising in Hungary, and led to the “Tensioni reticolari” [“Reticular Tensions”] series. At the end of the decade, it prompted him to adopt a style close to that of Art Informel.
In 1957 Michel Seuphor invited Nigro to participate in a major exhibition entitled 50 Ans d’Art Abstrait at the Galerie Creuze in Paris, and his name appeared in the large volume on this theme.
In 1958 he resigned from his post as a pharmacist and he moved to Milan to devote himself to painting. In 1959, he put on three solo exhibitions: at the Galerie Kasper in Lausanne, at the Galleria del Cavallino in Venice, and at the Galleria Annunciata in Milan. A year later, the severe injuries he received in a car crash prevented him from painting for some time.
In 1964 he took part in the Venice Biennale for the first time, after his name was put forward by Lucio Fontana, and he showed his new series of “Collages vibratili” [“Vibratory Collages”], which he developed alongside his research into “Spazio totale”. From 1965 to 1975, Nigro worked on an environmental scale, showing his work also at the Venice Biennale of 1968, where he was given a room of his own in the Italian Pavilion. He joined the protests that became a feature of this much-disputed edition and covered his works just a few hours after the opening.
In the second half of the 1960s, Nigro started the minimal progressive perspective projections of a new cycle, called “Tempo totale” [“Total Time”], followed by “Strutture fisse con licenza cromatica” [“Fixed Structures with Chromatic Licence”], once again accompanying the production of his works with an exhaustive theoretical reflection, as demonstrated by the catalogue of the exhibition held at the Galleria Rizzato-Whitworth in Milan and by the critical work carried out with Carla Lonzi and Paolo Fossati, which led to the first monograph on the artist published by Scheiwiller in Milan in 1968.
In the mid-1970s, he started investigating what he termed his “Concetti strutturali elementari geometrici: dalla metafisica del colore” [“Elementary Geometrical Structural Concepts: from the Metaphysics of Colour”], which he showed at the Venice Biennale in 1978 in a ten-piece work called Dalla metafisica del colore: i concetti strutturali elementari geometrici, Ettore e Andromaca [From the Metaphysics of Colour: Elementary Geometric Structural Concepts, Hector and Andromache]. The following year, on the occasion of his large solo exhibition at the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea in Milan, he created a series of graffiti on the walls of the gallery, linked to a positional analysis of the Golden Section. Thus began his “Analisi della linea” [“Analysis of the Line”], which in 1980 assumed the dramatic form of the “Terremoto” [“Earthquake”]. In 1982, he showed his work Emarginazione [Marginalisation] at the Venice Biennale. The following year, the broken line was enlivened by its metamorphosis into a sequence of dots, giving rise to the “Orizzonti” [“Horizons”] and “Orme” [“Tracks”] series. In 1984, the municipality of Pistoia devoted a large retrospective exhibition to the artist. In the second half of the decade, in his series of “Ritratti” [“Portraits”] and “Dipinti satanici” [“Satanic Paintings”], an increasingly powerful expressiveness was evident in his works. This was constantly related to a scientific vision that was anything but narrative or descriptive, but was rendered explicit in a more rarefied direction in the cycles of the early 1990s, the “Meditazioni” [“Meditations”] and the “Strutture” [“Structures”].
Mario Nigro died in Livorno on August 11, 1992.