Giulio Paolini was born on November 5, 1940, in Genoa. After spending his childhood in Bergamo, he settled in Turin in 1952, where he still lives and works today. It was in the Piedmontese capital that Paolini pursued his studies at the Giambattista Bodoni State Technical Institute for Graphic and Photographic Arts, which he completed at the age of nineteen.
Shortly after obtaining his diploma, Paolini, who had been working in the graphic design field, created his first artwork: “Disegno geometrico” (Geometric Drawing), a canvas on which the artist painted the squared surface in tempera. This marked the beginning of his artistic career, which itself became the origin of any subsequent work. The act of squaring is a preliminary step to all his paintings or sculptures, highlighting the “support,” namely the canvas. Through this decomposition and the valorization of a component of the creative process, Paolini developed his artistic vision.
During his first solo exhibition held in October 1964 at Galleria La Salita in Rome, Paolini not only presented metaphysical reflections on art, primarily in the form of plywood canvases but also reflected on the exhibition process itself. The display appeared incomplete, with artworks not yet hung, resting against each other. This exhibition extended the artist’s reflection from the tools of painting to the relationship between the artwork and its surrounding space.
In 1965, Paolini began incorporating photography into his artistic research, exploring the relationship between the artwork and the author. By including himself in the photographs, he created a connection between the artist and the work. This can be seen in “Delfo” (1965), a photograph of an empty frame with the artist behind it, and the renowned “Diaframma 8” (1965), which captured Paolini carrying a canvas through the city. Later that year, he exhibited new works at Luciano Pistoi’s Galleria Notizie, which became his primary art dealer during that period.
In “Giovane che guarda Lorenzo Lotto” (1967), Paolini offers another perspective on reflection. This photographic reproduction, in the same format, portrays Lorenzo Lotto’s painting “Ritratto di Giovane” (circa 1506). By reversing the title, Paolini aimed to bring attention to the moment of artistic execution and, consequently, the relationship between Lotto and the young subject. Simultaneously, he instils in the viewer the sensation of being the painter. Paolini’s connection with art history remains strong, as does his emphasis on the act of seeing. The artist becomes a witness to the artwork rather than its creator, a mere observer.
In the late 1960s, Paolini became acquainted with the Arte Povera movement through Germano Celant. He exhibited alongside other artists of the movement, such as Boetti and Kounellis, in 1967 at Galleria La Bertesca in Genoa and the following year at Galleria de’ Foscherari in Bologna.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Paolini participated in numerous exhibitions in Italy and abroad, including several editions of the Venice Biennale (1970, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1984, 1986) and Documenta in Kassel (1972, 1977, 1982). He collaborated with avant-garde galleries such as Galleria Notizie in Turin, Galleria del Leone in Venice, La Tartaruga in Rome, and Studio Marconi in Milan, as well as international galleries like Paul Maenz in Cologne, Sonnabend in New York, and Yvon Lambert in Paris. His works were also showcased in retrospective exhibitions at institutions such as the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1980) and the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart (1986). He continued to participate in exhibitions related to Arte Povera and Conceptual Art.
During the 1970 Venice Biennale, Paolini exhibited one of his early connections to classical antiquity, showcasing the artwork “Elegia” (1969), a plaster cast of Michelangelo’s David’s eye—an objectified representation of the act of seeing. Neoclassicism became a preferred reference in his works, with casts, columns, rules of perspective, and more reemerging as memories.
Another significant theme in Paolini’s art is that of duality, sometimes implicit in works like casts, which are by definition duplicates of originals, and sometimes explicit, as seen in the famous work “Mimesi” (various versions from 1975). This series depicts two heads or two classical figures, Hermes or Aphrodite, placed facing each other as if in front of a mirror. The act of “seeing” is emphasized, and the artist stages a complex interplay of relationships and distances between the figures and the viewer.
In the 1980s, a period marked by numerous exhibitions, Paolini’s research focused on theatricality. The artwork became the space for its representation. The aspect of scenography merged with another fundamental element of his artistic vision: perspective, which allowed for the illumination of space while obscuring the visibility of individual objects. Paolini also participated in theatrical productions, designing sets and costumes for Vittorio Alfieri’s play “Bruto II” (Teatro Stabile di Torino) in 1969.
In the last decade of the 20th century, notable events include a retrospective curated by Peter Weibel at the Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum in Graz (1998), subsequently presented at the Civic Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Turin. Francesco Poli curated an important monograph on Paolini, published by Edizioni Lindau in 1990.
In 2003, Germano Celant organized one of the central exhibitions dedicated to Paolini, spanning the years from 1960 to 1972, at the Fondazione Prada in Milan.
The artist continues to investigate, or rather observe, the relationships that constitute the artistic language, particularly between the artwork and the author. In recent years, he has focused on the artist’s studio as a representational scene.
Paolini has participated in numerous solo and group shows, including at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1980); Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart (1986); GNAM, Rome (1988); Fondazione Prada, Milan (2003); Kunstmuseum, Winterthur (2005); Whitechapel Gallery, London (2014); and at various editions of dOCUMENTA in Kassel and the Venice Biennale. Paolini lives and works in Turin.