Piazza Party


Left: Francesco Clemente, MADRE director Eduardo Cicelyn, and architect Álvaro Siza. Right: Designer Sergio Zambon and gallerist Lorcan O'Neill.

On Saturday night I was chauffeured by gallery owner Mimmo Scognamiglio to the opening of the second floor of the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina (MADRE), the second contemporary art museum to open in Naples this year. Scognamiglio had just hosted his own opening, for Roman artist Adrian Tranquilli’s exhibition “Age of Chance,” the night before, and he was still in high spirits. After braving the chaotic traffic, we were ecstatic to find a parking space nearby despite the crowds of Christmas shoppers. When I visited the museum a month ago, the street was torn up and littered with rubble, making it nearly impossible to pass. Now the Palazzo Donnaregina, converted by Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza, has had its original seventeenth-century facade and limestone entrance restored. The design preserves elegant historic features while introducing sleek new spaces that bow gracefully to the display of the artwork. The museum’s neighborhood—in the historical center near the cathedral—is often considered unsafe, and according to City Councillor for culture Rachele Furfaro, the site was chosen to provide an incentive for general revitalization.

Some local gallerists had recently sent a letter of protest to Antonio Bassolino, the president of the region, outlining a conflict with the museum regarding the loan of artworks. Previously mayor of Naples, Bassolino started an initiative to promote contemporary art in the city with a series of public commissions for the Piazza del Plebiscito and exhibitions in the National Archaeological Museum; perhaps the dealers hoped he would intervene on their behalf. Considering this event’s importance to the burgeoning Neapolitan contemporary art scene, surprisingly few artists were around to celebrate. But perhaps they simply hadn’t been invited. The low-key crowd was mostly a mix of local collectors, gallerists, and politicians, though a few, like myself, had traveled south from the capital: Lorcan O’Neill, who owns a gallery in Rome, spotted artist Laurie Anderson (currently visiting the American Academy in Rome); young collectors Stefano and Raffaella Sciarretta, whose Residence Barberini hotel is filled with contemporary art and hosts an artist residency program, were also on hand.

Left: Anthony Sansotta, who for many years has worked with Sol LeWitt, with T293 Gallery's Paola Guadagnino and Marco Altavilla. Right: Artist Riccardo Albanese.

On the first floor of the museum, which opened in June, each of the twelve rooms is dedicated to a site-specific artwork; Jannis Kounellis, Rebecca Horn, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, Mimmo Paladino, and Francesco Clemente—who covered the walls in frescoes—are all featured. The second-floor salons exhibit works made in the past forty years. The astute juxtapositions include one room housing works by Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana, Giulio Paolini, and Cy Twombly. Another brings together Carl Andre, Alighiero Boetti, Dan Flavin, Luciano Fabro, John Baldessari, and Donald Judd. A ground-floor gallery emphasizes the museum’s connection to the city with an exhibition of drawings and models for Anish Kapoor’s new entrance to the Sant’Angelo subway station, one of many where art has been incorporated into the design. Out on the street a vivacious Jannis Kounellis commented, “We must appreciate this beautiful museum. It took a great effort to gather together artworks of this quality here in Naples.” He added acerbically, “When I visit New York now it is apparent that the quality of the work there has become very low. This is not a criticism, just a complaint. For those of us who loved the great art produced there in the past, such as the Minimalism of the '60s and '70s, it is a pity.” Artist Riccardo Albanese noted that most great collections of contemporary art in Italy are private and inaccessible.

An eight-course dinner was served on grand round tables in the soaring, splendidly frescoed oval hall of Palazzo Doria d’Angri. It felt, as one of my dinner companions noted, “like a formal wedding reception.” Aside from the politicians, local gallerists came out in droves: Scognamiglio, Laura Trisorio, Francesco Annarumma, Guido Cabib, Giangi Fonti, Umberto di Marino, and T293’s Paola Guadagnino and Marco Altavilla all appeared, despite their earlier issues with the museum. I tracked down native Neapolitan Francesco Clemente in the smoking room, and he charmingly recounted the beginnings of the city’s efforts to foster a welcoming environment for contemporary art. “When they asked me to come and do a show, I told them that my favorite place was the Archaeological Museum, so they found these great empty spaces that weren’t being used. Bassolino could have a much higher position in the government, but he prefers to be in the trenches getting things done.”

Left: Visitors admire Gilbert and George's Shitty World, 1996. Right: Artist Vera Lutter, MADRE chief curator Mario Codognato, artist Douglas Gordon, and curator Mirta Codognato.

Later Clemente and I caught up with the museum director, Eduardo Cicelyn, and Siza, who explained that for him museum design is simply about access, circulation, and the exhibition halls. Fabio Dumontet of the local architecture firm DAZ, which assisted Siza, related that the design called for digging up earth in the courtyard to build an auditorium, which has a new raised courtyard planted on top of it. In a promising sign of the museum’s acceptance by the local community, neighborhood residents have already zeroed in on local-boy-made-good Clemente’s frescoes. Owing to the tradition of hand-painted walls in Neapolitan restaurants, his vaulted room has been given an endearing nickname: “The Pizzeria.”

Cathryn Drake