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Germano Celant. Photo: Ugo Dalla Porta/Fondazione Prada.
Germano Celant. Photo: Ugo Dalla Porta/Fondazione Prada.

Germano Celant (1940–2020)

Germano Celant, the towering Italian critic, curator, and art historian whose wide-ranging writing, exhibition-making, and scholarship altered the trajectory of contemporary art and made him a leading voice in the field, has died in Milan at eighty years old due to complications from Covid-19. The author of hundreds of books, essays, and articles that coincided with as many large-scale shows, Celant is most closely affiliated with Arte Povera, a term he coined in 1967 for the association of avant-garde artists who made meaning from mundane materials and challenged art’s symbolic function, formal conventions, and commodity status in postwar Italian culture.

Celant was born in Genoa, northern Italy, in 1940. Among his earliest memories are of skirmishes between Communist workers and neofascists; such events would deeply impact Celant, whose practice was shaped by leftist, working-class perspectives largely shared by artists in turbulent 1960s Italy. At the University of Genoa, he studied with Eugenio Battisti, a historian of sixteenth-century Italian art who inspired the curator’s notion of “baroque vision”—a concept he would later employ in his ambitious, multiplex exhibitions. In 1963, Celant took a job at the cultural magazine Marcatrè, where he earned his first bylines and eventually became editor. Four years later, Flash Art published his Notes for a Guerilla War, the manifesto that articulated and largely established Arte Povera, defined as a “poor art committed to contingency, to events, to the non-historical, to the present.” That same year, Celant organized the watershed exhibition “Arte Povera – Im Spazio” at Galleria La Bertesca in Genoa. The poveristas, working in Rome and Turin during a period of labor militancy, economic instability, and student radicalism in the fallout of the Marshall Plan–pumped “Italian economic miracle,” used recycled materials and everyday objects in a riposte to the slick surfaces of American Pop and Minimalism. They included Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Luciano Fabro, Piero Gilardi, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Emilio Prini, and Gilberto Zorio.

In 1971, Celant turned from criticism to art history and refocused his attention from Italian art toward wider practices across Europe and the United States. His first large-scale exhibition, “Ambiente/arte dal futurismo alla body art” (“Environment/Art: From Futurism to Body Art”), at the 1976 Venice Biennale, placed installations by Dan Graham, Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman, and others into conversation with immersive work from the historical avant-gardes, including Giacomo Balla, El Lissitzky, Piet Mondrian, and Theo van Doesburg. From 1988 to 2009, Celant served as a senior curator at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. His first show there, a 1989 Mario Merz retrospective, marked the artist’s first solo exhibition in the United States as well as the institution’s first major survey dedicated to a living artist. In 1994, Celant curated the interdisciplinary exhibition “Italian Metamorphosis 1943–1968,” which was unique at the time for its attention to fashion as a mode of cultural expression. In 1993, he became artistic director of the Fondazione Prada, where, in addition to mounting shows dedicated to blue-chip artists (Celant’s 1997 Venice Biennale was criticized, by Artforum’s Dan Cameron and others, for its commercial atmosphere and the real estate given to “much-hyped figures”), he organized experimental exhibitions such as 2018’s “Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943” and his 2013 restaging of Harald Szeemann’s seminal 1969 exhibition of Minimalist and process art, “When Attitudes Become Form.” In addition, Celant served as the artistic director and curator of the Fondazione Aldo Rossi in Milan; curator of the Fondazione Vedova in Venice; curator of art and architecture of La Triennale di Milano; and, since 1981, contributing editor to Artforum.

In this magazine, Celant has authored essays on artists including Mardia Nordman, Vito Acconci, Robert Mapplethorpe, Alighiero Boetti, and Jannis Kounellis. His twenty-five years of writing for Artforum is bookended by writings on his friend Mario Merz: the first a reflection on the “nomadic energy” of his signature igloo structures, the last a tribute to the artist on the occasion of his passing. Celant’s 1982 essay “Framed: Innocence or Guilt” demonstrates his dynamic, deeply relational critical method, which scales upward and outward from object, to environment, to universe:

Why is it that a painting is fundamentally conceived of in terms of the finite object and not as a property of a continuous surface existing in time ad infinitum? The concept of the painted surface is often confused with that of ‘the canvas.’ I propose that painting be thought of as an enormous roll of diversified fabric, woven in a single piece and unrolled in time and in space. This surface extends for miles and miles but never appears on display. Its continuity is interrupted and broken up—cut into—to form innumerable fragments and portions of canvas (paintings), creating intervals and separations the understanding of which could greatly influence our way of thinking about and seeing painting, or for that matter continuity in the history of art.