PRINT November 1982


THE VENICE BIENNALE, AS CURRENTLY known, is the product of reorganization by the Italian Fascist state; though it was founded in 1895 by the City of Venice, its status was not fixed by law until December 1928, when King Vittorio Emmanuele III and Benito Mussolini declared it an autonomous agency. The law empowered a five-man commission to administer the agency; transferred the exhibition buildings in the Giardini out of city hands; and determined the Biennale’s financial structure—a fusion of funds from national and city governments, admissions, sales commissions, and catalogue receipts. With this law Mussolini both acknowledged the Biennale’s importance and underlined its multiple roles: tourism, national self-promotion, and cultural display were intertwined in a model of 20th-century planning.

This structure, as Lawrence Alloway has written (The Venice Biennale, 1895–1968, New York Graphic Society, 1968), was strong and flexible. It was capable of organizing with near-military efficiency massive quantities of contemporary and historical works, and of coordinating art, people, and spaces among the large international exhibitions and the various nationally managed pavilion shows; but it was also able to respond to the historical events, cultural shifts, and broad evolutionary patterns that characterize the last fifty years. Its development traces a trajectory, to use Alloway’s terms, from “salon to goldfish bowl,” or from servant of a restricted elite to purveyor to a diffuse, expanding audience. The practice of staging art-historical exhibitions, for example, dates from the postwar Biennale of 1948, when the need to stress Modern art’s history and continuity so as to “background” contemporary innovation became clear. The importance of filtering information in today’s image-saturated environment is reflected in the central exhibitions, which were once vast accumulative displays but have been reorganized, in recent years, on thematic or ideological grounds. Most importantly, however, the Biennale has registered the growth of art as a self-servicing and independent industry. Venetian light, sympathetic cafés, crowds, exhibition space, and the general motive of prescribing the “new” proved effective lures: by the late ’60s, press day netted “more artists, dealers, collectors and writers in one place at one time” than anywhere else in the world.

This background throws into relief the confusion and poor attendance of this year’s 40th Biennale, an exhibition described at best as disorganized and at worst as a disaster. Some of its problems were understandable: the Commissioner, Luigi Carluccio, died unexpectedly last December at the São Paulo Biennale, leaving only sketchy plans and incomplete lists to be administered by an international committee. By late spring the opening dates were still unfixed, solid information was unavailable, and rumors of cancellation raged. Other problems were unavoidable, since the Biennale’s once supreme and singular role in presenting and promoting contemporary art has been eroded by other large-scale exhibitions. Yet, as a whole, this year’s Biennale testifies to its organizers’ inability to mobilize, or even grasp, the broad coordinating skills required by such mammoth shows. On the first day of the press previews only some of the national pavilions, independently chosen and overseen by the different countries, were complete; the central pavilion was still a chaos of unarranged works, reshuffled minute-by-minute by troops of workmen. Nearly half the art in the section “Aperto 82,” coordinated by Tommaso Trini, had not been installed; it either lay unattended in packing crates and wrappings or had not yet arrived. What this meant to the exhibiting artists was seemingly ignored. Since most of the missing works were by United States artists, rumors of anti-Americanism raged, replacing the gossip customary to Florian’s with a deep-seated, pervasive unease. Three weeks later the situation had hardly changed: works were missing, boxes lay unopened; labels were either lacking or, in some cases, were misapplied to other art. The overview so central to the Biennale could be constructed only in imagination.

Given these failings it’s hard to make numerical assessments as to the scope of this year’s Biennale. The press information supplied by the Agency was woefully imprecise: although the number of exhibiting nations (38) was fixed, all other figures were given in approximations. Thus we know that “approximately” 1400 works were exhibited, that “approximately” 220 artists were represented; of women (inexcusably translated as “ladies present”) the number is a dismal—and approximate—30. The catalogue itself has a list of late inclusions. The actual character of the exhibitions, however, was clear. The Giardini were given over to the major international exhibition (“Art as Art: Continuity of the Work of Art”), to a series of peripheral, desultorily arranged hommages to Matisse, Constantin Brancusi, and Egon Schiele, and to the varied national pavilion shows. A special exhibition of work by Antoni Tàpies was held at the Scuola Grande San Giovanni Evangelista. The “Aperto 82” exhibition contained two sections, one (“Time”) held at the abandoned naval stockyards at Giudecca, the other (“Space”) in the old salt warehouses at Zattere.

Generally, it is the central pavilion that provides the keynote for the Biennale, cutting a polemical edge and pointing to or summarizing a direction within the contemporary scene. However, this year’s exhibition, as conceived by Carluccio and developed by the international jury, differed from previous entries in both its reactionary esthetics, which contrast with the Biennale’s habitual commitment to vanguard art, and its reactive motives, which are moralistic and corrective in nature. Visually, the pavilion was a nightmare of figuration—a warehouselike amalgam of heterogeneous works, primarily realist in persuasion and marked, in general, by bathetic emotional states. The viewer traipsed through 42 independent oeuvres, moving from precisely painted fantasies by Oliver O. Olivier to Alfred HrdIicka’s contorted expressionistic sculpture, knocking against Raymond Mason’s grisaille melodramas, Antonio Lopez Garcia’s heavy-handed revolutionary depictions, and Avigdor Arikha’s muted intimisme. The stated aim behind this cacophony was simple: to present the work of artists who had long existed on the edge of the mainstream, persistently adhering to their own idiosyncratic pursuits. However, this aim can be seen to mask the more fundamental motive of providing a challenge to the “tradition” of the avant-garde. The catalogue makes much of a return to reality, to a humanist perspective, and to the abandoned experience of the typical observer; to vanguard esthetics it opposes simple “images of men and things.” The political dimension of this “return” is described by jury member Jean Clair, in a recent interview (Flash Art, Summer 1982) in which he allies the artists in their rejection of “the various tendencies of an official, institutionalized avant-garde supported by a certain number of galleries.” The avant-garde is seen, in Clair’s terms, as the market’s creation, a “phenomenon dictated by a thriving economic situation,” whose importance will, historically, disappear. It is difficult, then, not to see this exhibition positioned against the previous Biennale, which provided a platform for the transavanguardia and stimulated enormous market activity. To multiple modes the organizers propose the persistence of “style”; to “bad” drawing, “technique”; to individual expression—wide ranging and often flippant—the solidity of public relevance.

This desire to see art “as art,” removed from intellectual analysis and from the tincture of trade and consumerism, is part of a broad contemporary reaction of which this year’s Documenta is another instance. In Venice it was also reflected in the choice of representatives for the national pavilions, which are wary and conservative in character. The importance of national self-presentation and of politically sanctioned art is always palpable in Venice; the architecture of the different pavilions presents a vivid display of self-images, from the colonial neoclassicism of the United States to the stern Fascist grandeur of Italy, from the brick-and-column Georgian correctness of Britain to the folkloric Slavic styles. Pillars, porticos, and columns mime the rhetoric of official respect, just as the myriad catalogues, pamphlets, and handouts foster tourism and national prestige. This year’s choices, however, accentuated the function of official art. One entered the Giardini through a symbolic gate, an enormous kinetic steel-and-wire sculpture by the Venezuelan artist Alejandro Otero. Light, motion, and awesome scale combined to reinforce an essentially populist notion of art, whose utopian edge was repeated in the artist’s statements displayed throughout the national pavilion (“ . . . my utopias: art for the masses parallel to a new dialogue of man with the universe . . .”). A streamlined classicism, projected against contemporary market excesses, might be sensed in the distance separating the last Biennale’s German pavilion, occupied by Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz, from this year’s installations of Hanne Darboven, Wolfgang Laib, and Gotthard Graubner—impressive installations, to be sure (particularly in the case of Darboven), but resolutely “safe” as choices. Similarly, Holland exchanged the spunky nonchalance of Ger van Elk for Stanley Brouwn’s long-acknowledged austerities. Britain exhibited Barry Flanagan, well validated by museum coverage and publicity, while Switzerland gave embarrassingly late attention to the work of Dieter Roth. The United States extended the retrospective viewing and progressive canonization of Robert Smithson (see Artforum, Summer 1982). France showed the omnipresent, ever-usable decorations of Simon Hantai, along with sculpture by Toni Grand. Perhaps the sole surprises were this year’s Soviet pavilion, which housed a massive array of self-portraits or images of the artist at work—seeming propaganda for an increased awareness of the artist’s social function—and the East German selection of paintings that used agonized Expressionism, day-glo colors, or strained, ultra-realist techniques to render a staunch indictment of consumer society.

Kate Linker

In selecting pavilions for detailed coverage preference has been given to work and ideas that have not so far received wide attention.

During the opening days of the Biennale it was widely reported that Trini’s “Aperto” section should be viewed as comprising two separate parts, one (“Time”) to which he personally attended, exercising curatorial or critical option, and the other (“Space”), rumored to be the result of telephone calls and pressure from artists, collectors, dealers, et al. The press information supplied by the agency hedges the question, describing the former as “critical,” the latter, “informative.” What this means, then, is that if one section were chosen to illuminate different trends and directions within contemporary art (placing in relief, as the statement has it, certain elements in “today’s battle of ideas”), the other might embrace anything, “informing,” as it does, of “the multiple experiences in process amidst today’s new generations.” And “anything” it included, from Victor Vasarely-ish geometric paintings and regional realist landscapes to kitschy faux-naif toys and anthropomorphic kinetic machines. Amidst this amalgam—arranged, in characteristic 40th Biennale manner, indiscriminately, in a mess—the strong art by Jiří Georg Dokoupil, Rainer Fetting, Salomé, John Stezaker, and Barbara Kruger seemed like apparitions. Several works began in the other section (I judge, here, from the catalogue), but were inexplicably shuffled from “Time” to “Space.” Trini’s fundamental indifference to this entire section might be seen in his decision either to commission, or permit, the fashionable interior designer Nanda Vigo to design special installations for the warehouse. That Vigo took her work seriously as an “art project” is evident in the catalogue page allotted to her photographs. What she produced was a scandalously self-serving “composition” consisting of exterior mirrors, interior ceiling-suspended disco lighting which turned work blue, yellow, or green, and wire-screen dividers hung vertically like high-tech Chinese curtains. It should be noted that several artists, reacting against conditions that not only impeded viewing but actually falsified the appearance of their work, staged a protest, while others withdrew their art.

Across the water at Giudecca the “Time” installation was a trade-fair-like arrangement of white rectilinear panels; had the work been up, and properly labeled, adequate viewing conditions might have been achieved. Similarly, had there not been such excessive, perhaps personally motivated attention to Italian artists unknown even to their native critics, a reasonable overview might have been secured. It should be said for Trini that his choice of American art is catholic, ranging from the architecturally informed sculpture of Alice Aycock and Donna Dennis to the pastiches of David Salle and Julian Schnabel, from the exuberant artificiality of Judy Pfaff’s installation to the toned-down cerebrations of David Deutsch and Troy Brauntuch. Add (from the other section) Sherman’s photgraphs, Wegman’s videotapes, and Kruger’s polemical verbo-visual “texts,” and the impression is hardly bad. British sculpture was well represented by the work of seven artists, including interesting object pieces by Catherine Blacker, Bill Woodrow, and Jean-Luc Vilmouth, Anish Kapoor’s mysteriously evocative colored-powder “shapes,” and Antony Gormley’s lead-and-plastic figures. And while Trini’s grouping of all this art according to different planes and allusions to time is, from the catalogue, fundamentally unclear, the varied plays with quotation, appropriation, and mannerist devices indicate that the Americans, taking cues from the media, range over present time and the recent past, while Italians like Carlo Maria Mariani and Stefano Di Stasio find their language in antiquity—in their own deeper, resonant, all-pervading history. This year’s Biennale, then, is not without visual and intellectual pleasures, but these cannot offset its disturbing, and finally shocking, irresponsibilities.

Kate Linker

The Austrian pavilion at this Biennale was a showcase for the work of Walter Pichler, an artist whose activity lies somewhere between sculpture and architecture. The sculptures derive from Pichler’s obsession with natural forms: the body, the skull, birds. Der Rumpf (Torso), 1976–81, consists of a section of a fallen tree that has been covered first in straw, then in clay, to form an anthropomorphic trunk finished with detailing in bronze at the neck, the chest, and the groin. The body is rendered in two surfaces, shiny and opaque, fused together as in Egyptian statues, where the shell of the clothing is united with the surface of the face. Three Schädeldecken (Crowns), shiny bronze elements, lie somewhere between the work of Constantin Brancusi and the rough skulls of animals. Their pristine shininess decries the lack of finish in their jagged edges, which evoke the brittle fragility of cranial bones.

Bewegliche Figur (Mobile figure) is a jointed mannequin, reminiscent of the robots in the movie Star Wars in its constructed logic and its metallic splendor. Wearing a kind of robe, the figure has the silent fascination of a priest of a nonexistent religion. The sculpture is located in a wooden house, a place of concentration and meditation, protective yet open; its finishings, made of wood, copper, and glass, exploit the ambivalence of Pichler’s role—artisan, carpenter, designer, architect. And three shining Vögel (Birds) present a calm, affectionate view of nature. The bird becomes a pretext for three abstract forms. It is as though a universe of images and figures had been filtered through a sacred or magical ritual that, rather than turning its back on technology, uses it for its own ends, in a discourse that ignores fashions but autonomously reflects on the genesis of figures, discovering within them an abstract core.

Ida Panicelli

In the Belgian pavilion Jörs Madlener presented a series of oils full of Turneresque nostalgia, and intermingling hints of Thomas Mann, Luchino Visconti, and Gustav Mahler. It was a small homage to “death in Venice” that seems to be a an impossible mental category, recurrent theme in a specific, rather decadent strain of northern European culture. Marthe Wéry’s work was another story altogether; she has been showing actively since the mid-’60s, and her development has paralleled that of analytic painting, showing the influence of American Minimalism as seen in the work of Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, and Robert Ryman. At times she has used canvas as her surface, at other times paper, the media she has employed have included acrylics, pencil, marking pen, and liquid pigment. From her first acrylics on canvas through her pencil works on paper there is a linear quality to her markings, almost as though the sign were spilling beyond its borders, refusing to be confined to the restricted field of the material at hand, pursuing possibilities of limitlessness—for her repetitive markings inherently contain the notion of infinity.

In Venice Wéry showed several series of canvases—narrow, vertical, and of varying heights. All the works rested on the floor of the central room, leaving one with an impression of vagueness—as though the installation were not complete but still in progress, leaving open Neither artist, however, seems to relate possibilities of comparison and juxtaposition, and even of superimposing one canvas over another. The varying heights and leaning angles of the canvases, the progressions of color, and the vertical formats deliberately suggested a sense of indeterminacy—an aleatoric, unfinished notion of the work.

Wéry’s involvement with color is a recent development; in her previous work in various media she analyzed gray in many variations. In 1980 she began to experiment with color, but this work too was regulated by the conceptual framework that had generated her gray pieces; her tendency was not to focus on a particular color but to state its absence. Her current combinations of red with blue and green set up an ambiguity between a seemingly “stated” color and another “hidden” one. Superimposed veils of color give the surface an effect of transparency, and offer the possibility of glimpsing underlying layers even when the surface at first appears merely red. But this seemingly conventional method in fact negates accepted conventions. Wéry does not show the traditional involvement of the painter faced with problems of color”; her approach is one of reduction or subtraction. Her luminous “red” canvases are all shades but red—they exist to negate red, to declare it as an impossible mental category.

Ida Panicelli

Luciano Caramel, curator of the Italian pavilion, assumes that one can trace through the last thirty or forty years an Italian line of development uncontaminated by the influences of northern European (and particularly German) culture, which today seem to reverberate in the work of many young artists. He illustrated this assumption through the work of artists who expose their Mediterranean roots, exhibiting a quest for continuity with their autonomous traditions.

This would certainly be a valid and interesting endeavor if the selection of work were not inconsistent. There were two key works in the first room—a 1948 painting by Osvaldo Licini and a ca. 1956 Concetto Spaziale (Spatial concept) by Lucio Fontana. Licini’s work is characterized by metaphors, a “geometry/ sentiment” duality, and a free and synthesizing imagination; Fontana’s production is always suspended between temptations, for the figurative on the one hand and for the freedom represented by abstraction on the other. Neither artist, however, seems to relate in clear fashion to most of the others in the pavilion. In the same first room were tributes to the elderly painters Emilio Vedova and Giulio Turcato: their work is marked by a generous eloquence, and there is a reciprocal dialogue between the two. One wonders, however, what connections among these four major artists—Licini, Fontana, Vedova, and Turcato—Caramel was trying to make. Vedova comes out of a strongly expressionist background; he paints in sharply contrasting whites and blacks, highlighted by obsessive points of color. Turcato uses a sandy, granular medium. He has a more delicate palette and sacrifices expressive drama to a dry, rhythmic organization. While it is true that these two artists participated in the postwar debate on the nature of abstraction, their stance is quite different from that of Fontana. Other artists might as easily be chosen as the beneficiaries of Licini’s and Fontana’s legacy. Also, since Vedova’s and Turcato’s work cannot be detached from the wider context of avant-garde painting in Europe, singling them out in this manner becomes presumptuous. Yet there they were, like two giants on opposing walls. This was an overcrowded room, each contender attempting to outdo the other, with perhaps both coming out losers. Too large for the meager space available, the work was lost in this exercise in monumentality. Meanwhile the work of Licini and Fontana, relegated to a seemingly undersized wall, appeared too small, even suffocated.

The second room was dedicated to artists of the ’50s: Andrea Cascel la, Pietro Consagra, Piero Dorazio, and Mario Nigro—two sculptors and two painters. All the work was recent. There was no chronological range which might have clarified when an artist’s most significant work was accomplished or to what degree individuals were detached from contemporary trends. This sort of presentation of only recent work flattens out any sense of history, placing everything on the same level. Among the artists presented in the second room, only Nigro seems to maintain consistent dignity and discernment in his work. His luminous rips, crisscrossing the canvas with lightning like violence, are the consequence of some twenty years of investigation, today manifested in these apparitions of flashes of light. He seems to me the only artist here to have renewed his art without sacrificing its quality.

Salvatore Emblema, Luigi Montanarini, and Achille Pace were among the artists chosen to represent the middle generation of the ’50s—three examples of faulty curatorial judgment. If one wanted to acknowledge the “Forma 1” group which was active during that decade, how could one omit the work of Guiseppe Uncini, one of the most important Italian sculptors and one never represented at Venice? Caramel’s justifications about the limitations of space are not sufficient. The three above-mentioned artists are not valid representatives of one of the most radical groups of the ’50s; the works speak for themselves, and their level is decidedly low.

Mario Schifano and Mario Ceroli are among those representing the generation of the ’60s. Schifano demonstrated that his creativity is by no means exhausted, notwithstanding his false turns and years of silence. In the room he had to himself he spread out large, brightly colored canvases; his Architetture (Architectures) and Orti Botanici (Botanical Gardens) move across largely white surfaces on which drips of paint become arabesques, invaders, breaks in a sense of order. Ceroli’s work on wood refers explicitly to quattro- and cinquecento painting; figures are rudimentally sketched in against a Piero della Francesca—like spatial perspective. But this new pictorialism seems to be a pretext to keep up with current fashion, and lacks the ambiguous and innovative bite of his earlier sculpture. Another of the ’60s generation, Concetto Pozzati, is the only artist here who clearly claims Licini as a “father.” But the overall effect is of a pastiche, rife with references to Picasso that contribute nothing to one’s understanding of the work.

Of the generation that came to the fore in the ’70s only Marco Gastini and Renata Boero are worth noting here. Gastini paints rapid gestures across unstretched canvas; glimmers of chalky whites, lead tones, and turquoise activate his surfaces like filaments of light. Boero uses organic materials to make body-transfer paintings. The canvas is open to take an imprint of the physical energy of the artist, whose gesture becomes an extension of psychic concentration.

The work of the youngest generation appeared in the last room of the pavilion. Among them Luigi Mainolfi is especially noteworthy. Turgid terra-cottas with articulated and lively surfaces evoke Mediterranean landscapes which are not in the least naturalistic, but become backgrounds for mythical projections and classical remembrances. Careful attention to color and changes in scale imply monumentality. Marcello Jon scatters his canvases with luminous crystals carved from densely colored, pliable material. Gianfranco Notargiacomo’s dark canvases, sparsely articulated with reds and violets, are flooded by the artist’s aggressive, violent painting gestures. His work shows tentative ties to that of Vedova.

This latest generation seems to have an open-ended attitude, a personal approach to themes, subjects, and materials. But in group shows of this type, especially when they include only recent work, it is difficult to illustrate creative autonomy. This pavilion made no attempt to understand the experience that comes out of years of work maturing over time.

And Caramel’s selection was difficult to fathom. The 25 artists did not illustrate any one stance, and in any case would not have been the most logical choices to convey the particular direction the curator had in mind. Caramel omitted important figures and was too open in his inclusion of others. Perhaps a greater degree of critical risk would have been opportune; this overly cautious selection seemed to want to please everyone, and succeeded neither in taking a clear position nor in delineating a coherent attitude. The stylistic differences among the artists wove an inorganic and uneven fabric.

Ida Panicelli

Japanese art since 1970 has not been seen in the West often enough to allow honest criticism in interpreting its development. But some preliminary observations are possible. The work of both Yoshio Kitayama and Naoyoshi Hikosaka is intrinsically expressive of their culture. Kitayama works with light materials such as bamboo, wood, fabric, copper—all used in delicate combinations and painted in bright colors. The fragility of the forms prevails from the smallest to the largest object. Kitayama seems to be reinterpreting the Oriental tradition of kite-making, but his work also exhibits a gestural painterliness familiar to Western eyes. Materials are used with great freedom of expression, implying a conscious translation of experience beyond the strictures of local tradition; a playful sense of joy results.

While Kitayama negates gravity in his sculpture through the brilliance of his colors, Hikosaka imbues his paintings with a specific weight through his use of wood as a support. He doesn’t use whole panels, but strips of molding joined together to form patterns. One sees his work from a distance as wall sculpture, its shape dictated by the wood’s irregular, skewed forms; then, close up, it is a pictorial surface, with the grain of exposed wood juxtaposed with stylizations of natural forms. It seems that Hikosaka wants to approach his chosen problem from several directions, in a simultaneous synthesis of categories. The use of wood as a support has a tradition in Japanese art, and a respect for wood surface finds a precise equivalent in Japanese architecture; the stylization of forms, the abstraction of figures and concepts, has its highest example in the craft of Japanese writing. Hikosaka’s painted wooden pieces tend toward this type of stylization. They are like large-scale calligrams, verging on decoration while interpreting nature in an abstract fashion.

Ida Panicelli