PRINT September 1984


THE PROPORTIONS OF “QUARTETTO—three curators to four artists and six works (the curators being Achille Bonito Oliva, Alanna Heiss, and Kaspar König, the artists Joseph Beuys, Enzo Cucchi, Luciano Fabro, and Bruce Nauman)—seemed alarming. Yet the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista, the site of the Center for Information on the Preservation of Art and Architecture in Venice, was the perfect place for a game of high-powered cultural politics, and on entering the show I was again impressed by the congeniality of this 14th—15th-century building to the project housed in it. At least to my Northern European eyes, the building is oddly but excitingly both sacred and profane, church and palace—a marvelous, beautifully decorated In Between. And this intermediate, unstable quality paradoxically also characterized “Quartetto.” Think of the bodies of work of Beuys, Fabro, Nauman, and even Cucchi—how can one categorize them? Conceptualism? Sensualism? Neither term applies. What we have is instability, an oscillation between extremes.

As one entered the show one faced Cucchi’s beautiful, darkly gleaming, boat-shaped painting, an object like a real-sized gondola on the floor. In this powerful, languid sea of paint, warships drift about, lost in seemingly unending, necessarily aimless expeditions. Here Cucchi had abandoned simple, focused emblems to approach a realization of the transhistorical, body-centered painting that he has discussed in comments oddly reminiscent of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. At the other end of the scuola’s ground floor (long, noble, a little severe), the traces of one of Beuys’ lectures began: a kind of rosary of 15 square slates carried the traces of a bicycle ride, and indeed, close to the 15th slate one found the bike. Across the floor a niche led to the scuola’s beautiful late-15th-century double staircase, and here Fabro’s Colonna, a column of Corinthian slenderness, rose out of a soft, yielding lead carpet. Its fluting seemed formed by natural processes rather than by a will to classical order.

As one went upstairs it became obvious that one was following a prescribed route and that the basic structure of “Quartetto” was a walk between stations. In the upper salone one met Fabro’s large, at first seemingly square building made of ten volumes of brown paper. At the other end of the richly decorated 18th-century room lay a white, cruciform structure, Nauman’s Dream Passage (Cross), out of the respective open ends of which flooded intense yet not obtrusive yellow and red light. As one explored the axial corridor both rest and confusion were offered in the enlarged space at the cross’ center. Here, at the union of the yellow-lit section with the red, stood a table and chair, but an inverted continuation of the corridor, a suspension of repose, was created by the placement of an upside-down chair and table on the ceiling.

In the furthermost corner of the cluttered back yard of the scuola was a heap of newly dug earth, as if left by a dog digging for a bone. In each of two burrowlike holes, a yard or so in depth and connected by a short tunnel, stood a bony, seemingly charred bronze staff; were these objects the Esserini (Little beings) of Cucchi’s title, the charred remains of a ritual incineration, or burnt-out torches? Or did we see the remains of a small yet significant catastrophe, the eruption of a volcano (traces of whose glowing light remained deep in the dark holes), a Cucchi-catastrophe both symbiotic with the artist’s practice and indicating the site of the bronzes’ casting? This enigmatic installation, a remarkable work, sought support in the context—in the other works, in the scuola, in Venice—but ended up in instability, in temporary solutions.

Was this meeting of four artists really a “quartetto,” an indivisible whole? Didn’t the works seem to play separate games at their different stations? Even so, the show did not qualify for such a title as “La Zattera di Babele” (The raft of Babel), the name of the theatrical project whose performances, organized by Carlo Quartucci, formed part of the “Arte, ambiente, scena” section of the Biennale. We were not concerned here with the confusion of tongues in the chaos following the disintegration of what Jean-Francois Lyotard has called the “grands récits” of modernity. Such a chaos, caused by the absence of a master narrative, is, however, characteristic of the Biennale, where the different curators and nations play their language games at random, seemingly in the hope of a common healing force. “Quartetto” was neither a unity nor total disillusion, but stood as a conscious, daring acceptance of the disintegration of the grands récits, as an attempt to survive in the new, thin air. But on the new conditions: temporary, unstable, local.

Still, the instability and the unsentimental acknowledgment of lost unity in “Quartetto” called to mind Wassily Kandinsky’s or, for that matter, Gestalt psychology’s theories of how tension is augmented as one gets closer to unity without attaining it. This tension was at its strongest in the upper salone. The colored light in the bare, narrow corridors of Nauman’s cross, the steel furniture in the central room, and the 180-degree turn of the furniture inspired mixed feelings of desire and unease, of “homecoming” and complete existential defenselessness. Nauman placed his work precisely between his earlier behavioral and associative language pieces, bringing them to an intermediate position between the profane and the ecclesiastical similar to that of the scuola. (He could hardly be unaware that the elegant salone adjoins the Oratoria della Croce, with its precious reliquary of the Cross.) Did Fabro’s paper building, then, answer the hope of a release of tension? Inside its warm semidarkness Nauman’s piece felt distant. Fabro’s room was fraught with classical culture: it seemed to me to echo the 16th-century Villa Rotonda, by that master of columns Andrea Palladio, for many years active in Venice. The obvious partner of Fabro’s building was of course the Colonna at the bottom of the staircase. All at once the works opened to the classicism of the scuola, to Venice, and, it could hardly be coincidence, to the Biennale, where Fabro showed a piece from 1972–73 whose central part was a drawing by Palladio . . .

Translated from the Swedish by Lars-Håkan Svensson.