PRINT September 1984

Tangled Nets

MARCEL BROODTHAERS, FOR THE SECOND time since his death, receives an invitation to the Venice Biennale, and is informed that a hotel room awaits him. This cannot be confirmed. Nobody in town for previews appears to be happy with their reservations. We talk about it all the time. Late at night, everybody goes to Haig’s Bar, which is supposed to be the only bar open that late. At 2 A.M. reports circulate that several “young artists” have been observed at a certain, unspecified hotel, trying to register as M. Broodthaers. This is of disproportionate interest to me, so I begin to think, per usual, about norths and souths, easts and wests, to no particular end.

I am in a rented Fiat Panda heading due south into Tuscany. I am not driving. The weather, I’ve been told, is good in northern Italy for the first time in two months. It is late afternoon. The sun is picking up only some things at some distances—fields with red poppies, yellow alfalfa fields, shrubs of yellow broom. The yellow is very yellow, almost iridescent in the middle distance, like the onset of madness, positively chartreuse. I am wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses. This polarized, six o’clock yellow is the yellow in the paintings of Tono Mucchi.

I cannot find Tono Mucchi and it is difficult to find out more about him than that he was born in 1938 in Milan, and that he now lives in Florence and Perugia. He had eight paintings in “Aperto 84.” The Curator who put him in does not mention him in his catalogue essay (“Fast Painting, Post-Abstraction, and Post-Naturalism”), and did not elaborate when I spoke to him. He wondered why I didn’t ask him about “a very interesting young artist like Ceccobelli,” or, perhaps, about one of my own very interesting copatriots. Italy is very easy to figure out this summer: 160 kilometers is a hundred miles and 160,000 lire is a hundred dollars, roughly. Easts, wests, norths, souths . . .

Were it not for the Central Pavilion of this Biennale, I might not have realized what a huge influence Carlo Maria Mariani seems to have had these last few years. Floodgates! There were dozens of mortuary genres à la dix-huitième, and just about everybody’s Mona Lisas—Duchamp’s, Dali’s, a lot of the Pop artists’ (Warhol alone had 16). I started to see myself coming and going. A lot of artists’ ideas about Ingres were on view too. Osvaldo Romberg had three odalisques with color-bars over them (also a Mona Lisa in the Israeli pavilion), and Antonio Bueno did paintings after maybe a dozen classical artists, except they were all fat and squashed as if they were filtered through Fernando Botero, though Botero is younger so maybe he got it from Bueno. It could be my imagination, but I think Bueno had a Comtesse d’Haussonville with Cracker Jack—prize-type eyes, so that they moved just like they really do at the Frick. There was a painting I liked by Marco Antonio Tanganelli of a sad neoclassical giant sitting in Rodin’s thinking position, with a bolt of lightning in the sky, and a jet flying overhead. It said a lot, I thought. There was a wonderful, juicy show of Vienna Secessionists at the Palazzo Grassi, everything from Wiener Werkstätte ladies’ purses to searing anatomies by Egon Schiele—and everywhere the ghost of Freud. “Expressionism” finally slipped my lips.

Tono Mucchi is only a few years younger than Mariani. His paintings are small, horizontal, and framed in dark wood. Their subject is the Tuscan landscape, with metaphysical alterations. In a couple of them there is a bit of mirage-style architecture in the distance, a kind of Villa Ali Baba in the foothills. They have a hard finish but they seem very earnest, like late Pre-Raphaelite landscapes, and like some paintings by Elihu Vedder, who was from Schenectady and spent a few years in Tuscany to become acquainted with the classical painters. He also sometimes had orientalist visions. This must happen when you fall in love primarily with atmospheres. The overall effect of Mucchi’s paintings is “Chianti Classico.” Even Mucchi’s main colors—magenta and the lurid yellow that flips into chartreuse—look flattering: the very essence of embalming! On the day the Biennale gardens opened to the general public there was an anonymous placard outside the restaurant near the official pavilions that had some criticism on it about various curators presenting the “made in Italy” look. Mucchi was in the Magazzini del sale, the former salt warehouses (not near the gardens), and no one was mentioning him, but he exemplified this better than almost anyone. It occurred to me, though, that his paintings could have to do with everything from beau ideal of kitsch, with the whole late-20th-century lexicon of tourism—Ray-Bans, cans, cars, and Coke, from Vedder to John DeLorean and Swiss banks. Oddly enough in Italy the standard Campbell’s soup-can labels are embellished with old-fashioned, Saturday Evening Post-style illustrations of the ingredients. The minestrone cans are especially ornate.

There are many ways in which natives and tourists can mingle. One way is to just be the atmosphere the other thinks you’ve got. The American pavilion, for instance, was full of lost arcadias and motel motifs—just what most of the European intellectuals we know say is so great about America, apart from music and graffiti. It’s odd then that so many people were snotty about the American pavilion. Music and graffiti were in the old salt warehouses, close to Mucchi. Ronnie Cutrone, who doesn’t quite fit any of the categories, had some of the least atmospheric paintings in the whole Biennale. He sure doesn’t make a big show of self-conscious maturity. When he splashes a cartoon character over a panel of little, schlocky, store-bought oil landscapes, or when he paints a picket fence pink and then paints on it, you don’t notice the quote marks. You don’t even think of Andy Warhol right away even if you know Cutrone used to work for him, and God knows I’ve given Andy Warhol a disproportionate amount of thought. Cutrone seems to be becoming a good artist by becoming an increasingly young artist, yet without becoming, as they say, too puerile. He juvenates with real panache. He seemed to be having a good time in Venice, and said something about going on a vacation afterwards, not always an easy thing to admit these days. As a matter of fact, he was among the few people I ran into who didn’t seem to be looking for a room.