PRINT September 1986

To describe the wonders . . .

THE FACT THAT ARTURO SCHWARZ, the Milan collector, gallerist, and notable art historian, had the opportunity at this year's Biennale to bring before the public a subject that has obsessed him for so long is an issue of simple justice. Schwarz is an expert on the subject of alchemy, not only on its history but also on the influence it has had on the development of art in the 20th century. It must be a surprise even for the connoisseur to see how pervasive the alchemic impulse has been. Schwarz includes a wide and deep spectrum of the alchemic in art, from, say, Francis Picabia, to Surrealism, to arte povera, even to the paintings of Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring. When we look at the exhibition we have the impression that this comprehensive tableau could go on and on, until every artist could qualify as being influenced by alchemy in one way or another. So the question becomes, What exactly is it the curator wants to make clear with this exhibition?

In the catalogue of the Biennale's central “Arte e Scienza” installation Schwarz comments that alchemy essentially should be seen as a psychological state, and that the gold the alchemist seeks lies in his or her own soul. But why does he need to substantiate this opinion with so many mysterious little landscapes and reflecting pools, against which the alchemic instruments of art bring about flaming red skies? Why has he chosen the roles of encyclopedist and scientist? It is as if Schwarz has modified the point of view he held in the '60s, when he created a sensation with his studies of the alchemic influences on Marcel Duchamp.1 Then, his justification for the use of alchemy in art was that one must be in touch with the blackness of the world and of the soul in order to transform them. Now, Schwarz sees alchemy as having less to do with playing with fire. It appears as though he has displaced the demonic aspect of alchemy, which was brought to creative explosion in Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus (1947), with one that seeks to cure our ordinary problems, the Jungian perspective made topical by Morris Berman's study The Reenchantment of the World (1981).2 For Berman, the renewed interest in alchemy is an expression of an existential need.

Today, the philosophical pragmatism of the Enlightenment has led to an almost unbearable tension between the human subject and the empirical reality, and we can no doubt read a desire for higher consciousness into the alchemic attempt to extract the sublime from the debased. One doesn't have to share this optimism completely to recognize alchemy as a method of self-realization, a means to distill or to heal the spirit, and that the apparatus of the alchemist, or the artist, serves this process. It is my opinion, however, that this optimistic vision is a distraction from the darker aspects of the world, and of alchemy's role within it. In following the rationale of progressively more spectacular achievements we have entered a darker state, the domain of insanity, and in order to pull ourselves from it, progressively more extraordinary powers of transformation are needed. This is not the magic of deceptively pretty surfaces, but rather the magic that comes from our knowledge of a baser reality, and hence from our power to transform it.

It is a pity that Schwarz hasn't chosen as the exhibition's modus vivendi the first principle of alchemy, the “solve et coagula,” or the principle of first reducing things to chaos in order to re-create them in a new pattern. This concept of transformation is intrinsic to alchemy, which revolves around the idea that all metals are in process, and that their successful conversion into gold hinges on a complete lack of artificial restraints. Schwarz has opposed this concept with a selection of works that adhere to a historical order determined by the birthdates of the artists. In addition, since the themes of the Biennale exhibitions are art and science, or alchemy, or biology, he could as easily have brought literature and art into alignment, allowing them their mutual influences and bringing out the significance of twins, unicorns, mirrors, and shadow images so evident in the art. The meaning of the work of Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Gilberto Zorio, or Eric Orr would become clearer if it were seen against the background of, say, Marguerite Yourcenar's L'Oeuvre au noir (The work in black, 1968).3 It would have been challenging to examine the relation between Jorge Luis Borges' metaphysical allegories and the work of Yves Klein, Rebecca Horn, or Dan Graham. In any case, it is not here but in the “WunderKammer” (“Room of wonders”) section of the central “Arte e Scienza” program that one becomes fully aware of the transformational power of art. The criteria on which curator Adalgisa Lugli based her selections are, in the end, much broader than Schwarz's compendium. Here one sees art that has the subversive strength necessary to blow apart the hyperreal present, thus obtaining the elements with which to transform reality.

To experience the active presence of alchemy in contemporary art one should turn to the French and German pavilions, which house works by Daniel Buren and Sigmar Polke respectively, two artists with an affinity for the hermetic. With minimal insertions, Buren has changed the French pavilion into a palace of mirrors. Expanding upon the system of narrow vertical stripes with which he has worked for twenty years, Buren has used lengths of mirrored glass to create a discrete labyrinthine structure within the pavilion's domed entranceway, providing the sense of movement, of active transformation, that one misses in Schwarz's installation. (Significantly, Buren's stripes were an issue in the recent French elections. His series of striped sculptural columns that were then being installed in the 17th-century courtyard of the Palais Royal, a project that had the majority support of the Socialist cabinet, gave rise to public protests—an instance of art transforming a disaffected public into an active, participatory one.) But it is the obstinate Polke who on the highest esthetic level can be called an alchemist. Not only is his work heavy with alchemic and occult influences, his actions on the whole are those of a contemporary alchemist. For instance, in the accompanying catalogue we see a photograph of Polke in silhouette, standing amid figurative shadows in the German pavilion. For Polke, a studio or an exhibition space is not an incidental, neutral place but a laboratory, the place in which metals can undergo their spontaneous transformation into gold, where substances are not created by the human hand but by bringing the mass into contact with light and warmth. Polke excavates the dark side, and through his examination of it he gains the power to transform and to change. His art expresses, through metaphor and allegory, the alchemic theme—the reconciliation of opposites; the transmuting power of fire; the convergence of dark and light in which both man and the world are made one and whole.

Paul Groot is the editor of Museum Journal, Amsterdam. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Dutch by Ria Reerdink.



1. See Arturo Schwarz, ed., The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp and Nines and Projects for the Large Glass, New York: Harry N. Abrams. Inc., and London: Thames & Hudson, 1969.

2. Morris Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.

3. Marguerite Yourcenar, L'Oeuvre au noir, Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1968. Published in English as _The Abyss, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976, in translation by Grace Frick.