PRINT July/August 2020



Stephen Prina and Germano Celant driving to California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles, September 1979. Photo: Luciano Perna/Archives.

THERE ARE ENDLESS STORIES about Germano Celant, the truly imposing impresario who died of Covid-19 in April at the age of seventy-nine. Since his passing, he has been called the “North Star of contemporary art,” and “one of the last, if not the last, great myth-maker[s].” He has been compared to Zorro and dubbed a God. But he was also a contradictory figure. While some describe him as an extraordinarily sensitive curator, one who was always on the artist’s side, others saw him as an art-world player who could be utterly ruthless when pursuing his ambitions. “I don’t feel like a man of power,” he once said. “I’ve always been interested in the power of art. Artists know that: That’s why they trust me.”

And yet he did have power. Power over institutions and media, and over the success of generations of artists. He staged exhibitions, wrote essays elucidating their work, and published books about them—innumerable books.

It all started with the power of his words. When in his early twenties, and still an art-history student, Celant was active as a critic for several Italian journals, and he soon befriended artists of his generation across the country. In 1967, he staged “Arte Povera—Im spazio” (Arte Povera—The Space of Thoughts) in Genoa’s Galleria La Bertesca, an event that marked the beginning of a new European art movement that “asks only for the essential information, that refuses the dialogue with both the social and the cultural systems and that aspires to present itself as something sudden and unforeseen,” to quote from “Notes on a Guerrilla War,” a manifesto-like article he published in Flash Art that same year. For a few years, Celant vigorously promoted his concept of a “poor art,” assembling works by key figures such as Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, and Michelangelo Pistoletto, who were perceived as reacting against the modernist painting styles that had dominated European art as well as serving as an alternative to American Pop. Instead of an art that reflected the global grip of media and technology, Celant celebrated artists who “chose to live with direct experience, and feel the necessity of leaving intact the value of the existence of things.” A few years later, he lost interest in his own concept, although he stayed close to most of the artists who fell under this rubric. “I didn’t invent anything,” he explained. “Arte Povera is an expression so broad that it means nothing.”

Soon enough, Celant broadened his outlook and engaged with artists of other generations and geographies as well as historical figures such as Russian avant-gardist El Lissitzky and Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla. His writings and curatorial projects branched out into design, cinema, and architecture, and later into fashion and gastronomy as well. Eugenio Battisti, Celant’s first professor of art history at the University of Genoa, explored a similarly expansive and eclectic understanding of the arts in his lectures and books on wide-ranging subjects such as cabinets of curiosities, hermetic traditions, and the Baroque, which had dreamed of open-ended aesthetic expressions, with one art form transcending the next, with each remaining distinct. It was in Battisti’s cultural journal, Marcatré, that Celant’s first articles appeared in the early 1960s, and he would always remain true to his eclectic beginnings in an imaginative and dynamic way—always willing to integrate the new impulses of younger artists into his varied curatorial projects to create connections across eras and disciplines.

Cover of Identité italienne. L’art en Italie depuis 1959 (Italian Identity. Art in Italy Since 1959) (Centre Pompidou, 1981).

Although international in his outlook, Celant regularly returned to his roots, organizing large surveys of Italian art, including “Identité italienne. L’art en Italie depuis 1959” (Italian Identity: Art in Italy Since 1959) in 1981 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris; “Italian Art, 1900–1945” at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi in 1989; and “The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943–1968” in 1994 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where he was appointed senior curator of contemporary art from 1988 until 2008.

It was in December 1979, on the cusp of Ingrid Sischy’s transition to editor in chief of Artforum, that Celant began to introduce some of his favorite artists to the publication’s international readers. Naturally, it started with an essay on Mario Merz, which was soon followed by features on Jannis Kounellis and many of Celant’s fellow travelers. In 1981, Sischy made him a contributing editor, and throughout the ’80s, the two teamed up on iconic editorial projects, including an entire issue devoted to visions of the future.

Blinky Palermo, Himmelsrichtungen (Cardinal Points), 1976, acrylic, glass, steel. Installation view, Central Pavilion, Venice. From the 37th Venice Biennale. © Archivio Storico della Biennale di Venezia–ASAC.

Worth mentioning are Celant’s influential initiatives establishing a new dialogue between fashion and art, one that was controversial at the time. In 1996, he co-organized (with Sischy and Luigi Settembrini) a vast biennial in Florence titled “Il tempo e la moda” (Time and Fashion), pairing contemporary designers and artists such as Helmut Lang and Jenny Holzer, and Gianni Versace and Roy Lichtenstein. A few years later, in the fall of 2000, he co-curated a highly criticized Giorgio Armani exhibition at the Guggenheim that was financed by Armani. Today, such allegiances seem normal.

Steve McQueen, Carib’s Leap/Western Deep, 2002, Super 8 and 35 mm transferred to three-channel digital video, color, sound, 28 minutes 53 seconds; 12 minutes 6 seconds; 24 minutes 12 seconds. Installation view, Fondazione Prada, Milan, 2005. Photo: Attilio Maranzano.

In 1993, he joined Fondazione Prada in Milan as artistic director and quickly established the institution as one of the world’s most vibrant cultural centers. He organized solo presentations of the work of Steve McQueen in 2005 and Nathalie Djurberg in 2008 and undertook insanely ambitious curatorial projects such as his 2013 re-creation of Harald Szeemann’s epochal 1969 exhibition “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form,” which Celant envisioned as a kind of collective readymade. In 2018, he staged perhaps the most impressive historical exploration of the art from his own country: “Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943,” highlighting the creations of Balla, Giorgio de Chirico, and Giorgio Morandi. 

Celant surrounded himself with books, his own and others’. His archives and libraries are legendary and have left vivid impressions on the many guests who got lost in them. “The Genoa apartment,” recalls Carsten Höller, “had another apartment underneath, which was housing all his art and philosophy books, thousands of them, neatly arranged all along the walls but also on shelves in the middle of every room and even in the kitchen and bathroom. This impressed me a lot, not least because he and the deliverers had been carrying them all up [to the sixth floor] in this house without an elevator.” Even posthumously, the books he wrote keep arriving at my office—most recently, massive new tomes on Richard Artschwager and KAWS, two publications that in any other curator’s life would be rare achievements. 

It was not easy to say no to Germano Celant.

Celant famously battled younger Italian curators. But to a visitor from Sweden like me, he always showed his most generous side. When in 2009 I attempted to re-create Blinky Palermo’s site-specific Himmelsrichtungen (Cardinal Points), 1976, as part of the Venice Biennale I directed, Celant offered his support. The installation had premiered as part of his exhibition “Ambiente/Arte” at the 1976 Biennale. In spite of his help, the re-creation had many flaws, which must have been obvious to Celant—it was not even fabricated with the right kind of glass!—but that did not stop him from telling the press that it looked exactly right.

View of “Art or Sound,” 2014, Fondazione Prada, Venice. From foreground to background: Jean Dubois au Puy, Chiming Clock with Iron Case, 17th century; Alexander Calder, Untitled, 1940; Theo van Doesburg, Composition in Gray (Rag Time), 1919. Photo: Attilio Maranzano.

It was not easy to say no to Germano Celant. During my years as director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, he asked for many loans the museum normally would not have granted to anyone. But his projects were monumental, and his arguments for including the works in question were so convincing that, in the end, he would always get what he wanted. For his 2014 encyclopedic survey “Art or Sound” at the Fondazione Prada, he wanted to borrow Marcel Duchamp’s 1916 readymade With Hidden Noise, a curious object consisting of a ball of nautical twine between two brass plates that supposedly makes a noise if you shake it—which, naturally, no one is allowed to do. Since the museum preferred to keep all our Duchamp works together in a single gallery, the request was not a small one. In the end, I succumbed to Celant’s charming campaign. A few weeks later, he asked to install the piece in a way that differed from how we presented it. I succumbed again.

Then came his final request: Would we agree to allow him and his conservators to shake the piece so that they could record the sound it produced? My reply—I’m still surprised—was brief: 

Dear Germano, 

Contributing Editor Daniel Birnbaum is the Artistic Director of Acute Art in London and Professor of Philosophy at the Städelschule in Frankfurt.