New York

“Italian Art Now:An American Perspective”

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | New York

This exhibition consisted of the work of seven artists: Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Nino Longobardi, Luigi Ontani, Giuseppe Penone, Vettor Pisani, and Gilberto Zorio. It provoked numerous questions, but furnished no answers or conclusions about the current Italian art scene. The choice of only seven artists seems to me excessively limited; the changes that took place in Italian art during the ’70s, seen in the transition from Arte Povera to New Image painting (the two poles represented in this show), assumed numerous forms through a process both more subtle and more polemical than this show suggested. The catalogue introduction deals only with the differences among the individual artists and leaves unresolved the reasons behind the curator’s choices. It is not sufficient to refer to the last fifty years of Italian art, singling out the legacies of Giorgio de Chirico and Filippo de Pisis, if one ignores the impact on today’s developments of recent radical changes in the work of Mario Merz and Jannis Kounellis. (The catalogue text does touch on these artists, but not at length.) How can one take a position without considering the fundamental cultural reference points that have determined a specific situation? A true cross-section, which this show did not provide, would have required a more complete historical interpretation and a more profound critical framework.

Again: did the exhibition mean to demonstrate a connecting thread, whether direct or not, among the seven artists? This seems clearly impossible to support. The artists shown here take widely divergent positions and emerge from various backgrounds and influences.

Penone and Zorio must be viewed within the framework of Arte Povera, a movement that appeared in the late ’60s. Their concerns with natural processes and primary materials—earth, wood, water, light—are indicative of an involvement with the most organic aspects of art-making and of a dialogue with nature and the environment. Their work expresses a similar attitude to that of Minimal and Land Art in the United States during the same years. For these artists an artwork is engaged with its context, involving the observer through all the senses and eliciting a multitude of reactions and mental associations. The carved tree installed by Penone at the center of the spiral of the Guggenheim is a vivid example of these concerns. Both in terms of its relationship with tradition and in political terms, the innovative contribution of Arte Povera to the complex dialogue between art and life has been much more revolutionary than that of today’s New Image painting.

Chia, Cucchi, and Longobardi represent the new generation of painters here, and for them the act of painting is meant to be provocative. They see the tradition of the 20th century as a territory to be invaded, explored, raided—with painting the only expressive means they will consider. They reintroduce the traditional painter/surface dialectic and more or less ignore the innovations and radical breaks that transformed the art world in the late ’60s.

New Image painting compensates the spectator for past “difficult” art, offering “easy” iconic interpretation. It returns art viewing to the galleries and museums, and consolidates, with increasing force, the power of the art market. The desire to be provocative at all costs, in pictorial terms, is merely a pretext to hide what lies behind—a restoration of the artist/artwork/market/collector relationship, which in previous years had been politicized and deeply questioned. It was no accident, it seems to me, that Chia and Cucchi took center stage in this exhibition; it was a direct reflection of the current art market. And one must ask why Francesco Clemente was omitted from this trans-avantgarde circle. Was the Guggenheim afraid of the big bad wolf? Meanwhile the complex work of Pisani was sacrificed by its fragmented placement on two separate ramps, precluding the possibility of seeing the internal dialectic; Ontani’s Self Portrait of Gilded Paper Patterns too was badly hung, and he was represented mainly by photographs of his relatively early body art works—there were few of his current watercolors and oils.

If one turns to the specific works on display, it cannot be denied that high curatorial standards were maintained. Many of these works are well-known, pleasing, and without doubt appealing. But the installation seemed unbalanced. If the Guggenheim wanted to fill the informational vacuum which for too long now (save in rare cases) has banished Italian art from the American scene, can one consider the choices here sufficient? Certainly an outside institution has the prerogative to remain apart from the debates and internal polemics of Italian culture, but the task of informing a heterogeneous public about an equally heterogeneous situation demands a broader selection. This narrow selection did not demonstrate the current diversity of Italian art: “Italian art now” is not Penone and Zorio, who represent a precise historical situation; Italian art now is Chia and Cucchi; but figures not even mentioned in the catalogue text could have been included by way of context. This was not a courageous selection. This was a limited view of the ’70s which cannot be justified by relationships among the exhibited artists; nor can these individuals be sufficiently indicative of the current situation in the ’80s.

And if this was not a historical show and was not a show of the current situation, the American viewpoint taken by the curator is merely acritical and avoids the risks of a more radical position.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.