Milan

“L’Ultima Avanguardia”

A few colored objects, the cast-off toys of infants precociously grown old, remain on the white walls of the nursery. Dust has dulled their brilliance; long abandonment rather than past use has smoothed over and adulterated their clear, rigorous forms. The babes are dispersed and far distant, and to search them out would surely be a sad endeavor.

A nostalgic glow attaches to backward looks at childhood and early youth, but a look back at infancy will yield only worn-out relics without paint. The patina of time, elsewhere so generous, transforms these objects to the point of destroying them. Their function and their very existence are motivated solely by the use for which they are intended—simultaneously play and education, or, better, education through play. The same can be said of the objects produced by the “last avant-garde,” as it is perhaps inappropriately called by Lea Vergine, the curator of this show of computer and kinetic art from 1953 to 1963. In Western culture, from the caves of Lascaux and Altamira to our own recent past, the work of art contains the materials of life itself, enduring and referring beyond the historical moment that generated it; the works here never go beyond mere function, and this was not so much their limitation as it was their aim.

These are works without auratic value, with minimal disclosure of the personal or of individual psychology. If the system proposed by the “operators” (as they were designated) of computer and kinetic art had come to pass, the esthetic universe would have undergone such radical transformation that they would have been seen as pioneers of a new esthetic model (though certainly not as artist geniuses passing on the residual traces of exceptional experience). Instead, the various artists here—Getulio Alviani, the Italian groups that notably included Gruppo N and Gruppo T, the Argentine/Parisian group GRAY, Enzo Mari, Jesus Rafael Soto, Victor Vasarely, and legions of Viennese, Venezuelans, Spaniards, Swiss, Germans, Brazilians, Hungarians, Yugoslays, Britons, and French—ended up defeated. Their great project of democratic renewal underwent one of the greatest disappointments in the history of art in our century, perhaps equal to if less tragic than that of the Russian avant-garde at the end of the Soviet revolution.

The artists here were extremely conscious of a line of thought in 20th-century art beginning with Kasimir Malevich and continuing through Constructivism, the Bauhaus, and De Stijl, through the abstraction of Joseph Albers, Richard Paul Lohse, arid Max Bill, and so to their own time. Their esthetic was based on the radical ideal that art must be a project to intervene in and change reality. Self-criticism and self-analysis were to control and rationalize the creative process in order for it to realize a more direct relationship—ethical as well as esthetic—with society. The formal language employed, founded on rigorous geometric and mathematical codes and verified by Gestalt psychology and by theories of information and cybernetics, was to result in a rationalism that could be translated into a global program, incorporating philosophy and politics and capable of embracing all humanity. The mystical aspects of Suprematism and De Stijl, and the graphic absoluteness of geometric abstraction, were abandoned, while the political concerns of Constructivism and the industrial inclinations of the Bauhaus underwent adjustment. Art was to serve the rational individual as a basic element of a rational, just society; its esthetic function was to be augmented by its role as a watcher over industry, science, and technology.

Ultimately, the work of these artists can be seen to constitute a reaction to the immediately preceding abstraction and action painting. The latter “irrationality” had broken the hold of the academic masters to give full rein to expressiveness, but at the same time had registered the disordered magma of the exterior world and of the pulsing subconscious. If there was to be understanding, education was necessary. Removed from the womb of materials and expressionistic abstraction, the infant would learn, through play, without need of magicians, ogres, werewolves, and other storybook figures.

Something went wrong: the infant abandoned its colored blocks for comic books, smeared its hands in its own excrement, played with fire, ingested base material, and favored well-worn objects of little educational value. And the toys remained in the white nursery, covered with dust, stained by humidity, crumbling away.

Pier Luigi Tazzi

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.