“Coerenza in Coerenza: dall’Arte Povera Al 1984”

Mole Antonelliana

Views of catastrophe are both realistic and visionary. Thus the best way to move through the space of “Coerenza in coerenza” (Coherence within coherence) was as if one were looking at the show from the future, from an as yet unknown time—as if one had been born after the apocalypse. This was like a series of ruins to be deciphered, a place of forgotten rituals which slowly revealed themselves through the residual presence of arte povera. From this perspective the whole show could be seen as a gigantic allegory, in part because of the architectural context in which it unfolded—the Mole Antonelliana, a sort of factory-era Pantheon, a late-19th-century synagogue culminating in a vertiginous spire, a structure joining architectural and linguistic excess. In the ’30s, large cement pillars were placed within the building’s original structure; superimposed against the surrounding neoclassical frame, they turn the space into a unique example of Modern dialectic.

A dialogue was set up between the overall setting and the artworks, which consisted of both historical pieces and projects executed for the occasion—works by Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Gilberto Zorio. All were chosen by Germano Celant. The works were scattered through the large central space, or along the corridors of the gallery that looks down into the space from the second level; some were suspended high in the dome. The multiplicity of views available of both the space and the works of art, and the changing though always contained perspectives, increased the sensation of entering a theatrical setting in which the artworks, rather than constituting the show themselves, were emblems of some awaited event. Whether they were ruins calling out for the reenactment of some action from the past, or auguries demanding fruition in the future, was unclear, yet the sense of expectation was a definitive presence, and was summarized by a particular piece: a drawing by Paolini, a preparatory study for his Caduta di Icaro (Fall of Icarus, 1981–82). A group of empty armchairs stand in a circle at the center of a room in which human figures appear only as painted images on the wall. Expectation and the possibility of change are suggested by the empty center toward which the armchairs face, and by the half-open door in the background. An event, a missing image, is awaited, but at the moment of its imminent arrival, time has stopped.

Might the following sequence of events have developed? The flames of Kounellis’ five iron torches light the scene; when the torches are spent, Calzolari’s flute, ladder, and texts become entirely covered by the ice his work also incorporates, and moss grows over the abstract curve of his Letto per farmi sognare (Bed for me to dream on, 1967). The stage is set for the chemical reactions demanded by Zorio’s alembics and crucibles, which now stand on Fabro’s tables; day and night, Merz’s three concentric glass igloos expect the inhabitant who may result. This is fanciful, perhaps, but the event these objects were waiting for was clearly an important one. A sense of imminence characterized almost all the works in question. It was also the quality that distinguished them from other contemporary art in which a return to imagery implies a downplaying of that imagery’s meaning. Compared to the chaos of neo-Expressionist and neofigurative movements, this solemn scene seemed to speak of silence, and came to assume an enigmatic, monumental character.

Of course, enigma and monumentality can be doubled-edged swords, for some artists use them to defend otherwise suspect images. Here, however, they reinforced the rules of the artists’ specific territory. Examples could be seen in three works whose investigations of form develop from an oscillation set up by the casual disruption of life. In Anselmo’s Senza titolo (Untitled, 1968), the dialectic arises from the incorporation of a lettuce in a structure with two rectangular marble blocks, so that the leaves gradually decay against the stone. In Calzolari’s Un flauto dolce per farmi suonare (A sweet flute for me to play, 1968), a refrigeration unit gradually and silently forms ice from the moisture in the air, slowly binding the solid bodies of a flute and some bronze lettering—the work’s title—to a sheet of aluminum. The luminous ice turns everything white with frost, triumphing over all. And in Fabro’s Iconografia (Iconography, 1975), a long table is covered with a cloth, white except for a decorative motif which frames the central focus of the piece: the sharp rhythm set up by large glass vessels brimming with water, each one inscribed with a different form and a barely decipherable name invoking an absent icon—Pier Paolo Pasolini, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, Archimedes, Cavallo Pazzo (Crazy Horse), and so on. Any movement disturbs the liquid in the dishes and introduces a differentiation between the transparency of the water and that of the crystal. It is understood that this series of invitations to the feast of the transfiguration could be multiplied ad infinitum, and is only immobilized by expectation.

If these examples presented a theory of art based on the point where form quivers on the verge of abstraction and from there stakes out its own territory, other works, particularly some of the very large ones, showed a weakness in their overly metaphorical quality. Pistoletto’s Muretto (Small wall, 1967), for example, a brick structure covered in colored cloth, is more simplistic than “povero,” and the substitution of polystyrene for marble in his sculptural figures, mutilated or caught in distorted movements, fails to imbue the work with critical interest. Rather, these ambiguous parodies of greatness inevitably remain tied to their art-historical models, and, in degrading the past they quote, approach the revivals of post-Modernism. Another Pistoletto piece, however, imposed itself with exceptional force on the space of the Mole. In Divisione e moltiplicazione dello specchio (Division and multiplication of the mirror, 1978–81), two large square mirrors, framed in gold, were placed facing and reflecting into each other in a bay in the gallery; the false, Neoclassical perspective they created violently invaded the surrounding architecture like a piece of trompe l’oeil, infinitely interrupting and negating it.

If Pistoletto’s mirrors turned the architecture of the Mole into a linguistic phantom, two other works, violently penetrating the material skeleton of the space, transformed this phantom into a sort of second nature. Anselmo’s Grigi che si alleggeriscono verso oltremare (Grays which lighten toward ultramarine, 1983) suggested a congealed violence in the way its rough, rectangular blocks of stone gripped the wall like reptiles, precariously suspended above a blue square painted directly on the concrete. And Marisa Merz’s huge spiral twists in metal, Scale di chiocciole (Stairway in snail shells, 1966–67), wedged themselves high up in a large opening in the wall, like restless, shining, living organisms. In the context of the show, these images suggested the history of form as corporeal body, continually agitated beneath the surface-like lava transforming itself into stone. Yet form can also be declared autonomous, can be seen to exist in a time outside any environmental involvement, and outside language. Boetti’s Mille fiumi piu lunghi del mondo, 1975–82, for example, in which the names of “the world’s thousand longest rivers” are interwoven in a tapestry whose chromatic variations resemble those of a color television screen, represents a way of dealing with the infinite through deconstruction and montage. And Paolini’s disruption of the spatiotemporal perspective infinitely postpones any hope of crossing the distance between the image and the desire that calls it by name. He does, however, create a setting in which absence reigns, thus extending the allegorical concept of the ruin to the entire history of art. (Paolini’s installation here of his La Caduta di Icaro was unusual in that it showed the artist relying on a material fact, the height of the space available to him, to measure out the fall of his enigmatic icon, a fall that in fact seemed more vertiginous in the abstracted space of the drawing.)

Individual impulses here were suggestive in and of themselves: the expressive violence of Calzolari’s Monocromo blu (Monochrome blue, 1979), for example, a work existing entirely within the confines of painting; or the ascetic movement of Penone’s Alberi (Trees, 1969–80); or the intellectual grace of the metallic intertwinings in Fabro’s Sherazade, 1982. Yet if we were the archaeologists of a future time, we would not seek the rebel angel within the Caduta di Icaro; rather, we would look outside, on the exterior of the Mole. Here, in a whimsically inaccessible spot between the top of the dome and the high spire that rises above it, stands a small neoclassical temple, like a fulcrum of vertical thrust at the edge of space. And here Mario Merz’s red neon numbers, from the Fibonacci series, climbed over the dome up to the temple. Barely visible by day, the numbers could be seen from a great distance by night; Merz had used the riskiest formal point of the building’s architecture to create an image of a comet, an omen of voyage, a light linking two points in time. Is this the hallmark of arte povera? I would say so, for it symbolizes not a self-contained wandering, but a direct path toward an event.

Luciana Rogozinski

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.