“The European Iceberg”

Art Gallery of Ontario

This great heap of contemporary German and Italian paintings, sculptures, installations, architectural models, films, coffee tables, corporate logos, photographs, steamroller tires, and other items of art and design came laden with ponderous ambitions and flying many colorful metaphors. Accord ing to Germano Celant, its organizer, the show was to have been a “jam session of the arts,” and the tip of a European iceberg of creativity—England, France, Greece, and so on being the submerged parts. It was to have provided a big peek into European culture’s “enormous house of dreams in which day and night are confused.” It was to have offered safe passage along a fogbound creative coast where “the lines . . . between abstract and concrete, between holy and accursed, between pure and filthy are vague and shifting.”

After this baroque fanfare, and partly because of it—the show’s newsiness as the largest display of new European work ever mounted in North America didn’t help, either—the actual show seemed flat, at first glance anyway. The problem was not entirely one of content. Designer Massimo Vignelli appears not to have known how to overcome this museum’s choppy, scattered interior—articulations; instead of moving toward Celant’s operatic synthesis, the work was allowed to decompose into genres, sorted into a format of so many static categories, like Time magazine. The design section, tucked away by itself in a small basement gallery, lost its relation to the paintings and sculptures upstairs, and turned into an upscale home show. The photographs landed in a busy corridor and were lost. like snapshots tacked up beside an expressway.

In terms of the international circulation of art-world information about the Top Forty painters and sculptors featured, the show was at least three years too late, and twice as safe. The selection of Germany and Italy as exemplary witnesses to European identity and bearers of the light of contemporary creativity could easily be read as a rude gesture toward other Europeans, and toward the new American painters. The show barely missed being an all-male, blue-chip, entirely straitlaced affair; Salomé, for example, in a break from the ruder work I’ve seen of his, sent along tasteful swimmers done up in large wallpaper patterns. There was virtually no acknowledgment of the serious criticisms launched recently against many of the featured artists, and against the new European painting’s poignancy, psychological exoticism, resistance to political topicality, and aptness to become decoration in the mansions of two continents.

Because opportunities to see first-class works by Gerhard Richter, Enzo Cucchi, Mario Merz, Georg Baselitz, and Rebecca Horn have been rare or nonexistent in Toronto, however, the Iceberg served as a local catch-up on what the intercontinental fuss of the last few years has been about. More important, it showed that the fuss has been about intelligent art of uncommon beauty, art that reflects new cultural urgencies which deserve the outsized attention given them here.The show’s problems were not mere beauty spots, but they were insufficient to preclude an appreciation of the immensely suggestive engagements with history, popular mythologies, and the issues of regional practice embodied here in the best works of Marco Bagnoli, Lothar Baumgarten, Giuseppe Penone, Anselm Kiefer, Jannis Kounellis, Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, A.R. Penck, and others. It is not hard to imagine historical outcomes in postwar Germany or Italy that would have prevented such engagements; perhaps the most remarkable facts about the artworks in “The European Iceberg” were that they existed at all, and that they existed, at the best moments, as icons of extraordinary sensuous intelligence and intense liberty.

John Bentley Mays