New York

Enzo Cucchi

Enzo Cucchi broke with tradition in three major ways for his exhibition this summer at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York—two of them ruptures of museum conventions (and, in one case, of this space in particular), and a third having to do with the meaning and content of the show Most obviously Cucchi discarded the Guggenheim custom of having the publicascend by elevator from the ground floor to a higher gallery and then return to the bottom via the spiraling ramp. His show was to be seen from the ground up, by ascending the incline. This could have been seen as a disruption of the public's established viewing patterns, but I believe that it was actually a reflection of the complex symbology underlying Cucchi's work, and we shall see how. Second, the show was not the usual retrospective in which a span of works from different stages of the artist's career succeed each other in chronological order. It reflected no particular dating, and most of the works were quite recent. Cucchi conceived the show as a whole, specifically designing it for the Guggenheim. It was a kind of gigantic installation in the Frank Lloyd Wright space, though to label it like this is reductive, for its meaning—and now we have arrived at the third break with convention—lay in its articulation of a unified expression across all formal or other boundaries. The Guggenheim's and Cucchi's initiative in risking this show, in which the artist was left free to make the decisions that would govern its form, is to be applauded. Curator Diane Waldman did not so much mount an exhibition as allow an event to take place, a creative interaction of artist and environment. Instead of considering the artwork as a discrete object to be classified, inventoried, and assigned a place in history, it was permitted to become verified as part of a larger whole, overturning the modus operandi of the museum show but enlarging the possibility of a new work of art, the exhibition itself.

The show unwound up and around Wright's spiral, beginning on the ground floor with the first painting on the right as one entered the museum. Entitled Deposito Occidentale (Western depository 1986), it shows a fantastic animal, a sort of dragon or serpent whose breath propels a fleet of boats and two roses toward an ideal West. An image of spiritual tension pulling toward an “elsewhere,” the work describes a voyage to be undertaken: the voyage to America of the artist, who, from his cultural vantage as a European, regards the far Western shore, and sends forth offerings of friendship—the roses—on his boats. What pushes them along—the beast's breath—is an ancient force that Cucchi senses inherent in the earth of Europe, the place at the center of his esthetic and his ideology

Installed to the right of this painting was Preistoria (Prehistory, 1986), a round canvas resting on a single iron wheel. Preistoria seemed a station in the artist's voyage, the intermediary step between Deposito Occidentale and the bronze sculpture opposite it. This sculpture in two identical parts, long oval forms resembling elongated eggs, lay at the center of the gallery. From one side of each section a female figure emerged. This was a germinal presence, as though the two figures, who looked toward the ramp, were indicating the birth of the ideas that would develop from that point. And from here on—with the exception of one piece near the top of the ramp, and of the works in the High Gallery—only drawings were exhibited. Their small dimensions do nothing to diminish the force that Cucchi's large-scale paintings have taught us to associate with his art, and his presentation of his repertory of signs mainly through these works in no way limited the show Now isolated, now massed in tight groups, now spread out over the wall, they evolved like cloud formations, ordered by thematic rather than chronological criteria. Iconographically, they covered the entire expanse of Cucchi's intellectual universe.

The roots of Cucchi's world are in nature, and the artist understands nature's fierceness as well as its benevolence. He shows it giving life, and also encompassing death; holding friendly presences—dogs and hens, fish, spirits of the earth—and violent with tempests and earthquakes; populated with saints and martyrs as well as with skulls, phantoms, crosses, and tombstones. From small work to large and back, from the individual piece to the ensemble, the story unfolded through a broad weave of references and recurrences among the images. Threads recently abandoned would reappear, blend, and be dropped again, as Cucchi jumped easily from one chapter to another yet always held on to the general theme of the voyage. Near the end of the sequence came a small painting, L'elefante vede (The elephant sees, 1986), in which the elephant, shown small, at the center of a red plane, turned its glance down toward the beginning of the show, symbolically closing the exhibition. Not looking but seeing, the animal actively completed the overall vision.

In terms of the rest of the exhibition,the High Gallery constituted a pause. Cucchi has drawn a parallel between this protuberance in Wright's spiraling architectural form and Niccolò Paganini's “third arm,” the “arm of the devil” attributed to the violinist in legend to explain the extraordinary speed of his playing. In the High Gallery Cucchi achieved an operatic effect—the very entrance to the space seemed like a large open mouth. According to Waldman's catalogue essay, the artist saw the paintings he created for this room, all more or less vertical in format, as filling the space like organ pipes. They stood against the walls, resting on the ground on iron wheels, like pieces of stage scenery their shrill colors contributing to the theatrical effect. As in the drawings, small creatures, archaic writings, and fantastic architectures made appearances, but these canvases also showed the return of a logo from Cucchi's earlier painting: a repeated form, derived from a sheet-metal cutout, that melds the shapes of a violin and a sailing ship. The violin emphasized the musical aspect of the installation, while the ship, its sails unfurled, led back to the idea of the voyage. The wheels that supported these paintings, and also the paintings on the ground floor, related to the idea of movement, of transfer from place to place in the ideal voyage that Cucchi has undertaken to reach another West. The show in no way suggested that he has reached a destination; it recounted the journey not the arrival in port. It was a description of the artist's dream of a frontier beyond the Pillars of Hercules. The disembarkation was not important; what mattered was the mental space of the voyage, the organic movement of thoughts and forms, the status of being en route. The show described a movement with no center; its focal points were dislocated, here and there, to be come upon as the viewers followed their own itineraries, their own returns and backward glances.

The underlying idea sustaining the show was this: the only place of security is the port of departure, which for Cucchi is Europe. Cucchi sees Europe as a repository of culture, a place possessing not only the riches of history but also a generative potential. Europe was the invisible but subterranean topos in this exhibition, the word, the Logos, that could not be pronounced but was the source of the show's language. Cucchi's strength lies in the European civilization in which he is consciously rooted, and he expresses this in ways both considered and sensuous—considered in their intentions, sensuous in their results.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg shore.