Quadriennale d’Arte

Palazzo dei Congressi

Imagine a sideshow tent in an amusement park and a barker calling, “Visit the house of the Mermaids, the Cat-men, and the Monkey-women. You’ll discover the secret marvels of nature. The chill of the unbelievable!” Rome’s XI Quadriennale d’Arte (which by a scornful stroke of fate was mounted this year in the vicinity of the city’s largest amusement park) could similarly have announced, “Visit the biggest art show in town. You’ll find the greatest artists of the last 30 years. You’ll learn the true story of contemporary art!”

Nothing could have been less true. The disappointment one experienced while viewing the Quadriennale was the same as that felt upon entering a so-called “freak show.” There was no fantasy ”different" from those we could have imagined by ourselves. Rather than a roster of great names, it was really a show of great numbers, a bid for inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records: nearly one square mile of exhibit space, 440 artists invited, over 1,200 works chosen by 41 critics. It is impossible to name them, of course. It would be as boring as reading a telephone book and of no use whatsoever. Just as the exhibit itself was of no use, subject as it was to the rules of an outmoded charter and divisions based on political considerations and favoritism, it resembled a cake under the assault of a band of starving children. It is almost embarrassing to treat this exhibition harshly; it is akin to attacking a corpse. And this is indeed a pity, because the Quadriennale has a tradition as one of the oldest and most prestigious art exhibitions in Italy. Did it live up to its reputation? All things considered, no.

The show had a historical nucleus, from which six surveys radiated in a Star of David pattern. Two hundred and twenty artists were grouped in the central section, an average of thirty in the others. The central section considered the artists who emerged in Italy during the period 1950–80. (Good God, were there really 220? I wouldn’t have counted more than 50.) The charter excludes artists who have died in the meanwhile, so in the three decades covered there was no Lucio Fontana, no Giuseppe Capogrossi or Piero Manzoni, no Pino Pascali, et cetera. The charter also requires artists to submit works no more than five years old. The historical perspective? None. So why was it so impelling to establish such precise temporal frames if the works would not then reflect the reasons behind the emergence of the artists in the years considered? The next section, and the first in the order of ancillary shows, was “Art as Art History,” with only two barely acceptable works, while the rest were imitations of imitations of imitations. Who needs this derivativism to the nth degree? Absolute boredom. (It also raised some concern about the future destiny of art, since so many artists could be seen to be swiftly building hyperomate tombs in which to bury it.) This was followed by ”Art of New Images and New Materials.” Despite the title’s promise, there were indeed few new materials to be found, and only rarely images that indicated innovation. Yet many of the works here were by today’s authentic talents; in this Babel of tongues quality labored to be seen, since it was flattened by an installation that relegated the works of new generations to a desolate basement.

The fourth section of the Quadriennale was the peculiar “Recognition South,” which presented artists born south of Rome. It was a curious ghetto of personalities, eighty percent of whom deserved to remain segregated. Then came “Art as a consideration of Abstract-Informal Languages.” Thanks to the semantic vagueness of its title the curators felt free to insert anything and everything in this section. Finally, there was ”Representational Art“: the good and the bad of figurative art, the pedantry and the majesty, refined drawing and the most exaggerated formalism. The last section, ”Art as Writing" could easily have been included in the show’s historical nucleus, since concrete poetry was an authentic innovation in the ’50s and ’60s, and there are no longer any serious practitioners.

In any case, since there are so many fine artists in Italy there was every reason to expect this show to be a decent and historically valid event, but the bureaucratic overkill made it impossible to implement its premises. As the proverb goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” One thing not to beignored is that this Quadriennale now holds the record for the greatest number of rejected invitations, over 40. In this regard it is worthwhile to name names, to pay tribute to the professional scruples of those artists who stayed clear of this sideshow, among them Alighiero Boetti, Alberto Burn, Enrico Castellani, Bruno Ceccobelli, Dino de Dominicis, Gianni Dessi, Piero Dorazio, Nino Longobardi, Jannis Kounellis, Carlo Maria Mariani, Marisa Merz, Giuseppe Penone, Salvo, and Gilberto Zorio.

—Ida Pencielli

Translated from the Italian by Mayta Munson.