Focus: “The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943–1968”

“The Italian Metamorphosis: 1943–1968”—the Ovidian title of Germano Celant’s exhibition of postwar Italian art and design instantly signals a crucial quality of that country’s postwar reconstruction culture: the mythical persistence of the traditions of Mediterranean antiquity, Eurocentric humanism, and italianità.

After World War II, Italy would reorient itself initially through artisanal ideals and a conception of high culture largely untouched by the breakthroughs and breakdowns inflicted by the radical prewar avant-gardes. Just as French reconstruction culture initially held on obstinately to Matisse and Picasso as the ideal prewar or even transhistorical artists, and considered easel painting and bronze sculpture as the optimal objects through which to guarantee the continuity of a national esthetic, so the European, even global success of Marino Marini’s sculptures in the early ’50s seemed to confirm the viability of an Italian version of that model. Yet Italian postwar conditions were more complicated, due to the neo-avant-garde’s attempt to resituate itself with regard to the Futurist promise of a successful integration of art and technology. And Italy’s postwar artists had to distinguish themselves not from an oppositional historical avant-garde but from a largely collaborationist one, dating back to F. T. Marinetti’s and Carlo Carra’s enthusiastic embrace of Mussolini’s fascist state, and reaching into a more recent Modernist fascist culture that included Giuseppe Terragni’s architecture for the Casa del Fascio, Curzio Malaparte’s novels, and Lucio Fontana’s memorial sculptures of the late ’20s and ’30s.

The triangulation of repressed fascism, the emerging domination by the (American) culture industry, and the desire to reconstitute a (national) avant-garde culture is generally at the foundation of the neo-avant-gardes of this period (except in England and the U.S.). Italy would share with the reconstructed postfascist nation-states of Germany and Spain the conditions of blocked mourning. Thus one essential motivation was provided for the prominent positioning of purist abstraction, newly orienting painting at science and technology rather than at politics and commemoration, from the mid ’50s onward. Nothing could better enact the desire for a tabula rasa (effacing memory of the recent past) and the myth of a new beginning (that of a fully administered sci-tech utopia) than the reduction of painting to its degree zero in the gridded monochromes of Enrico Castellani and of the dozens of minor Italian and German artists operating along the same principles.

Italy differed from the other postfascist states, however, in its instant renewal of a radical political and cultural left (personified by, among many others, the communists Emilio Vedova, Rena to Guttuso, and Maurizio Calvesi) that not only would participate in the reconstruction of the nation-state but also would contribute actively to the renewal of cultural practices. The same could not be said for the postwar visual culture of West Germany, Spain, or, for that matter, the U.S.

It would take the genius and corrupt opportunism of Fontana to move with agility through this obstacle course of postfascist esthetics after his return from Argentina in 1947. Slipping back and forth from craft-oriented operations to high-technology displays (his neon installation at the Milan Triennale in 1951, for example), from travestying heroic avant-garde positions in abstraction and monochrome painting to copublishing a manifesto for a new esthetics of TV in 1952, Fontana more than anybody (with the exception of his French disciple Yves Klein) would initiate the artist’s rapid and successful transition into a proto-Warholian imago. Oscillating between cynically avowed culture-industry demands and traditional avant-garde claims of transcendence and autonomy, serving the media and the museum simultaneously, Fontana would produce one of the most complex Italian oeuvres of that moment. His pierced and cut monochromes literally enact the tragicomic split of abstract gestural painting (divided already between its expressive/spiritual promises and its positivist opticality) between heroic subjectivity and farcical backdrop, a split driven into abstraction ever since Cecil Beaton used Jackson Pollock’s paintings as mere fashion plates. (Fontana himself would often pose with fashion models, and with his own spectacularized gestures.) Yet at the same time Fontana would develop a desperate corporeal intensity in his interventions within the surfaces of abstract painting, and perhaps even more in his sculptural oeuvre. Here, the refuge of what Yve-Alain Bois has aptly titled Fontana’s “base materialism” appears as the only possible answer to the increasingly evident erosion of the esthetic by the heteronomies of spectacle: fashion and design.

This dialectic, fully in place at the end of the ’50s, would set the stage for the two subsequent generations of Italian artists appearing in this exhibition. The first generation is ultimately just one person, Piero Manzoni, who would single-handedly lay bare the complicity and corruption in Fontana’s (and Klein’s) opulent enterprise through acts of avant-garde surgery not encountered since Marcel Duchamp. Precisely in response to the spectacularization of painting impetuously performed by Fontana and Klein (and in certain ways by the gleeful European reception of Pollock through Hans Namuth and Georges Mathieu), Manzoni would have the cruel conceptual clarity to withdraw altogether the pictorial and sculptural signifiers so dear to fashion and design and to replace them with the last site of resistance, the body’s actual materialities: blood, breath, excrement. Or, in a brilliant dialectical inversion of that principle, he would anticipate the inescapable spectacularization of artistic production by substituting the performance of ritual for the production of artistic objects.

The exhibition gives both Fontana and Manzoni their historical due, yet one can only wonder why Celant, an expert on Manzoni, could not prevent the exhibition architect’s presentation of Socle du monde (Base of the world, 1961), in an utterly inept manner—on simulated gravel, encircled by stanchions, barely visible. And the presentation of Manzoni’s linee like so many multiples will yet again protect American audiences from the realization that Manzoni was addressing the dialectic between Pollock’s concepts of expressive antibourgeois subjectivity, on the one hand, and the emergence of structural and collective concepts of subjectivity and artistic production in Duchamp, on the other. Manzoni’s work emancipated painting (again) from the myths of creative individuality perpetrated by esthetic production at the very moment when the conditions for subjectivity were disappearing rapidly in the society of advanced administration.

This dialectic would also constitute one of the foundations of the second, arte povera generation. But where Manzoni criticized the European cult of Pollock through an Italian introduction to Duchamp, the arte povera artists faced yet another challenge: how to reconcile an artistic production like American Minimalism, which aimed at a radical redefinition of object and spectator interaction, with the mnemonic discourse of cultural specificity that had defined Italian anti-Modernism ever since de Chirico. Put differently: between the plight of the technocratic instrumentality of Modernism and the fascist fatalities of the de Chirico legacy, a post-Modern esthetic had to be developed that resisted both—the spectacularization of cultural memory just as much as the sudden congruence between techno-scientific avant-garde paradigms and corporate design.

The critique of Minimalism (and of American culture at large) remains a crucial lesson of arte povera. Confronted with a work like Giovanni Anselmo’s Torsione (Contortion, 1968), one can only wish that Richard Serra had learned as much from the Italians as they had learned from him. But then it seems that such a radical critique of the late-Modernist triumphalism of Minimal and post-Minimal sculpture could only emerge from a cultural context in which historical consciousness and subject definitions were still intricately bound up with the recognition that avant-garde practices efface memory as much as they reconstitute it. Yet this territory is no less treacherous than the American compulsion to progress, potentially no less fatal than the artistic assimilation of the techno-scientific paradigm in Minimalism’s corporate upgrading of Constructivism. This is evident in the weaker moments of arte povera, as well as in the eventual decline of some of its artists into the spectacularized bombast of memory tableaux, the very condition that the recourse to mnemonic imagery had originally set out to oppose.

Another danger is that the Italian model is precariously dependent upon a seemingly unchallenged assumption about the inherently esoteric and elitist character of culture (an assumption evident in the almost total absence of a photographic culture in postwar Italy, an absence corroborated by the exhibition’s utterly failed attempt to prove the contrary). The arte povera artists may have criticized high art from within, but they never challenged its distribution form or its institutional and discursive framework. If Minimalism could not control its inadvertent analogies with corporate culture, then arte povera fails in its weaker moments to build a critical resistance against an affinity with the luxurious eccentricities that have traditionally distinguished the rarefied objects of aristocratic consumption. (This apparent contradiction in terms is of course at the heart of every Italian design ambition.)

The best art in “The Italian Metamorphosis” (and the exhibition’s strongest virtue is to show us only the best art), such as the work of Pino Pascali (who deserves more recognition) and the early work of Jannis Kounellis, Giuseppe Penone, and Mario Merz, critiques Modernist rationality and the technocratic culture of Minimalism in haunting constellations and enigmatic structural oppositions. But then the devastating impact of international artworld consumption generates ever larger versions of these fragile oppositional projects of historical recollection, to the point where they in turn simply merge with corporate design principles. The best arte povera work, like Luciano Fabro’s, seems to reflect on its precarious proximity to the tawdriness of aristocratic design culture, its blending of the facile and factitious. Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Venere degli stracci (Venus of the rags, 1967) and Gilberto Zorio’s astonishing sculpture Sedia (Chair, 1966) seem to struggle almost explicitly with the stranglehold of fashion and design, and with art’s deadliest enemy: elegance. Thus the exhibition’s unfortunate pretense to construct a cultural continuum between architecture and jewelry, between product design and film, proves doubly problematic.

As if the size, weight, and design of the catalogue had not already signified sufficiently, Celant’s preface explicitly positions “The Italian Metamorphosis” as a successor to the Guggenheim’s recent grand project “The Great Utopia,” an attempt at a comprehensive history of the Russian and Soviet avant-gardes. This confusion proves another fatal flaw: the differences between the avant-garde in the Soviet Union in the ’20s and the neo-avant-garde in postwar Italy are fundamental. In the former, the larger project consisted precisely in the collective development of standards of living, in providing for essential public needs in an emerging industrial nation, and in the productivist avant-garde’s attempts to conceive a new collective and utilitarian culture. This situation certainly is not comparable to the postwar moment, when the new models of advanced American consumer culture were put in place in Europe under the auspices of the Marshall Plan. The fashion system and the design system emerged at that moment as the major forces to accelerate the drive of the enterprise of consumer culture, and they arose in Italy with notorious competence.

What emerged also at that moment was the law of recuperation: the absolute and global control of goods and markets no longer allows for dissident behaviors, yet at the same time difference is the incitement that will deceive the consumers of eternal sameness. Difference, therefore, wherever and whenever it still occurs, has to be recuperated instantly in order to be subjected to the orders of fashion and design. Neo-avant-garde positions such as arte povera find themselves continuously confronted with the question of whether and how, given the totalizing demands of spectacle culture, spaces and practices of resistance can remain open at all and still allow for the cultural articulation of concepts of subjectivity that would retain the affective, cognitive, and mnemonic differentiation of experience implicit in the definition of the esthetic.

The Guggenheim’s administration seems to have grasped the idea that the only attractive way of presenting history to a profoundly dehistoricized public is to spectacularize historical objects through the means of a postModernist architect’s display devices. Like the rage for performing Hamlet in tuxedos that typified the ’30s, it will be the hallmark of the late ’80s and ’90s that no historical object is secure anymore against its utter submission to the post-Modern. Here the “radical” architects (Zaha Hadid in the Russian exhibition, Gae Aulenti in the Italian) have found their proper function: to stage and upstage, parasitically exploiting the radicality that the historical avant-garde objects commanded but that their own work could never achieve. Aulenti once again produces the risque boutique design that we have come to expect from her since she made it practically impossible to see a single historical object in Paris’ Musee d’Orsay without having to think of her at the same time. Her utterly dysfunctional zigzag intervention inside Frank Lloyd Wright’s extraordinary serpentine space, an intervention driven not by a lucid feminist critique but by the designer’s obsessive (trade)mark-making instinct, appears at best as a spectacular vagina dentata motif inflicted on Wright’s conception of an architectural void.

But history does not seem to be the subject anyway: how else would we explain the fact that a catalogue weighing eight pounds contains hardly any younger (or older) Italian scholars’ and historians’ critical or scholarly work on the extraordinary history and art of postwar Italy, but endless pages of fashion and Ferragamo shoes?