Venice

“Italics”

Palazzo Grassi

Curator Francesco Bonami has positioned “Italics: Italian Art Between Tradition and Revolution 1968–2008,” as a sequel to “The Italian Metamorphosis,” the survey of postwar Italian visual culture that Germano Celant presented at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1995. The Guggenheim show had presented masters from Piero Manzoni to Mario Schifano to the principals of Arte Povera, and in a certain sense it was a history of the victors. “Italics,” organized with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (where the exhibition will travel in the fall of 2009), takes into consideration so-called secondary figures as well as the big names. And so we have not only Lucio Fontana but also Agostino Bonalumi, Dadamaino, and Maria Lai; not only Arte Povera but also Luca Patella, Paolo Icaro, and—to my mind the most debatable inclusion—Salvatore Emblema; not only the Transavanguardia but also Alberto Garutti and even the outsider Carlo Zinelli, whose work was produced in a psychiatric hospital in the 1970s.

Thus Bonami has not presented an official history but an idiosyncratic and subjective interpretation; it is no accident that, from the time it was announced, the show has elicited negative reactions. There have been preemptive attacks in the press and public statements by artists who refused to participate, motivated above all by the presence of other “heretical” artists who are rarely exhibited alongside “avant-garde” figures. These are exponents of various figurative tendencies that have traversed Italian art since the postwar period, such as Pietro Annigoni (represented by a pedestrian self-portrait) or the post-Surrealist Fabrizio Clerici, but perhaps the biggest outlier is Renato Guttuso, who is in fact a major figure yet remains unpopular with critics and artists alike, above all because of his adherence to the political ideology of socialist realism. Yet Guttuso and his mode of artistic expression were immensely influential, and to continue ignoring this has become wearisome. His painting in “Italics,” the notorious I Funerali di Togliatti (The Funeral of Togliatti), 1972, is better than reputation would have it and is not too traditional or simplistically eulogistic to hang alongside Schifano’s Compagni Compagni (Comrades Comrades), or even Pino Pascali’s Vedova blu (Blue Widow), both 1968, which are understandably installed in the same room.

Despite the curatorial quirks, which also include the absence of significant figures (Vincenzo Agnetti, Pier Paolo Calzolari, and Mimmo Paladino, for example), “Italics” holds its own among the many other shows that have been devoted to the Italian art of this period, with important works often beautifully installed. Bonami has frequently said that he distinguishes between his roles as curator and critic. In the case of “Italics,” the curator has prevailed, for the project’s weak point is precisely the catalogue text, which fails to seriously justify such unconventional choices other than to repeat that art historiography must change direction, an empty argument of a type that is all too common in Italy. In fact, Bonami seems to have fallen in line with the position that is in vogue in the Berlusconi era, which is that all the country’s ills derive from the cultural hegemony formerly exercised by the parties of the left. If we had been less Communist and more religious, the critic tells us—and he is not joking—we would be better known outside our borders, and Carol Rama, for instance, would be the Louise Bourgeois of Italy. This is not only false, it is offensive.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.