Nice

View of “Vita nuova. nouveaux enjeux de l’art en Italie 1960–1975” (New Life: New Issues for Art in Italy 1960–1975), 2022. Wall, from left: Marinella Pirelli, Bruciare (To Burn), 1971; Mario Ceroli, Fiori (Flowers), 1965. Floor, from left: Pino Pascali, Campi arati e canali di irrigazione (Plowed Fields and Irrigation Canals), 1967; Mario Merz, Acqua scivola (Water Slips Down), 1969. Photo: Jean-Christophe Lett.

View of “Vita nuova. nouveaux enjeux de l’art en Italie 1960–1975” (New Life: New Issues for Art in Italy 1960–1975), 2022. Wall, from left: Marinella Pirelli, Bruciare (To Burn), 1971; Mario Ceroli, Fiori (Flowers), 1965. Floor, from left: Pino Pascali, Campi arati e canali di irrigazione (Plowed Fields and Irrigation Canals), 1967; Mario Merz, Acqua scivola (Water Slips Down), 1969. Photo: Jean-Christophe Lett.

“Vita nuova. nouveaux enjeux de l’art en Italie 1960–1975”

In her introductory catalogue essay for “Vita nuova. nouveaux enjeux de l’art en Italie 1960–1975” (New Life: New Issues for Art in Italy 1960–1975), curator Valérie Da Costa suggests that the show was “une histoire revisité,” a reconsidered history. What was being reconsidered was the narrative proposed by the exhibition’s single precedent in France, the legendary “Identité Italienne. L’art en Italie depuis 1959” (Italian Identity: Art in Italy Since 1959), an exhibition organized by Germano Celant at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 1981. In that show, Celant was rather uncharitable to artists working outside Arte Povera, presenting that important movement as the apex of a progressive Hegelian manifestation of the national spirit, to which the major forerunners, such as Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, and Emilio Vedova, were but a prelude. By contrast, “Vita nuova” took into account revised interpretations of postwar Italian art by a new generation of critics and curators who in recent years have given greater attention to unjustly marginalized artists, particularly women. Vincenzo Agnetti, Tomaso Binga, Marisa Busanel, Paolo Icaro, Maria Lai, Lucia Marcucci, Fabio Mauri, and Carol Rama are among those who did not receive the institutional attention they deserved until the early 1990s and were on view here.

While the Nice exhibition, broadly speaking, faithfully conveyed the image of Italian art as Italians view it today, it also reaffirmed certain clichés about Italian culture that should have been avoided. The structure of the exhibition was thematic, and the themes on which it was built are widely familiar: the media image, our relationship with nature, the body, and, implicitly, the political upheaval of 1968. It is here that the cliché emerges: Italians are corporeality, sexuality, action; in Italy, pure thought is not contemplated, and even the chosen works by Agnetti, Giorgio Griffa, and Giulio Paolini are ones that evoke the body, obscuring these artists’ analytical and metalinguistic concerns. The catalogue texts focus on the contribution of women artists and on the importance of process to Arte Povera, taking little else into consideration. Moreover, in her hasty introductory text, Da Costa follows Celant in excluding kinetic art and analytic painting, arguing that these trends originated in the 1950s. But Grazia Varisco’s kinetic works date from around 1960; Gianni Colombo’s masterpiece, Spazio Elastico (Elastic Space), was created in 1967; and the so-called Pittura Analitica (Analytical Painting) movement began in 1970—and all should have been included.

A more felicitous curatorial choice was the inclusion of projected excerpts from films emblematic of the era: Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone (1961), and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964). This enabled an astute juxtaposition of sequences from Pasolini’s Comizi d’Amore (Love Meetings, 1964) with Lisetta Carmi’s famous photos of the trans community from 1965 to 1970. I should also mention an effective selection of Italian Pop art and an impactful large room containing Mario Merz’s igloo with green caulking and a dead branch (Acqua scivola [Water Slips Down], 1969) alongside three “artificial nature” pieces by Piero Gilardi and Mario Ceroli’s elegant wooden Fiori (Flowers), 1965. Overall, the show successfully juxtaposed different works with formal similarities: the colored feathers in both Claudio Parmiggiani’s large Cercle de plumes, Cercle de feu (Circle of Feathers, Ring of Fire), 1969, and Lai’s Cornice (Frame), 1968, atypical works in the production of these two artists. Another surprise was the affinity between Irma Blank’s red graphic tangles on paper, Eigenschriften, spazio a-13, (Signatures, Space A-13), 1970, and Marisa Merz’s little shoes made of copper wire, Senza titolo (scarpette) (Untitled [Shoes]), 1975. The exhibition culminated with a pair of works by Mauri: the video of his performance Che cosa è il fascismo (What Is Fascism), 1971, and a moving reconstruction of Intelletuale, 1975, where the artist projected Pasolini’s 1964 film The Gospel According to St. Matthew onto the body of Pasolini himself, seated on the steps of a Bologna museum. A few months later, the writer was assassinated on the beach at Ostia. “Vita nuova” ended here, symbolically.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.