Italian Avant-Garde in the U.S.A.

December 14, 2016 Perspectives No Comments

Since the purpose of this second issue of Carnet de miart was to give a lively overview of modern Italian art, we decided to travel overseas to explore what the current reception of this unique century and its cultural production in the United States has been so far.

First of all, let us begin with an important and disenchanted notice about the matter we are going to investigate. As the Director of MART Museum in Rovereto Gianfranco Maraniello aptly told us: “It is at least curious to note that it is still possible to speak of Italian art, that is to think of an art whose relevance derives from a national condition in spite of the accomplished globalisation in a similar industry.” Indeed, take for instance the personal history of Italian artist Giorgio De Chirico (1888-1978), who was born and raised in Greece from Italian parents, moved to Munich in its twenties, then to Milan, Florence and Paris. There he became acquainted with Guillaume Apollinaire, Constantin Brancusi, André Derain and others, before going back to Italy in 1915 due to the First World War. After having found the group “Scuola Metafisica” with Filippo de Pisis and Carlo Carrà in Ferrara, he moved to Rome and led the group “Gruppo Valori Plastici” in 1918, which coincided with his works travelling through Europe in several exhibitions.


A view of the “Giorgio de Chirico / Giulio Paolini” exhibition at the Center for Italian Modern Art, 2016. Photo: Walter Smalling Jr.


This kaleidoscopic series of events resonates with what Maraniello suggested and, at the same time, it opens up the question about the limits of giving stable definitions to art for, if sometimes they become preposterous, they do not always do so. Indeed, art is far away from a standalone category related to objects and ideas. Most of the time, its outlets are vehicles of aesthetics, social, economic and political concerns, and Italian art in the Thirties was no exception. De Chirico had, in fact, his first solo show in New York and London around 1928, but this did not legitimise the reception of his works in the US. As Laura Mattioli, Founder and President at the New York’s Center of Italian Modern Art (CIMA), reported us: “Americans generally have a very positive image of Italy. They know and love its cuisine, design, and fashion — but for art, it is Renaissance or classical. In general 20th-century Italian art is little understood because historically the country of reference for the history of modern art has been France. There are other factors at play as well in the marginalisation of Italian modern art, including the complicated political history of Italy in the 20th century, or the different methodological approaches between Italian critics and their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Moreover, there are few Italian critics who have been translated or studied abroad.”


A view of the Fortunato Depero exhibition at the Center for Italian Modern Art, 2014. Photo: Walter Smalling Jr.


Nevertheless, “CIMA has quite a unique model for tackling these challenges. We are a non-profit exhibition and research center, and as such we present world-class exhibitions of rarely seen artworks and offer an international art history fellowship program in collaboration with the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. As a public charity, our goal is to foster new scholarship, exchange, and dialogue in the field of Italian art and culture. Thanks to the work of our advisory committee, which comprises internationally renowned scholars and curators from Italy and the United States, each exhibition is conceived as an innovative laboratory, where young art historians from different countries selected through an open call come together to conduct research on artists that might be under-exhibited at the international level or who, such as in the case of Giorgio Morandi in the 1930s, developed certain bodies of work still largely ignored by academia and museums. Having a nine-month-long exhibition offers us the chance to develop a rich calendar of programming, which helps shed light on the relevance of Italian art in the international and contemporary cultural landscape.

Furthermore, CIMA’s fellows offer weekly guided visits of the exhibition as a way of sharing with the public the knowledge and research they are producing and triggering new conversations among the groups of visitors. Thanks guided visits and spectrum of programs—which includes Study Days, Drawing Nights, contemporary artist talks, and Family Days, among others—audiences are encouraged to take a closer look and get directly in contact with new scholarship as this is being developed. Plus, thanks our exhibition space being a bright loft resembling more a residence than a traditional museum, visitors are encouraged to develop a more direct and intimate approach to the artworks and set their own pace of enjoyment as we welcome them with a cup of espresso in our communal kitchen or encourage them to linger in the seating areas of our space after the guided visit is over.”


Magazzino Italian Art, New York. Photo: Marco Anelli © 2016


This engagement with both the general public and art professionals aiming to promote Italian art in New York and in the U.S.A., is shared also by Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu. Indeed, “as art lovers and advocates,” they told us, “it has always been our mission to bring postwar and Contemporary Italian art to the forefront of the art community in the United States.”

The collection of Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu, a lifelong project carried on with undiminished passion and dedication, includes Modern Art, Art Deco, American Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Arte Povera and a large array of Murano glassworks. But it is to their collection of Italian art that they decided to dedicate Magazzino Italian Art, an art warehouse devoted to Postwar and Contemporary Italian art located along the Hudson River in Cold Spring —an hour from New York. Magazzino is slated to open in 2017, with free admission by appointment.


Paolo Canevari, Souvenir, 2014-15. Courtesy of Olnick Spanu Art Program, New York. Photo: Marco Anelli © 2016


Asked about the main challenge that this project constitutes for them, they replied: “Having had the good fortune to assemble a significant collection of Arte Povera, which we consider to be the last avant-garde movement of the 20th century, the main challenge we face is educating the American public about the historical background from which this art movement emerged. Understanding the socio-cultural, political radicalisation of the time as well as the impact of the economic and industrial boom occurring in Italy during the 1960’s, is paramount to fully appreciating the value of these works.” It is compelling indeed not to forget that the “United States was in turmoil as well during this period and that the Pop Movement and Minimalism emerged as a result. However, Arte Povera is distinctly Italian and though each artist had his own unique way to express themselves, many drew from the history of the quintessential Italian art, mythology, science and the processes of nature, as well as the role of the artist.”


Francesco Arena, Posatoi, 2013-14. Courtesy of Olnick Spanu Art Program, New York. Photo: Marco Anelli © 2016


In order to “provide the viewer with the essential background needed to fully appreciate the work,” Olnick and Spanu are realising a documentary to be presented at the entrance of the exhibition space in Cold Spring. Moreover, the visitors will have the opportunity to be accompanied through the galleries by graduate students from nearby Universities, who will “answer any questions or discuss the work further, as it confronts American art.” In pursuit of a broader educational programme, Magazzino will feature “an extensive library of over 5,000 books and archival material that will be available for use onsite. Unfortunately for non-Italians, many publications are written solely in Italian. Thus, we are in the process of translating key books and artist’s statements into English as well.”

According to its philanthropic commitment, Magazzino Italian Art will also “continue to support the current generation of Italian artists both here in the US, through our Art Program–a one-year artist residency program that invites contemporary Italian artists to create site-specific installations on our property in Garrison, New York – and abroad, so that they have a further presence in international art forums such as Documenta, the Venice Biennale, museums and other art initiatives. We hope that Magazzino Italian Art will become a unique destination for visitors. The challenges we face are varied and many but we intend to persevere in order to give Italian Art, both past and present, the recognition it truly deserves.”


Untitled (Living Sculpture) 1966 by Marisa Merz born 1931
Marisa Merz, Untitled (Living Sculpture), 1966. Courtesy of the artist


Our travel ends with Cornelia “Connie” Butler, who is organising the first retrospective exhibition of Marisa Merz in the United States. Currently Chief Curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Butler is also well-known for having curated the exhibition “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles, in 2007, her fundamental project aimed to intervene in the art history and demonstrate the impact of feminism on the art of the 1970s.

Marisa Merz’ exhibition will open in January 2017 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and in the following June at the Hammer Museum, and it will be a very important occasion to explore a large selection of works by “the only woman artist associated with Italy’s most important post-war art movement Arte Povera,” as Butler pointed out. Asked about how Marisa Merz’ works could illuminate our specific socio-political-economic conjuncture, Butler told us: “Her early installations were radical dispersals of material into the gallery that opened questions of impermanence and precariousness into the discourse of post-war sculpture. Her drawings and ceramic sculptures which began in the 1980s are a meditation on an iconic, female image. Part goddess, part queen, part Madonna or alien, these images resonate with art history but also with current notions of female empowerment. While the artist herself is still deeply connected to the world–quick to engage in political discussions and to offer opinions about world events–, she is also immersed in a world of art history and surrounded by a constellation of unearthly beings who form a kind of chorus around her. At a moment when the world seems to be imploding, Merz’s work asks for beauty, poetry and the sheer pleasure of looking.”


Cover image: Massimo Bartolini, Conveyance (Vitalia), 2005-2006.
Courtesy of Olnick Spanu Art Program, New York.
Photo: Marco Anelli © 2016