Italics opens with two works that couldn’t be farther apart in terms of mood, scale, and content. Maurizio Cattelan’s All (2008) is a depiction of nine over-life-size dead bodies sculpted in white Carrara marble. The figures are covered from head to toe in drapery whose smoothly articulated folds mimic the forms of their bodies. This image—calling to mind victims of tragic events placed in body bags—is startling because it’s the first piece the viewer encounters in the show. It’s also startling for how the work is presented. Placed right on the floor, without a base or pedestal—or even the usual cordon or occasional alarm device informing museum-goers of the need to maintain some distance from an artwork—All is positioned very much in the viewer’s space, even worrying this writer she might accidentally step on one of the marble victims.
The second work in the show is Gino De Dominicis’s Senza titolo (Untitled, 1994–95), a tiny piece consisting of a shiny pyrite cube inserted into a stone, featuring a drawn self-portrait of the artist so subtly rendered that it could easily be missed without the viewer’s close inspection. While All contains anonymous subjects, De Dominicis’s untitled work is intimate and personal, a seeming recollection of the subject/artist as a little boy. Yet unlike All, Senza titolo’s separation from the viewer is safely established by its enclosure in a Lucite case atop a pedestal.
The various oppositions evoked by a comparison of these two works—public vs. private, large-scale vs. small, tragic vs. charming—set the stage for the dynamic portrayal of contemporary Italian art encountered in Italics, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago after its initial (and larger) presentation at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. Organized into broad thematic or conceptual (and sometimes overlapping) categories such as “Portrait and Landscape,” “Representations of Mortality,” and “Social Unrest,” the show features work by over one hundred artists, the vast majority of whom are largely unknown outside of Italy.
“Portrait and Landscape,” the show’s first and largest section, features another striking opposition. Pietro Annigoni—the author of a 1949 manifesto championing Renaissance-style mastery of artistic fundamentals—demonstrates his respect for traditional draftsmanship in Autoritratto (Self-Portrait, 1985), rendering every line of his face and fold of his undershirt in painstaking, almost photographic detail. By contrast, in Skeleton Key III (2007), like Autoritratto a head-and-shoulders portrait, the artist Pietro Roccasalva distorts his subject’s facial features in a manner suggestive of the English painter Francis Bacon, smearing the bellhop’s face (as well as neck and shoulders) with pink and tan pastel, and covering a large segment of it with an enormous snout.
Death and portraiture intersect in intriguing ways in several works in Italics. In Roberto Cuoghi’s 2006 portrait of Davide Halevim, one of the highlights of the section entitled “Representations of Mortality,” Halevim is covered in leaves, dirt, and twigs; his face is discolored; and rigor mortis appears to have set in. But Halevim was alive (and still is) when Cuoghi made this depiction of the Milan-based collector. To create this work, part of the artist’s series of portraits of art-world figures begun in 2001, Cuoghi made a cast of Halevim’s face, buried it in his garden to let the process of decomposition run its course, and then photographed the results. The curious end product: a depiction of a living person as dead.
In striking contrast, Salvo’s Io sono il migliore (I am the greatest, 1970), part of the artist’s Lapidi (Tombstone) series, dispenses with figuration altogether. Io sono il migliore consists of that sentence inscribed in gold in tombstone-type lettering on a black marble plaque. In this humorous take on the tombstone monument, Salvo fixes his self-proclaimed “greatness” for posterity.
In Sisyphus (1994), Luciano Fabro likens himself to the ill-fated mythological figure condemned for all eternity to roll a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down every time he tries. This floor piece involves one of the most unusual combinations of artistic media in the exhibition: marble and flour. (That’s right, flour.) Fabro etched his self-portrait into a cylindrical piece of marble, which leaves an imprint of the artist’s likeness in flour after being rolled over it.
Fabro was among the leading figures in the Arte Povera movement, which emerged in Italy in the mid- to late 1960s amid the social and political unrest of that time. Many of them associated with the leftist movement, Arte Povera artists used unconventional, often commonplace or organic materials in their effort to arrive at new ways of engaging the viewer. The term Arte Povera literally means “poor art”—although, as the writer Caroline Tisdall observed, “poor” doesn’t necessarily translate to “spare.”
Indeed, Mario Ceroli’s Le bandiere di tutto il mondo (Flags of the Whole World, 1968), the centerpiece of the “Arte Povera and Beyond” gallery, feels anything but spare. Le bandiere di tutto il mondo is a stunningly beautiful floor piece composed of a series of zinc containers filled with brightly colored pigments, soil, and glass. Viewed from afar, the stripes of color comprise a giant, rainbow-like flag. Seen up close, this work appeals to the viewer’s sense of touch with its captivating combination of both colors and textures.
Located on a nearby wall in the Arte Povera gallery, Enrico Castellani’s Superficie Argento (Silver Surface, 2008) is a painting-turned-sculptural relief that also suggests a work of industrial design. A silver piece literally dotted with a series of small protuberances and indentations, Superficie Argento draws the viewer in with its luminescence and unusual surface texture. To transform the canvas into a relief surface, Castellani ingeniously arranged nails into a geometric pattern, based on how he wished light to interact with the surface of the work, and then stretched canvas over it.
Perhaps the most important piece in the “Spatial Geometry” section of Italics, Lucio Fontana’s Ambiente spaziale (Spatial Environment, 1968) makes for an uncomfortable experience. Pervaded by a light almost blinding in its intensity, the all-white installation comprises a labyrinthine walkway so narrow that all but the petite need to walk sideways to negotiate it. Created for the Documenta 4 exhibition in Kassel, Germany, Ambiente spaziale reflects Fontana’s career-spanning interest in space. The installation culminates with a panel of slashed gesso—a reference to Fontana’s series Tagli (Slashes), begun in the 1950s, in which he sliced the canvas with a razor in order to explore the space behind.
Along with the labyrinth, the grid appears in several works in Italics as a means of organizing space. Cesare Colombo’s photograph Milano, il grattacielo per uffici Galfa visto dal grattacielo Pirelli (Milan: Offices in the Galfa Tower Seen from the Pirelli Skyscraper, 1968) suggests a grid-like division of the Milan office building pictured, creating an effect of both repetition and alienation—the sense of office workers cut off from each other, isolated in their own discrete “pods.” While the architecture forms the grid in Colombo’s photograph, people themselves—rows of nearly identical figures standing with outstretched arms—form the grid in Francesco Clemente’s untitled drawing of 1974.
Clemente, one of the major figures of the Transavanguardia movement of the late 1970s and 1980s—which, in reaction to Arte Povera and other recent movements like conceptual art, embraced figuration, expressiveness, mystery, and a return to traditional artistic media—is also represented by a second work in the MCA’s installation of Italics: the artist’s untitled self-portrait of 1971. Reproduced on the cover of the exhibition catalogue, this work is actually two self-portraits in one: the primary image, in which Clemente depicts himself with the Communist raised fist, and a second, smaller depiction of the artist’s face, seen inside his coat.
The Clemente self-portrait is among the works featured in the “Social Unrest” section. The gallery effectively conveys the sense of how the social and political upheavals of circa 1968 were experienced with particular intensity in Italy, wherein an estimated 500,000 students—responding to both the economic and cultural disparities caused by the country’s rapid post-World War II industrialization and to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam—went on strike at Italian universities in 1968, followed the next year by strikes by huge numbers of Italian workers.
Located at one end of the gallery is Mario Schifano’s Compagni, compagni (Comrades, Comrades, 1968), a reworking of a famous photograph of three Vietnamese men, one holding a hammer and another a sickle. In a nod to the work’s photographic source, the three men, positioned against a bright red background, are rendered as photographic “negatives.” Whereas the three men seem heroicized and majestic, the subject of Enrico Baj’s Punching General (1969), located in very close proximity to Compagni, compagni, appears as a bumbling, absurdist figure. Despite being decorated with an abundance of medals and a ribbon, the only fighting this general—who has empty-socketed plastic circles for eyes and a soft, filled vinyl body—will be seeing would be through his possible use as a punching bag.
Diego Perrone’s La fusione della campana (The Casting of the Bell, 2008) is the centerpiece of “Social Unrest.” Although the purported subject of the work—the casting of a bell, inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky’s famous film Andrei Rublev (1966)—bears no clear relation to the theme of social upheaval, the piece seems to have been included for visual reasons. The perilous mood and outstretched “limbs” of this monster-like, scary-looking piece echo the forms and implied violence of nearby works, in particular Andrea Salvino’s Loin du Vietnam (Far from Vietnam, 2007). Salvino’s almost-life-size drawing depicts a scene from the revolutionary protests of May 1968, one of whose participants seems ready to throw something (a rock? a grenade?), presumably at a crowd located outside the picture frame.
Despite its title, “Design, Architecture, and Fashion,” the final section of Italics, seems not so much about design per se, but rather playful approaches to (or broad definitions of) the concept of design. As seen in Ettore Sottsass’s L’invenzione del palo (Invention of the Post, 1971–72), design can be equated with the transformation of a simple object. In this series of photographic prints, Sottsass transforms a pole into an object with symbolic, domestic, or propagandistic functions by adding other forms and objects: a flag or a clothesline (or a clothesline with agitational posters), among others. As seen in Paola Pivi’s Untitled (Zebre, 2003), an image of two zebras standing nearly buttocks to buttocks in snow in an Italian national park, design can also be the staging of an unlikely scenario in order to upend the viewer’s notion of reality.
With its incredible range of styles, media, genres, moods, and subjects, Italics covers the broad scope of contemporary Italian art, in all of its diverse manifestations. This diversity captured the intent of the show’s curator, Francesco Bonami: to recount “the story of Italian art in the last forty years from an utterly different point of view, escaping the maze of the official critical approach that has crippled a real understanding of its complexities, contradictions and paradoxes.” (Of course, whether or not that’s indeed possible is open to debate.) Bonami’s decision to include lesser-known artists in the exhibition at the expense of more established figures gave rise to a storm of controversy in Italy. But what’s a show without a little controversy?1
1The controversy in Italy surrounding the exhibition is described in, among other places, Georgina Adam, “Francesco Bonami Defends His ‘40 Years of Italian Art, ’ ” Art Newspaper (November 2008), issue 196, which can be accessed here.