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Birth of an identity

In this exhibition we attempt to explore one of the most complex and significant decades of Italian creativity, rereading and reinterpreting from a different viewpoint – that of a Swedish culture bound to an effervescent and vibrant contemporaneity, as expressed by Pontus Hultén in the first ten years of Moderna Museet’s foundation between 1958 and 1968.

These are the ties that bind us, that have enabled us to construct one possible course which has purposely adopted and presented in contemporary terms that very same viewpoint from northern Europe to northern Italy, focusing on two cities, Milan and Turin, guiding cultural centres in the construction and establishment of this relationship half a century ago. What we have tried to do is to analyse and bring to a wider international public a situation which was understood as far back as the 1960s by Hultén and other Scandinavian curators, who recognised the guiding role played by Lucio Fontana, whose solo exhibition appeared at the Moderna Museet in 1967, and Piero Manzoni, who worked and exhibited frequently in Denmark in the same period. Conceived as a testimony through pictures, with the works themselves providing a visual record of an era, the exhibition is designed to investigate the passage occurring over those years in Milan and Turin (whose artistic twists and turns were going through a complex phase, as Francesca Pola’s essay below describes), from the abandonment of the Informal to the growth of Arte Povera, with a selection which attempts to offer one possible interpretation of the period.

The sub-heading “birth of an identity” was purposely chosen in reference to what Germano Celant presented to the public as “Italian identity” in a historic exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris 1981, which by no accident stated that the incubation and development of this identity occurred in 1959. The end point chosen for this exhibition at Moderna Museet, 1968, was a crucial moment for the establishment and identification of Italian art with the movement Celant himself defined in 1967 as “Arte Povera”. The works in this exhibition aim to record this peculiar continuity, tracing a path whose ideal starting point is the recognition of the birth and growth of fresh challenges which would firmly crystallise in the years to come. Rather than presenting a summary of the various trends of the time, we have tried to exemplify the complexity, amidst assonance and dissonance, of the fluid landscape which made up the early stages, the various budding ideas of what would subsequently be understood as Italian identity. The exhibition itself does not follow a strictly “orthodox” chronological pattern but rather includes certain figures perhaps less well-known to the Swedish public. Though they might at first appear some way off from this final identity, they actually represented a turning-point, a new development in the early stages and, by chance or design, they were at times coincidental or transversal, even from one generation to another. The aim is to describe a common tongue articulated in very different ways: not a school nor a linear progression but rather the turning of current perspective upside down, such that the establishment of Arte Povera towards the end of those ten years coincided with the birth of a new identity for Italian art. We have turned the telescope around in an effort to examine from this perspective the moment of creation of this new identity.

Milan and Turin
Developments occurred in the complex context of the economic boom which exploded in the 1950s in Italy and reached its full height between 1958 and 1963, in which the north part of the country was a driving force. The relationship especially which formed between Milan and Turin was a powerful alliance which largely governed the country’s development. New technology and fresh forms of organisation led to modernisation and intensive industrialisation, whose effects and success were encouraged by international agreements such as the reduction of import duty across the EEC from January 1 1959 as well as long-term public works like the Autostrada del Sole (linking Milan, Rome and Naples) which began in the same year. Industrial and economic development in turn led to urban and population growth, fuelled by massive domestic migration from country to city but above all from southern Italy and from the islands Sicily and Sardinia.

Through the 1950s and 1960s Milan’s rapid growth was reflected in its architecture and urban layout with the completion of several large-scale projects like the Torre Velasca built by the BBPR architectural partnership (1950–58) or Gio Ponti’s Pirelli Skyscraper (1956–61), as well as the commencement of work on the new underground (1962), designed by Franco Albini and Franca Helg. At the same time Turin was the scene of profound social and cultural change. During the 1950s it saw its population swell by 42% with 1961 marking the height of this influx, with a staggering 84,000 new migrants essentially drawn by Fiat. To cope with pressing demands the Vallette housing estate opened November 25 1961 but would soon become synonymous with social alienation. In 1967 more than 60,000 migrant workers arrived from the south, but the opening of the Mirafiori Sud estate by Prime Minister Aldo Moro December 18 1967 came short of providing an effective solution to the housing shortage. From November to December of the same year student sit-in protests at Palazzo Campana marked the beginnings of what would become known as the cultural revolution of 1968.

These various incitements were taken up and channelled towards the building of a new identity which led away from subjectivity towards the establishment of a common interest, providing the recognition and confirmation of the change that was underway. The critical position of artistic research led to the formation of groups of intellectuals capable of guiding the new era in terms of objectivity, objectuality, tautology and with a radicalism bent on constructing its own future.

Milan and Turin were thus visual symbols, where Italian art was heading beyond subjective expression – typical of the Informal which had previously reigned supreme – towards a new concept of art based on the reduction of colour and emotional expression, on compositional density and on the semantic conceptualisation of the image. Dialogue between the two cities was not a closed affair, but rather a climate existed in which different events permeated one another on a regular basis, including art exhibitions, until their diverse tendencies began to take shape.

As early as 1958, the year Lucio Fontana created his first Tagli, new perspectives were opening up towards a radical redefinition of the pathways of Italian creativity. This evolution translated into a fresh conceptual specificity and new artistic landscape expressed emblematically by Manzoni’s Impronta del pollice destro and Alighiero Boetti’s Manifesto and Città di Torino. Out of a sort of evaluation of their own “genetic makeup”, in 1968 Italian artists actually emerged with a newer and stronger sense of their own identity. This crucial shift showed itself across the various paths gradually being taken by artistic research: reduction through monochrome, structural and object value, the dialogue between procedural materialness and radical conceptuality.

Lucio Fontana, a vital presence
An idea of Italian artistic identity was being built upon the similarities and contrasts between the two realities of Milan and Turin, with a sort of generational exchange which drove new art towards the challenges of the future. It was here that leading mediators capable of constructing the conscience of a new era, like Fontana or Manzoni, were able to affirm themselves. Fontana was central in that he knew how to reinvent himself, with new cycles of Tagli and Metalli, for example, and enough to become a reference point for new generations of Europeans bound to reduction of the language they used: the Zero group in Düsseldorf first and foremost, but in Belgium and northern Europe as well. The key to Manzoni, at a theoretical level too, lay in the disruptive and provocative charge of his ideas, but also in the communicative force of his personality, which made him a central figure on the new European scene: his Achrome were typical of the tabula rasa from which to begin writing the future of Italian art.

Fontana’s impressive exhibition at Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1967, the year before his death, was historically significant from our perspective because of two principle factors. Ironically, it was the European culture of the new generation (closely bound to Zero) that recognised and put these two champions of a new expressive era, Fontana and Manzoni, on a firm footing even before Italy did. In the second place, Fontana represented a basic threshold, a figure of reference who steered Italian artistic language from “beyond the informal” to a certain type of experiment which corresponded with the new generation – a generation whose initial experience and public appearance did not begin until the early 1960s. Easy to see that now, but at the time it was not Fontana who represented Italian culture but other figures entirely, like Renato Guttuso, for example.

Fontana provided a link between the two cities because he was not confined to one place: he worked freely between Milan and Turin, often being the first to purchase the works of rising artists, like Yves Klein on his first Milan exhibition in 1957, encouraging and supporting, writing presentations to their exhibitions. His work represented a cultural possibility to the new generation inasmuch as it consistently aimed to go beyond itself: “And as always after each exhibition comes a crisis: to use or not to use sequins? To be a painter or sculptor? Spatialist or realist?” It was precisely this impossibility to classify his work, his positive ambiguity, constantly experimenting, that placed Fontana not only at the centre of this multi-faceted climate in its attempt to go beyond the informal, but also, and above all, at the centre of new ideas of space which had been occupying his mind for some time now, swinging from Baroque exuberance to Buddhist calm, in a constant state of vital growth.

On the opening of the new cycle of Tagli in 1958, Fontana explained this mental identity of his own spatial poetics: “These slashes are basically a kind of philosophical expression, an act of faith within infinity, a statement of spirituality if you like. When I sit and gaze at those slashes all at once my soul swells, I am free from the slavery of matter, I belong to the hugeness of present and future”. In this sense he posed certain basic questions as regards his shaped canvases, for instance, carried out in the early 1950s, but maturing after 1959 as in Concetto spaziale, Attese, or regarding the idea of the work in space, its positioning and installation, developed in the late 1940s and expressed also in the “dispersion” of Concetto spaziale. I Quanta. As regards this aspect Ambiente spaziale, designed by the artist for Documenta 4 at Kassel in 1968 along with architect Aldo Jacober, is reconstructed in the exhibition at Moderna Museet. The Kassel Ambiente is a maze of totally white walls leading to a huge white Taglio, and marked a particularly significant moment in the evolution of enquiry into space, a space purposely designed to involve the viewer physically and exert psychological pressure. These elements would develop rapidly among subsequent generations committed to the design and creation of space as an alternative aesthetic experience.

This instinctive experimentalism led Fontana towards an expansion of a new dimension of the mind: “The discovery of the Cosmos is a new dimension, it is Infinity: and so I pierce the canvas which was fundamental to all art and I have created an infinite dimension, that slash is, in my opinion, at the basis of Contemporary Art” , which he demonstrated in a multiplicity of outcomes spread across the whole chronological span, from the complex Concetto spaziale, Attese of 1964 to the idea of the object exemplified in his Concetto spaziale of 1967. Likewise his foresight on the mental utilisation of materials: material for him had always had a symbolic function, so that the stones and precious oils were not magma but analogical finds, as in Concetto spaziale, Attesa, and his use of neon would reappear with diverse meanings in subsequent generations, not just in American minimalism but also in the mature language of Arte Povera.

For those of the new generation who came into contact with him at the Milan exhibitions in Carlo Cardazzo’s Galleria del Naviglio, it was natural to relate to him, and his constant self-examination was also a catalyst for the young artists. Not that Fontana had either a continuative or directly influential relationship with them: no “school” would form around him, but the young artists saw him as opening a gateway to fresh challenges. This is what links Fontana to contemporary research and monochrome, to “zeroing” and mental space, but more than this it was his inspiring role in subsequent conceptual enquiry bound to the use of language and the word, as well as the articulated experimentation which converged in the Arte Povera movement.

Monochrome, object, language
In 1958 Milan was the centre of radical artistic enquiry into formal and chromatic reduction through the use of monochrome. During these years a line of research developed which was built upon a refusal of subjectively characterised artistic practice, the crux of which was Piero Manzoni. It was actually Fontana who recognised this perfect match on occasion of Manzoni’s death in 1963, when he confirmed the importance of Linee in a radio interview: “personally, I am convinced that Manzoni’s lines marked a fundamental turning-point in the history of contemporary art”.

Towards the end of 1957 Manzoni elaborated his first Achrome, literally “colourless surfaces”, which went radically beyond any subjectivity or sensibility, towards a direct emergence of being: “the question as far as I’m concerned is that of rendering a surface completely white (rather completely colourless and neutral) far beyond the pictorial phenomenon of any intervention extraneous to the value of the surface. A white that is not a polar landscape, not a material in evolution or a beautiful material, not a sensation or a symbol or anything else: just a white surface that is simply a white surface and nothing else (a colourless surface that is just a colour- less surface). Better than that: a surface that simply is: to be (to be complete and become pure).”

The first Achrome were prepared with chalk but Manzoni would soon adopt kaolin clay and other materials, exemplified by pleated or sewn canvases, Achrome with stones, kaolin and polystyrene. What they had was a matrix of mental reduction which was further clarified in 1959 with Linee (“Even if this indefinite surface (uniquely alive) cannot in fact be infinite because of the material contingent of the work, it is without question indefinable, repeatable to infinity, seamlessly. This is more obvious in Linee. Here there is no longer even the slightest possibility of the ambiguity that exists in a painting: the line develops only in length: it runs to infinity: its only dimension is time” ) and in 1960 with Corpi d’aria, “’bodies of air’ (pneumatic sculptures) […] are reducible and expandable from a minimum to a maximum (from nothing to infinity). They are absolutely indeterminate spheroids because any attempt to give them form (even non-form) is illegitimate and illogical”. Conceptual precursors appear in works like Uova–scultura, first coming to light at the performance of Consumazione dell’arte in July 1960, or in Merda d’artista, 90 examples of which he conceived in 1961, sealing his faeces in cans and selling them at gold’s current value as absolute objectification of the artistic operation.

With his exuberant and lively personality, Manzoni was perfectly placed to mediate with the new Europe, he had close ties with Zero of Düsseldorf, for example), and spent a good deal of time working in Denmark, where in Herning he created some of his most significant works like the large rabbit skin Achrome and Linea lunga 7200 m.

It was around Manzoni that the activities of the journal Azimuth would take shape along with the Azimut gallery, aimed at elaborating a new declension of the monochrome. It was here that both Enrico Castellani and Agostino Bonalumi worked on creating relief to the canvas to escape the two dimensions of monochrome: “The need for the absolute which drives us to fresh pastures also prohibits us from using the tools of the language of painting; having little interest in expressing subjective reaction to deeds or feelings but rather desiring that our own language and thoughts be as continuous and complete as possible, we exclude those means of language (composition and colour) which are sufficient only for limited discourse, metaphor and allegory [….]. The only possible compositional criterion in our works is that they should not be bound to heterogeneous finite elements which when placed within a finite space instantly determine the work […]; through the possession of an elementary entity – a line, an indefinitely repeatable rhythm and a monochrome surface – it is necessary to give the works themselves the concreteness of infinity that may undergo the conjugation of time, the only comprehensible dimension, the yardstick and the justification of our spiritual needs”. Also linked to Azimut was the work of Dadamaino, who describes the genesis of her Volumi thus: “What subconscious gesture of rebellion carved those giant spaces in the canvas, where emptiness prevailed. In effect I performed little else than a symbolic destruction in order to begin afresh.”

The climate around Azimuth exemplified a sphere of artistic enquiry focused on expressive synthesis, explored with different readings and in different ways. A prevalently perceptive interest could be found in the works of Getulio Alviani, Carlo Nangeroni and Marcello Morandini, while a more structural idea was expressed by the work of Paolo Scheggi: “this systematically experimental research derives its spiritual if not methodological origins from elementarism and concrete art. It is not about breaking the mould or being alternative, it is about historical and thus dynamic continuation of visual experience, not simply an exercise in optical-physical phenomenology, but designed to widen perception”.

Parallel to this though, the work of Mario Nigro and Rodolfo Aricò exhibited interest in redefining painting by the inclusion of determining geometrics which articulated the dimensional aspect from a psychological viewpoint with the use of the shaped canvas: “And so we arrive at ‘total space’, naturally bound to a time: time is always bound to space. But when I reach ‘total time’ I eliminate space. What might be the meaning? A psychological one, I actually move from a purely constructive element to a psychological element. My feelings are that I am steadily performing aesthetic research as the very intimate structure of the human being”.

Fabio Mauri, Gianfranco Baruchello and Vincenzo Agnetti took a more markedly conceptual direction in their work; their enquiry into language was mirrored in the letters and signs dotted across the canvases of Gastone Novelli and Arturo Bonfanti.

In art too the Milan of technological advancement created a trend which translated new demands for expressive reduction into an idea of the object which went beyond the traditional notion of surface. This trend was defined by Umberto Eco in 1962 in terms of arte programmata: “Thus it may indeed be possible to programme ‘fields of events’ with the linear purity of a mathematical programme, in which random processes may occur. Thus we would have a particular dialectic between chance and programme, between chance and mathematics, between planned conception and the free acceptance of what may come, however it may come, since when all is said and done it will in any case come to pass according to specific prearranged formative lines, which do not deny spontaneity but establish limits and direction”. The work of Gianni Colombo exemplified this willingness of research to open itself up to a complex relationship with architecture and spatiality: “In the works I now exhibit an authentic alteration takes place with the eye (and mood) of the viewer. What I give my works today are possibilities which are realised only within an unpredictable sequence, so that the uneasiness of these surfaces may actually represent a truly unexpected drama”.

While Emilio Scanavino in those years developed objects and installations based on the importance of emptiness, as in Dio, several artists bucked the trend of “zeroing”, as exemplified by the symbolic and narrative evocations of Enrico Baj, Lucio Del Pezzo, Valerio Adami. But also to a certain extent by the “uncertainty” of the artistic backdrop described by Fausto Melotti in his writings of 1963, in which the artist highlighted his own evocative and firmly marked standpoint: “Within abstract sculpture my way I believe is strictly contrapuntal, something I have not seen elsewhere and which might indicate a new direction for art”.

In attempting to outline some kind of affinity between the twin realities of Milan and Turin, what seems to emerge is a certain continuity arising from the identification of a “primary structure” which, compared with the experience of American minimalism, tended to be complicated by physical dynamics. Fontana disarticulates the form of space itself, Castellani and Aricò proposed fictitious perspectives, Colombo, Icaro and Pistoletto worked on the deformation/opening of the cube form. Along these lines one step towards the exchange between Milan and Turin was the first solo exhibition of Luciano Fabro in 1965 where he displayed works based on the dynamics of experience, like his Buco (hole) of 1963 “the first result regarding the forging of two opposing spaces, before and behind the mirror”, developed in Tondo e rettangolo (circle and rectangle), as regards which the artist recognised retrospectively: “what interested me was how learning or perception came about, just how the viewer passed from one to the other, unable to pause, creating a sense of dynamics such that the viewer could not dwell on one without being constantly distracted by the other, this too designed so that the viewer could turn, withdraw, approach”.

Artistic geography redefined
During the course of those ten years in which Turin came to hold a leading role within the Italian art scene, art developed along alternative lines to painting practice or investigation of the object, preferring an approach which led towards a type of creative experimentation based on the use of uncommon materials and on the strength of the conceptual dimension. What emerged were the leaders of the movement which in 1967 Germano Celant would term “Arte Povera”: Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Piero Gilardi, Mario Merz, Giulio Paolini, Giuseppe Penone, Gianni Piacentino, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Gilberto Zorio. One of the main features of these artists was their move towards a redefinition of artistic effectiveness by using heterogeneous materials and paying specific attention to the process and the reflective aspect of the work.

In 1967, Alighiero Boetti realized his Manifesto where his name appears along with fifteen other artists he worked with in those years. Next to each name appeared various combinations of eight symbols, which the artist declared to be part of a legend he had lodged with a public notary. The following year, Boetti prepared Città di Torino, a map of Turin showing the location of the studio of each artist who exhibited with him at that time. In 1967 the Museo Sperimentale burst into the “aristocratic” programme of the Civic Gallery in Turin. Among the artists represented in the event of the year in a sort of osmosis which testified to the close relationship between the two cities were Carla Accardi, Adami, Alviani, Baj, Baruchello, Boetti, Bonalumi, Bonfanti, Castellani, Dadamaino, Del Pezzo, Fabro, Fontana, Icaro, Kounellis, Manzoni, Mauri, Mario Merz and Marisa Merz, Mondino, Morandini, Nangeroni, Nigro, Paolini, Carol Rama, Scanavino and Scheggi – an almost complete list of the path we have attempted to trace here.

These were also signals that the artistic landscape of the city was changing, that it was being shaken by the pushy emergence of a new generation squeezed by its own understatement: “conservative and ordered, the opulent society of Turin facilitated the firm resolution, the clear-cut ‘there is little else to be done’, of the young artists devoid of any illusions. A society that can afford to have a ‘fringe’ outside the system: the artists are not even asked to join, and they are well aware. Thus arises the aesthetic condition [….] It wishes to ‘change life’ by changing society”.

One of the cornerstones of the new generation was Giulio Paolini, who as far back as in the early 1960s realised that his work was taking a different conceptual turn to his predecessors: “I really do not believe you can cover all the spaces, whether they are mental or physical, cover them effectively, concretely, I mean with objects, with formal propositions or whatever. You can maybe evoke them or allude to them, I mean show them through a model, however humble, with means that have few pretensions […]. When I think of Manzoni, for example, I think that inside he still had a pictorial implication, in inverted commas, in the sense that he still wasn’t aware maybe of using the canvas, the frame, the brush precisely as a considered and established limit. So he acted naturally, in a context of the destruction of image, of form without bearing in mind the refusal of other, let’s say more modern techniques. I believe I do that consciously, that I purposely wish to remain amidst the canvas, the frame, the cans of paint and to use them in order not to reach a result”.

In a different manner Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Quadri specchianti sanctioned the retrieval of a direct relationship with reality: “For a while my work intuitively consisted in bringing together two images of me, that of the mirror and that of myself. By laying paint on the mirror’s surface: the paint is superimposed and adheres to the image of reality. The figurative object that arises allows me to pursue my enquiry within the painting and thus within my own self, since the two are figuratively connected”.

In other cases still, the work tended to express a relationship of physical tension, as for instance in Giovanni Anselmo’s Torsione: “I, the world, things, life are energy situations and the point is not to crystallise those situations but to keep them open and alive as a function of our living. […] The energy of torsion needs to live with its true force, for instance, it certainly wouldn’t live with its form alone”. The conflict between the natural and the artificial was another possible declension of this procedural image, expressed by Giuseppe Penone, for example, in Alpi Marittime: “16–20 December 1968. I have seized a tree: I shall continue to hold it tight with an iron hand. It will continue to grow except at that point”. In an osmotic blend of personalities and ideas a similar line of essentiality of sculpture, reflective and physical at the same time, was exemplified in the same years by Paolo Icaro and Marco Gastini, while Aldo Mondino developed a mode of representation tied to Pop imagery. Carol Rama evolved her own language in a new era of experimenting with materials. Giorgio Griffa reflected on the operating basics of painting by reducing it to a linear mark, conceived as a temporal trace incorporating reality in the painting: “The work begins and progresses across the canvas only according to the order in which it is executed. And so it is for the problem of space: in my work there is no evocation or indication or search for pictorial space or virtual space. Space is simply the physical dimension of the canvas on which I work. That it leads to problems of mental space is quite different from the virtual space of painting”.

In 1967, Celant set down a definition of Arte Povera: “Cinema, theatre and the visual arts assert their authority as anti-pretence, they wish to create only reality and the present. With their simple presence they aim to crush each and every conceptual scholasticism. They purposely forgo any rhetorical complication or semantic conviction, wishing only to ascertain and record, no longer the ambiguity of the real, but its unequivocalness. They eliminate from their enquiry all that may seem reflection and mimetic representation or linguistic custom, to attain a new kind of art which, to borrow a term from the theatre of Grotowsky, we might call ‘poor’.” One year later, the critic Daniela Palazzoli highlighted the primarily procedural dynamic: “The work does not express what it knows; it constitutes (or proffers) something it does not yet know; and what it needs to know in order to express it, is shown within itself. It contemplates (and at the same time produces) its own action outside of itself, presenting its own events and treating its own objects”.

Towards the end of these ten years the artists were finally ready to take up this new identity of action and process in their work which would be recognised as Italian. The exhibition we have attempted to describe arose quite simply as an idea to record the historical origins and ideals of an era: after 1968, we leave this initial reconnaissance to enter into the story of contemporaneity, up to a present in which Italian art, quoting Alighiero Boetti’s words, continues its very own Touchstone of Harmony and Invention.

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