Il Trionfo dell’Immagine. Luca Massimo Barbero illustrates IMAGINE. New Imagery in Italian Art 1960–1969 at Guggenheim Collection Venice

by Mara Sartore
April 21, 2016
Mara Sartore
Barbero Luca Massimo

At a time in which exhibitions dedicated to 1960s and 1970s Italian art are suddenly multiplying in Italy, Venice’s Peggy Guggenheim Collection (a foundation that, even though it is American, has always promoted Italian art, with particular attention to these years) presents IMAGINE. New Imagery in Italian Art 1960–1969. A black-and-white exhibit, or rather a visual offering, as defined by its curator Luca Massimo Barbero, who puts on display some of the symbols and metaphors of a decade that left a strong imprint on contemporary Italian art.

Mara Sartore: How did the idea of putting on this exhibit come about?

Luca Massimo Barbero: There’s a special curiosity surrounding the birth of imagery. I have long been interested in monochromes and, having been the curator of an exhibition dedicated to Azimut/h in 2014, a research-and-analysis investigation into the late 1950s and the early 1960s, I began to wonder about what was happening then to the so-called avant-gardes. I started off from Mario Schifano himself, an artist that has sometimes been tackled in an insufficiently exhaustive manner, with the overt intention of dismissing his greatest works. Sometimes, there is a tendency to envelop the artists’ biographies in myth, neglecting the reason why they are so important, by which I mean the quality of their work. I have worked on this new show in order to overcome these common pitfalls and so as to affirm the centrality of the work itself. It is a purely visual event, which kicks off from a 1960 black monochrome by Schifano, a tiny and extraordinary picture, paired up with Cinema and Figure, a work by Fabio Mauri from 1960 as well. I started off from this zeroing idea which we could define “baroque”, and I moved all the way on to the arrival of a new imagery, without relying on “comfort zones”, that is, the comfortable definitions and labels implied by referring to specific schools. I want to place the public in front of the works of art.

MS: The period upon which this exhibition is focused is rather short, lasting from 1960 to 1969. What’s so special about these years?

LMB: There are fundamental gestations that do not take place over a long period of time but within a determined span that is ascribable to some very definite events. The transition of Italian painting happened with Azimut/h from 1959 to 1963, and then there was a sort of continuity with Schifano’s 1960 monochromes, with the subsequent birth of a type of germinal painting that went from 1963 to 1965, followed by the emergence of other currents and other conceptual forms of expression. Everything happened by 1969.

MS: The main theme, or the leitmotif, is therefore tied to a historic moment and to the implications of the term “image”, which you analyse in the catalogue’s introduction too. I wonder, however: are there any interpersonal biographical connections among these artists that, according to you, have led to such a creative continuity?

LMB: As always, in the exhibits we suggest concepts from the works of art themselves… I think that now, especially as regards the new generations—which are far less burdened and faster, and need to understand what is taking place—going back to looking at the whole work of a specific artist is very important. Rather than telling about the Piper club or the exhibited artists’ wild nights in Rome or Turin, I am interested in showing how Schifano painted.

MS: I was just wondering on account of the fact that many of them knew one another and frequented themselves and therefore probably influenced one another…

LMB: My exhibits make up dialogues among the various works of art, even if these are not evident dialogues—they are hidden, so to say. I do not put on display the relationships among the artists and this does not intend to be an exhaustive journey. I never quote the terms “Pop art” or “Arte povera”, I willingly give these two labels up, of which we can, in a way, rid ourselves. This is an exhibition against orthodoxy, so I started over by “showing the letters of the alphabet” so that each visitor can construct his or her own sentence. Obviously, the exhibit comes into being also because there are relationships, which have been questioned and juxtaposed creating schools and thus subdividing artists into different currents. But what took place from 1960 to 1969 happened simultaneously; in the end, we are dealing with the same artists, whom I have chosen emblematically, illustrating their contiguity, i.e. showing how they worked elbow-to-elbow within the scope of their diversity, but without labelling them by school or some other category.
I meant to show how this generation responded to the zeroing which in Milan was done in a way, in Turin in another way, and in another way yet in Rome. This allows us to become unhooked from a purely international dependence; we have finally understood that 1960s Italian art is a totally independent art. It is made up of assonances and affinities rather than friendships. I could display Mario Schifano and Domenico Gnoli’s Tunisian holiday, but their biography is something that others can dig up for themselves.

MS: What influenced them artistically and how did they influence one another?

LMB: There is a quite beautiful word in German, Zeitgeist, which means “the spirit of an era”. We are not talking about being influenced, but about being inspired by a Zeitgeist that I think is much more contemporary than the non-spirit of contemporary art (that, however, assimilates that “alphabet”). Without these artists and their imagery, whether by hand or with non-painting media, no new alphabet would have come into being for the coming thirty years, which have by now become fifty.

MS: Would you like to illustrate the conjunction elements you used to construct your “visual offering”?

LMB: We’re talking of eleven rooms. All of them are very powerful, dense, and vigorous. Some works extend from the ceiling all the way down to the floor. To me, the ideal public would be one person per room, sitting on the floor. Images emerge from a monochromatic screen, which is anything but pop. I keep saying that the term “pop” has trivialised anything in colour, and that is the reason why I opted for this black-and-white display. No one ever takes into consideration the fact that, whereas the United States go on celebrating the capitalistic and mass-media industrialisation of their repertoire of images—the paintings of some American pop artists produce Pavlov’s instinct: the public looks at them, recognises them as food, starts to salivate—Italian artists come out of their studios and encounter Rome’s baroque, Turin’s baroque, or Milan’s cathedral. The Italian artist can have an extraordinary feel of the contemporary, but never experiences that American-style massification inasmuch as it does not belong to us Italians. Even today, were it not for technological devices, we would not be so metropolitan. Our works of art are exquisitely painted by hand and have outstanding titles such as Nostalgia for the Infinite, or A Winter through the Museum. We have great painters like Schifano, who is one of the most capable and most gifted painters that Italy and Europe have produced over the past fifty years. Artists like Domenico Gnoli, probably less known to the greater public, with his “staring obsession”, have a quasi-pathological way of looking up close and denying physicality. I like what he declared in the 1960s, when he said that he was well aware of American painting, but he was an Italian metaphysical artist.
So this is an exhibit that goes counter to what one would expect: instead of ending up in some sort of screaming zoo of trivial and banal pop images, visitors will often encounter symbols and metaphors. The difference between the United States and Europe is that in the former they think in terms of brands while we Europeans express ourselves through symbols and “coats of arms”, that is emblems, shields, tales, history, events. We are heraldic, and therefore so are our colours, so are the signs, and the symbols that bespeak profound, stratified narrative enterprises. Behind every image of ours, there is a story, but there is also its ambiguity. This exhibit, therefore, is about the beauty of our art, the wealth of our meanings, it is about our language.

MS: Would you tell us how you have laid the works around in the eleven rooms?

LMB: Each room has a theme: after Matter and Screen, Image as Apparition, A New Mythology, two rooms are dedicated to Mario Schifano and two to Domenico Gnoli, while other sections focus on Image, Photography, Historic Chronicle, and the last two rooms explore The Form of Metaphors, the Forms of Nature. The whole journey is dotted with monographic and collective displays and recounts the development and birth “of the image” on up to the exhibit’s final segment, when images become metaphors, symbols, or even metaimages: almost Dadaist objets trouvés, very rare plexiglass works by Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Jannis Kounellis’s roses. The objective is that of recounting the richness of a language which, even though it would become more conceptual and less pictorial, was always ironical and rich, and never banal; its mystery was common to all the artists on show. And here lies the triumph of the image: in the 1960s we have, on one hand, the monochromes, while on the other hand there’s the optical image and photorealism. The group of artists I selected is emblematic and my “visual offering” does not mean to be exhaustive. As a matter of fact, that is why I would not use the term “exhibition”.

MS: the design of this show is quite simple and minimalist…

LMB: It is very minimalist, featuring white and grey walls, great rhythms, and white spaces. The floor is made of rope, something that kind of brings to mind the 1960s spaces, with a clean opaque quality, so that the works play their own music. In every room the connections between them are rather evident, even at a formal level. The catalogue published by Marsilio is an integral part of the exhibit and will clarify those nexuses are references that the show does not explicitly reveal.

Keep up to date with My Art Guides
Sign up to our newsletter and stay in the know with all worldwide contemporary art events