The New Italian Renaissance

A controversial show at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art celebrates 40 years of sex, death, and Arte Povera in Italy. VIEW OUR GALLERY.

Courtesy Museo Casa Mollino, Turin

A controversial show at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art celebrates 40 years of sex, death, and Arte Povera in Italy. VIEW OUR NSFW GALLERY.

Italian artists may be credited with such accomplishments as linear perspective (via Brunelleschi), chiaroscuro (via Caravaggio), and, pretty much every other formal tool comprising Western art. But their more recent creative triumphs have received notably less fanfare, so to speak—an oversight that Italian curator Francesco Bonami seeks to correct with his new exhibition, Italics: Italian Art Between Tradition and Revolution, 1968–2008.

Italics debuted this summer at the Venice Biennale to much criticism from the locals, and the show recently mounted its first and only U.S. stop at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where it will remain on view through February 14, 2010.

It’s an ambitious survey. And while a lot of the work itself is exceptional (some in that mind-blowing, “you had to be there” kind of way), Bonami fails to use it to tell a clear and compelling story. He eschews chronology in favor of several loosely defined and somewhat disparate categories (“Portraiture and Landscape,” “Mortality”), making this a tricky show to navigate.

Arte Povera (b. 1967-8, translation: poor art) is widely considered the most significant artistic movement to come out of 20th-century Italy. It would have made an excellent starting point, yet we come at it about midway through. The movement was, in essence, a rejection of the very techniques and media that put Italy on the cultural map centuries ago and a sort “damn-the-Man”-like stance against the artistic establishment. Mario Merz’s 1977 neon rendition of the Fibonacci sequence (1,1,2,3,5,8,13…) is mounted on a high wall, culminating absurdly in a stuffed lizard; Mario Ceroli’s Flags of the World (1968) comprises dozens of industrial demi-tubes laid on the floor, each filled with a brightly colored powdered pigment, broken glass, metal scraps, or coal.

What follows are two smaller galleries dedicated to those avant-garde artists who more or less set the stage for Arte Povera, the best of which are Lucio Fontana (known for his aggressively slashed canvases) and Gianni Colombo (who founded the lesser-known Gruppo T movement in the late 1950s). The showstopper is without a doubt Colombo’s Elastic Space (1968)—a black-lit room with white string stretched from floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall, creating a grid. The deceptively simple installation goes pure funhouse once you step inside. Four hidden motors stretch and pull the strings ever so slightly causing the entire space to shift, contract, and swell as if alive. The effect is completely hypnotic and 40 years after its creation, it still feels ahead of its time.

Click Image To View Our (NSFW) Gallery of The New Italian Renaissance

While some contemporary artists followed in the footsteps of their Arte Povera predecessors, others found ways to both embrace and make fun of Italy’s storied art history. In Sisyphus (1994), artist Luciano Fabro presents a marble cylinder on which he has etched a nude, caricature-like self-portrait. The cylinder rests on a hill of flour and when rolled out (a nod to Italian cuisine?), the self-portrait is transferred to the flattened powder, leaving a light but visible impression. Conceptual artist Roman de Salvo riffs on the sort of self-indulgence that often accompanies Italian historical sites with a 1970 marble slab with the sentence IO SONO IL MIGLIORE (I AM THE BEST) engraved upon it in gold. Maurizio Cattelan (one of the more recognizable artists in the show) uses traditional marble sculpture to arresting effects in All (2008). The piece, which opens the exhibition, hints at war, tragedy, anonymity, and memorial. Nine exquisitely carved white marble sculptures lie on the floor as shrouded corpses; different shapes, poses, and gestures are perceptible beneath each “sheet” as, perhaps, a tsk-tsk to our tendency to de-humanize victims and causalities.

Bonami picked 1968 as his starting point for three reasons: 1) the founding of Arte Povera, 2) the tragic earthquake that hit Sicily that year, and 3) the young Italian stance against the then-escalating Vietnam War. Enrico Baj’s 1969 Punching General (a general-shaped punching bag) and Mario Schifano’s 1968 Pop portrait of three Vietnamese men he saw on TV speak overtly to this last inspiration. And though perhaps out of place, I couldn’t take my eyes off of Letizia Battaglia’s gruesome photographs of real-life Sicilian mob hits, hanging nearby.

Walking through, I tried to pinpoint what exactly made Bonami’s colleagues and countrymen so mad. Exclusion is always an issue when tackling such a sweeping subject as the whole of contemporary Italian art. And some allegedly scoffed at the show’s oversimplification of 20th-century Italian history as well as its lack of focus (a noted critique of the 2003 Bonami-curated Venice Biennale). Italics was, for the most part, a dark show, with Cattelan’s marble corpses certainly setting the mood. And I did notice the occasional jab—a sort of willingness to verify, even exploit certain Italian stereotypes (the crazy Catholic, the merciless “don”).

Nonetheless, Bonami succeeds here at introducing dozens of talented and underappreciated Italian artists to American audiences (Carol Rama, Diego Perrone, Monica Bonvicini, and Pietro Roccasalva among them). It’s a fact that leaves most of us anticipating Bonami’s next big gig: the 2010 Whitney Biennial.

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Rachel Wolff is a New York-based writer and editor who has covered art for New York, ARTnews, and Manhattan.