DMA Insight

From a Prehistoric Wind: Postwar Italian Art at the Dallas Museum of Art

_The following is a 2007 essay by __Allan Scwartzman published in _Fast forward: contemporary collections for the Dallas Museum of Art.

The vast majority of public and private collections of modern art in the United States have been built on the premise that before World War II all great art was made in Europe, whereas after the war all great art was made in the United States. As the story goes, this country came into its own artistically in the postwar period with the abstract expressionists, whose large paintings with their frenzied mark making were the ultimate expression of art for art's sake, of freedom. Europe was in tatters both physically and spiritually, and its artists were preoccupied with reconnecting with their own ruptured artistic lineages. They were consumed with a kind of provincial easel painting whose modest scale and studied control abstract expressionism had outgrown. This view was not entirely accurate but its clarity was convenient.

Throughout the years, despite occasional exhibitions, in both galleries and museums (Lucio Fontana at Martha Jackson Gallery in 1961, for example, and Joseph Beuys at the Guggenheim in 1979), the hegemonic perception of American postwar cultural domination held for decades (not only in the United States but also in Europe, where many museum and private collections reinforced this bias) until it was challenged by the ferocity of the newly exploding art market of the early 1980s and shattered by the international art exhibition Documenta VII in Kassel, Germany, in 1982. It took several more years for the American art public to realize that not all Germans were alike—that Gerhard Richter, for example, was neither of the same generation nor the same sensibility as Anselm Kiefer, or that Sigmar Polke had indeed been layering images before David Salle had reached puberty—and we are still just beginning to recognize the important contribution of Italian artists of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Important art was being made throughout Europe in the 1950s—Yves Klein in France, Joseph Beuys in Germany—and beyond (Gutai in Japan remains one of the most potent and uncompromising postwar movements). But Italy occupies a unique position for depth of artistic invention pursued over several generations in the postwar period.

The story of postwar Italian art begins with Lucio Fontana. Although Fontana is best known for his elegant slash paintings of the 1960s, those are but one exquisitely lyrical, late manifestation of an aesthetic that began to coalesce in the late forties, when the sculptor, interested in creating an environmental art, began to cut small staccato holes into canvas. For Fontana, piercing the canvas was akin to opening a hole into the universe. If the detonation of the atomic bomb could be said to have given form to the explosive eddying rhythms of Jackson Pollock, then the exploration of outer space that was set in motion by new telescopic and aerospace technologies developed in the years immediately following the war gave rise to the mature work of Lucio Fontana.

By cutting holes or slashing through canvas or paper and thereby allowing light to pass through a two-dimensional surface, Fontana declared himself to be exploring infinite space. Indeed, he continued to make sculptures out of all sorts of materials, including bronze and neon. To examine more complex spatial relationships, he often added glitter, sand, and glass to canvas and paper surfaces. The best of his works are a fusion of the scientific and the poetic, and in their interest in reinventing pictorial space, give visual form to an evolving conception of the universe and our place in it. Although most of Fontana's work was in the small scale of earlier modern easel painting, his thinking was much more closely aligned with the vast, landscapish scale of the abstract expressionists than may be obvious. But he did not need a huge physical space in which to explore the infinite—he invoked it mentally. Most of his works of this time were entitled Concetto spaziale (spatial concept) [1999.164]. By opening a painting's surface to light, Fontana was attempting to transcend the limits of painting and examine the real space of the shallow relief, while metaphorically giving form to the furthest reaches of scientific and artistic imagination. By making a two-dimensional work that attempted to destroy the confines of the canvas, Fontana set the stage for the shift in artistic dialogue from painting to sculpture, or from framed space to real space, that would be acted out more fully in the 1960s and 1970s with minimalism, earth art, process art, and performance.

It is common to romanticize the early alcoholic death of Jackson Pollock as existential proof that after his drip paintings the man had nowhere artistically to go. With Fontana we have no need to speculate about where he might go. He went there. In December of 1962, just eighteen months after the first manned space flight and at the age of sixty-three, Fontana began a series of large egg-shaped paintings that would preoccupy him for several years and be considered among the most extraordinary works of his career, a great example of which is Concetto spaziate, ta fine di Dio (1964). These monochromatic works were made with bold, decidedly unarty colors such as pink or yellow; some were entirely covered in glitter. Some have been pierced with large, savagely cut holes; others are littered with smaller piercings that suggest both violence and wonder, displaying male aggression within the self-contained female form of the egg. The title, which may be translated as "end of God," suggests a new scientific conception of the beyond, of man, and of his place in the universe. Whereas an American artist such as Barnett Newman was dealing with a metaphysical notion of the transcendent, space travel, to an Italian raised on the Renaissance, provided a new framework for expressing awe at the cosmos, at what earlier Italian artists might have called "the heavens."

If Fontana had his head in the cosmos, the Italian upstart Piero Manzoni, who emerged in the late fifties, was firmly consumed with earthly matter and human limit—even when his art was grand. With great flair that always kept his work from the dry, finite, and mundane, Manzoni made art out of his breath, his feces (which he had canned and numbered), and his thumbprint (he applied it to both eggs and humans). Much of his work was a commentary on authorship (and ownership), themes that would be more broadly explored decades later and that continue to preoccupy contemporary artists. The works for which Manzoni is best known are the paintings he called Achromes, which were made from 1957 until his death in 1963, principally of canvas, but also of cotton, velvet, gravel, fiberglass, Styrofoam, straw, plastic, and bread.

Manzoni's ambition was to make a work of art that had no illusion, no subjectivity, no human touch, no color, no narrative. The type of Achromes for which Manzoni is best known was made by soaking canvas with kaolin (a soft clay used in the manufacture of porcelain) and leaving it to dry, causing the canvas to shrink, wrinkle, and sag. The result was a self-generating artwork, a thing made by its own process. The artist may have eliminated the subjectivity of mastery that was central to the gestural painting of the abstract expressionists, but he did not eliminate aesthetics. What we prize in the Achromes is not just that they are self-generated, but that the best of them can be so poetic, haunting, and beautiful, qualities achieved through a process of their making.

Fontana's interest in making an environmentally spatial art that existed in both real and metaphoric space, and Manzoni's commitment to exploring the limits of the body, art, and culture identified essential values that would change the course of art history in general over the following decades. These values had an especially profound impact on successive generations of artists in Italy, who became grouped under the rubric of arte povera.

Like most art movements, arte povera was named by an art critic (in this case, Germano Celant) in response to a tendency he saw in Italy in the 1960s among artists who were working in diverse, often experimental ways to explore the intersections of art and life and of nature and culture. It was a reaction to the cool, precise antifigurative rigidities of minimalism and the cartoonish consumerism of pop. Like much of the art that came into being throughout the United States and Europe in the sixties, its spirit reflected the broader youth culture from which it emerged. Earth artists and political artists rebelled against the authoritarian nature of architecture and institutions; process artists challenged the need for art to have a fixed form; the arte povera artists sought to be materially free of formal orthodoxies. Like many of the important artists who emerged in the 1960s, most of the arte povera artists began as painters and, as their artistic positions coalesced, they rejected the formal rigidities and limits of painting and found freedom from artistic convention in three-dimensional, often multimedia work.

An untitled work by Giulio Paolini made in 1964 and consisting of a plywood sheet with several paint brushes, the tools of the trade, piled atop it like a statue on a pedestal, quite concisely, poignantly, even theatrically tells the story not only of the exit of painting but also of the painter (or author). Indeed, Paolini has turned the death of the author and the mourning of originality into a lifetime thematic playpen, which he examines again and again. Another work that could be seen as a treatise on the spirit of the times is Vento preistorico dalle montagne (Prehistoric wind from the mountains) of 1967, a piece by Mario Merz which charts the moment when the painter of man and nature (who had been imprisoned during World War II for antifascist activities) leaves behind the rectilinear canvas and its physical and expressive limits. The work consists of a traditional, ostensibly abstract canvas and another canvas, the second bow-shaped, crashing through it, like the prow of a ship. Beneath the canvas sits a pile of brittle branches, piled up like some peasant collection of kindling. Resting on the twigs and rising up toward the canvas is a set of numbers made of neon that follow the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical formulation in which each successive unit is the sum of the two preceding units. The whole grouping is pierced by a neon spear that ties together all the elements of this painted sculptural confluence like a lightning bolt of inspiration. Although there were many shared sensibilities in American and European art in the 1960s and 1970s, what distinguished the Italian work was Italian culture, its connection to a place with historic continuity, and in that a resistance to the generalizing universality of most other minimal and postminimal art. Each of the artists identified with arte povera developed a distinct sensibility and artistic identity.

Another artist who is represented in the Dallas collection is Alighiero Boetti. Boetti begins in the 1960s making works in strong dialogue with minimalism and its engagement with industrial materials and systemic thinking and goes on to produce a highly poetic art concerned with issues of identity and authorship. A series of so-called paintings in the form of maps of the world embroidered by Afghani women, which he began in 1971, anticipates the multicultural challenge to the tyranny of authorship and ownership that become a central dialogue for a much younger generation of artists in the 1990s.

In many ways the story of art after World War II is the story of the rise of sculpture. The large scale of abstract expressionism—the scale of landscape, of cinema—opened the door for artists to leave the studio for real space, real time, real life. The story of the emergence of sculpture in the postwar period, which is commonly told from an American perspective, could also be charted quite persuasively through the development of art in Italy in the 1950s and 1960s. Fontana, in piercing a two-dimensional surface, destroyed painting space and explored infinity. He gave Italian artists infinite license to explore the real world, setting in motion nothing less than the shift in sensibility from modern to postmodern.

Adapted from

Allan Scwartzman, "From a Prehistoric Wind," in Fast forward: contemporary collections for the Dallas Museum of Art, eds. María de Corral and John R. Lane (Dallas Museum of Art ; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), 158-165.

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