Wednesday, 3 August 2011

MAXXI and GNAM - contemporary art in Rome

In June we were in Rome for the first time since 1999, when I had attempted to show Tom as much of Rome as I could in about 24 hours. Using taxis, we were able to visit the Vatican, St. Peter's, the Forum, Coliseum, Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon and a few churches. I don't think Tom appreciates what I consider a remarkable feat.

 For this trip I wanted to fill in the Borghese Gallery and the Caravaggios at San Luigi dei Francesi. But I also wanted to see the two contemporary art museums that have opened in Rome in the intervening 12 years. We accomplished those goals, plus a several other sites along the way.

We wandered through the Borghese Gardens and happened upon the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, a building with a monumental classicizing facade that I had never seen. Inside I found two surprises. At first the exhibition of works by Giacinto Cerone (1957-2004), an Italian sculptor I had never encountered, seemed like a rather conservative show of clay and ceramic sculpture. But the small and larg bright abstract objects with shiny, extremely tactile surfaces caught my attention and by the time we got to the end of the exhibition several monumental and expressive abstract works had made a strong impact on us. Unfortunately, I have no photographs and can only recommend Googling Cerona images.

In the 19th-century galleries I found hundreds of fine paintings by artists whose names were completely unfamiliar to me, a delightful surprise. The 20th century was much easier, with several familiar names and styles, although Pino Pascale, Arturo Martini and others did not ring a bell. The 20th-century galleries were arranged with a whole gallery for one or two artists in a permanent-collection exhibition called "Great Nuclei of Modern Art II," making it possible to get a real sense of the artists' styles. By far the largest space, virtually an exhibition in itself, was devoted to Giacomo Balla (1871-1958) and Medardo Rosso (1858-1928). I'm familiar with Rosso's soft focus post-impressionist sculptures of heads, often in wax that looks like it has melted or been rubbed away, but I had never seen so many at one time, showing such a range of subject and style. In some cases we found both a wax and a bronze of the same subject.

For Balla the Galleria presented the entire range of his work, drawings and watercolors as well as paintings. I know him as a Futurist, and saw a lot of his Futurist work in 2009 in the Futurism shows in London and at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. But this retrospective approach included both early and late representational paintings, often with great power and touchingly accurate observation. Early works depict people 'on the margins of society' with sympathy and force. The two artists complemented each other unexpectedly well, especially during the period before 1910.

The Rome Gallery of Modern Art was thus a delightful surprise; after looking at a lot of new work and discovering artists and aspects of artists we hadn't known, we had a nice coffee in the outdoor restaurant of the Galleria.

The next day we tackled MAXXI, the renowned National Museum of the Art of the Twenty-first Century by Zaha Hadid. I had wanted to see the architecture as much as the work, having only previously experienced her somewhat tortured building for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, a place where it seemed that it would always be difficult to find appropriate spaces for the art.
MAXXI made me dizzy with its twisting staircase and see-through ramps. Such a building makes me think about how the computer has changed the possibilities of architecture, because I'm sure such complex shapes couldn't be engineered of even conceived without computer help. From above, a model suggests that the building is a series of wide ribbons.

Tom loved the architecture while I attempted to avoid vertigo, but he thought the spaces not flexible enough to show art. I actually disagreed. The galleries either were very large and open or rather small with high ceilings, and it seemed that they could accommodate a wide range of types of art.

Tom particularly liked a large gallery with a window wall that was cantelevered over the plaza below. In it were displayed projects of the Young Artists Program, YAP, a collaboration with the Museum  of Modern Art in New York, to design something for the plaza of the building. The winner was on view outside, and the museum offered a video of its construction process.

One huge permanent collection gallery displays an array of recent art, while the tiered smaller galleries house a retrospective of Michelangelo Pistoletto, Michelangelo Pistoletto, From One to Many 1956 to 1974 (co-organized with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it was shown earlier this year), an artist whose mirror works I've seen for decades while never having heard or read much about him, except some negative comments about his shattered mirrors at the 2009 Venice Biennale, which I had actually liked. The first works we saw in this exhibition were piles of rags, followed by two galleries of abstract sculptures and many references to his participation in the Arte Povera movement. I found these objects unengaging, but now I've read that the rags had been used to polish his mirror paintings, they seem much more appropriate. Also, I understand that they may predate the huge number of rag sculptures that have proliferated during the past few years. I began to take interest in some installation works, including a line of candles that had once been lit, a row of suspended light bulbs, and a strip of metal on the floor that reflected light patterns on the wall above it. There were many references to his conceptual and performance activities and an extensive time line that was detailed enough to mention an old friend and colleague, the late Robert Murdoch, who had been the curator of an early Pistoletto show in the United States.

Finally I came to the large gallery installed with dozens of Pistoletto's mirror paintings.  These are both familiar and a fascinating surprise. They were installed in rows, several in front of each other, so that unlike the Philadelphia installation they often reflected in each other. Seeing many of them together enables one to see other people reflected in other images, to see the figures painted on the mirrors reflected in other mirrors, and to see how Pistoletto repeated figures in different contexts. The conceit of painting, and later stenciling a figure or figures on a mirror so that the viewer becomes part of the conversation, or even becomes the subject of the work, comes through much more clearly in the company of many paintings. And the political content of Pistoletto's work also gains force when it is repeated, expanded, and reinforced in several works of art together.

It seems a bit ironic that a museum of the art of the 21st century celebrated a show of art of the 3rd quarter of the 20th.

Getting this essay together has taken so long that I decided to save MACRO for another time.

No comments:

Post a Comment