3 December 1986 — 25 January 1987
Curated by Corrado Levi
Padiglione d’arte contemporanea, Milano
1 press release
5 installation views
In 1986 Corrado Levi curated one of the most influential Italian exhibitions of the last thirty years: Il Cangiante. It was a seminal event for many reasons: the juxtaposition of the artists, the exhibition design, the critical writing, the revaluation of underappreciated figures. Levi set up a confrontation between the youngest artists (such as Bruno Zanichelli) and the most famous artists of the period (such as Francesco Clemente). The project was conceived without hierarchies and without thematic preconceptions, but guided by a very personal and instinctive approach. Il Cangiante was an audacious, ephemeral and startling exhibition, and, owing to its unique characteristics, remains an example to follow to this day.
Corrado Levi is an artist, architect, curator and writer. In his own words “He was born in Turin in 1936, he has lived in Milan, was Saint John by Franco Albini, taught sophisms at the Faculty of Architecture in Milan, wrote of art and love, attended to young artists in Milan and New York, loved contingency, paradox, nothingness.” Since the early 1980s Levi has been an influential cultural animator, especially in Milan, where he transformed his studio on Via San Gottardo into a space for experimentation for young artists, through a series of solo and group shows. This made it the first project-space in the city.
Il Cangiante is a fluid mutation of sensitivity, intellectual shrewdness, mental energy, irony, a dissolution of the ideology of art as well as discipline, and a very serious approach to the game…
Il Cangiante is an exhibition curated by Corrado Levi for PAC, offering an overview of the international situation, through to the most recent works. It is by no means intended as a celebration or as uncritical enthusiasm, but rather as a form of level-headed reasoning on how artistic practices have changed from yesterday till today. As a result, together with many of the leading exponents of the current scene, there are also works by the “gurus” of the historical avant-gardes, from Otto Dix to Picabia, and some key figures of the revolution of the 1960s and 70s.
The exhibition is thus not just another ecumenical overview, with unattainable claims to comprehensiveness. Rather, it is a complex selective reflection on the new scenarios of art, in which cross-fertilizations between social tastes, low culture, intellectual tensions and high culture constitute a problematic situation, not a condition that is accepted as self-evident.
With this event, PAC continues its mission as a place for assessing and analyzing the state of modern art, in a constant interaction between current phenomena and historical and recent avant-gardes. The works selected are by Carla Accardi, Giovanni Anselmo, Stefano Arienti, Guglielmo E. Aschieri, Marco Bagnoli, Mike Bidlo, Alighiero e Boetti, Keiko Bonk, Edward Brezinski, Keiko Bonk, Augusto Brunetti, Riccardo Camoni, Jean Carrau, Antonio Catelani, Sandro Chia, Vittoria Chierici, Francesco Clemente, Tony Cragg, Walter Dahn, Mario Della Vedova, Filippo de Pisis, Otto Dix, J. Georg Dokoupil, Tano Festa, Manuela Filiaci, Luis Frangella, Alberto Garutti, Gilbert&George, Carlo Guaita, Peter Halley, Paolo Icaro, Klaus Jung, Harald Kingelholler, Jeff Koons, Milan Kunc, Edgar Lehmkühler, Corrado Levi, Simon Linke, Tim Linn, Anne Loch, Wolfgang Luy, Amedeo Martegani, Luigi Mastrangelo, Marco Mazzucconi, Allan McCollum, Alessandro Mendini, Mario Merz, Vittorio Messina, Aldo Mondino, Peter Nagy, Joseph Nechvatal, Luigi Ontani, Julian Opie, Giulio Paolini, Giuseppe Penone, Alfredo Pesce, Francis Picabia, Pierluigi Pusole, Carol Rama, Martial Raysse, Walter Robinson, James Romberger, Cinzia Ruggeri, Robert Ryman, Remo Salvadori, Salvo, Denys Santachiara, Mario Schifano, Rob Scholte, Andreas Schulze, Thomas Schütte, Aldo Spoldi, Luigi Stoisa, Rosemarie Trockel, Maurizio Turchet, Marguerite Van Cook, Antonio Violetta, David Wojnarowicz, Bill Woodrow, Bruno Zanichelli, Gilberto Zorio.
THE IL CANGIANTE EXHIBITION – 18 December 1986
Corrado Levi from tape recording
Good morning everyone! Today’s lecture is about the Il Cangiante exhibition I curated at the Padiglione d’arte contemporanea in Milan and that I set up together with my collaborators Nino Piccolo, Piergiorgio Mazzoli and Paolo Cremonesi. This is the first time I’ve spoken about the exhibition in a systematic manner, in retrospect… and we shall also see the precise theoretical significance of talking about it at a later date. It’s the reason why there’s no introductory essay in the catalog. Everyone’s wondering why it doesn’t explain… But I don’t explain anything… I curated it. It’s a theoretical matter…
The title, Il Cangiante, has nothing to do with change. It’s not the I-Ching, the Book of Changes, the ever-changing… The English translator of the catalog wrote “The Changing Scene,” but the scene isn’t changing… It’s not quite that – it isn’t change. The cangiante is a color-shifting, an effect found on fabrics, on silks: the eye changes its position by just a millimeter… and the fabric changes from bright red to bright green, from purple to yellow, quite suddenly, with nothing in between. Here, however, cangiante – an English term borrowed from the Italian – is not iridescence, for it isn’t a succession.
A theoretical fact of particular importance is that it shifts from one color to another, not gradually, but suddenly, so you’re either in one position or you’re in another. This is because it takes away the transition, the succession, it removes the graduality and the hierarchy of time. It takes away the nuances. And we also find it in something that is very dear to me, as my older students well know: for example in some really ancient paradoxes… the paradox of Epimenides the Cretan, who said that “all Cretans are liars,” but since he was Cretan himself… was his proposition true or false? If you take it at face value, it’s true, but since he was Cretan he must have been a liar, so the transition between truth and falsehood is a discontinuity that can’t be solved. This is also true of many works by Boetti, I Don’t Go I Don’t Stay is the title of one, and perhaps his work is the title itself, Double by Halving, and many others…
So, to sum up, it is an immediate transition from one situation to another, without preparation. And it’s timeless. This is another aspect that I didn’t mention before: timelessness. Time is terrible, it’s topical, time is topicality but so too is the past. It becomes… And that’s as far as we’ll go with time.
The exhibition… the exhibition… I’ll talk to you about that… “what it has nothing to do with” and “what it promises.” What it has nothing to do with… In historical terms, it’s primarily an art exhibition on current affairs and contemporary culture, but its job isn’t to show ranks of artists of the ’60s, and then of ’65 and then of ’68 and ’69. It doesn’t show the shift from Arte Povera in the ’70s or the American minimalists, and it doesn’t show Pop Art as a sequence of periods, though there are artists from these periods, there are some… This is because it doesn’t show the sequence… because I’m convinced that exhibitions of particular periods, like the monographic exhibitions of an artist’s work, retrospectives… When I was a boy I saw a Picasso exhibition in Paris and came away disappointed – instead of being happy that I’d seen all of Picasso’s works, I said, “Ah, that’s no good, it’s pointless,” because a person’s life is pulled this way and that for sixty years by a thousand different things. Each period is a prompt response, whether adequate or inadequate, to the inspiration that comes from outside or from within… The problem is seeing the relationship with the inspiration of the moment. It’s not a matter of summarizing the responses to those individual moments, or seeing works from an entire career… Like putting on an exhibition on Transavanguardia, on the New Geometry, or the latest thing on post-graffiti America, post-this, post-that. Now the tendency is towards a new geometry… It’s great to have a show on New Geometry so you can say you’re with it… huh?… Sure… It would inform us about certain things, but it would be an unambiguous choice, it becomes tyrannical… Yes, because the relationship with other contemporary explorations of the mind becomes, well… authoritarian. It becomes a reflection on the contemporary world, which is closer to confusion than to order. Mao used to say: “Great confusion under the sky. The situation is excellent.” I’ve explained a bit why… that exhibition I curated… I ruled out the possibility of periodization… look, with just the works on show, if they’d been grouped together by schools, there could have been a little… with so many cells, each with its own period, if the works had been set out by period.
After periodization, the second aspect of “what it has nothing to do with” is that the exhibition isn’t dealing in truths, or in search of the truth. That’s something that’s not part of it. It’s a point of radical division, I’d say, it’s where the roads fork, it’s the crucial point in interpersonal relations, which I too have always found in my life. It’s not dealing with the truth, whether outside or inside the individual, outside or inside the subject.
The truth that some people look for inside the subject can be sought in three different ways: through action, action itself, all Abstract Expressionism, Zen painting, making a link between the Orient and America, American abstract painting and American Abstract Expressionism. In a certain sense, Rothko, Kline and Pollock sought the truth in a Zen manner, so the speed of the action, the rapidity of the muscle, and the distracted skill of the arm should have led to an ephemeral truth. This is in any case its quality – ephemeral and random – but it was nevertheless a Zen way, a distracted way, a form of interference in order to attain some sort of quality that was disowned by the rational mind and unknown to logic. It was basically a faith, a truth that was to be placed in infinity, in the unknown, in something that if you were distracted and threw down your pencil, or your brush, or your arm in a reckless manner – recklessly with regard to the mind – you could create something precious, which could be sold. Something that had been made. So one of the three aspects of truth that is not a part of this exhibition is muscular truth. Let’s call it “muscular” – I find that amusing. The other aspect of inner truth that isn’t part of this exhibition is the truth of the soul. In other words, all the anxieties, the impulses and the passions of the soul, which Western tradition sees as the chosen place of truth. For all of us, and for me too, sentiments play an almost sacred role in relationships… That’s it, German Expressionism is the place in painting for this, it’s a melting pot. Expressionism, neo-expressionism, Kirchner, the great painter Grünewald among the ancients, Kiefer, Fetting, Immendorf of Berlin among the moderns… For these researchers, believing that through the suffering and fearlessness of the soul, both as a trauma and as fantasy, they can achieve something of quality and value, and thus attain a truth, is something that the exhibition refutes. I don’t believe in it, just as I don’t believe in “muscular” truth, I don’t believe in the truth of the soul. The third possibility of inner truth is questioning one’s own place – existentialism – no longer as a search for the objectal truth of things to find or to express through muscle power or the psyche, but as a search for truth in our own place… And there’s a whole area of existential art – the existentialism of Sartre, Manzoni in Milan, Yves Klein in France – that poses questions about its position as a repository of truth and no longer as a product, although it always trades with the truth. This part is ruled out, great swathes of contemporary thought – and I’m talking to you about it at length, always in the negative – to give you information, because there’s more that this exhibition isn’t than what it is. And again, like the trading with truth that doesn’t belong to this exhibition, it’s the external trading of truth that matters. In other words, searching, working, making products, the quality of which, the sum of whose quality and the enrichment of which, somehow outside of us, is a repository of truth and of quality. So it’s the sacredness of the work as an asset, which has a repository of quality just for humankind. Which, after all, is all art as it has come down to us, but I think this concept of encumbering the work and the works of men in this compendium of truth is a retrospective supposition that people make… At this point, you’re moving away from the original understanding… that’s really what this exhibition is all about.
I’d like examine this last point a bit further, as maybe I haven’t made myself quite as clear as elsewhere. The first three points concern the truth produced within the person, while the last one concerns making a painting, a sculpture, a work, or a house as an enrichment, as an asset that acquires universal values, filled with things that have an inter-individual quality of their own. That’s it… this way of attributing qualities to works which are sold. It means investing in the work, in its creation over time – usually a very long time – which is different from the muscular, immediate one. It builds up in a sequence, and these works take months to make. Days, years, a lifetime, thousands of years, and then, almost like a fluorescent color when the lights are off, they return this information to humanity, and this doesn’t belong, along with time… A work by Morandi, for example, which takes time to produce, or Vermeer, Paladino… I trust God will not strike me down for this association of ideas… What the exhibition isn’t… it doesn’t trade in the truth, whether external or internal.
What the exhibition promises is this: this index on the board is so comprehensive that I could read it and end the lecture. Art as a bet: the nullifying feature of this exhibition is that it considers art as a bet… as a bet rather than as truth, trading with the truth. This is a radical shift from the deeply rooted attachment we have to art… the sacred nature of art and of feelings, of the person, of the muscle, the body. Art as a bet is… I go to the roulette table, I place my bet, a carré, white, black, then I go to another table… But I don’t believe in red or black. I bet. I’m not marrying the red or the black. I have no preference for red or black. I gamble and I win or lose, I don’t care a bit about the red or the black. There’s no truth in the red or black. I place my bet, I don’t care about the quality of the red or black. Some players even play at two tables at the same time: at one they bet on the red, at the other on black. Like Walter Robinson, an artist in the exhibition, who has two pictures: one is a spin painting, a work made by rotating it and throwing color onto it, in a kind of rotation, totally depersonalizing any intentionality. The other work is a dark sheet hung up, with two figures taken from the poster of a sentimental film. Two works – so he’s gambling at two tables, betting on two things separately.
Art as a gamble. If you see art, or a painting or a work, as a bet, rather than as a product of truth, then it’s like saying you’re expecting an answer: I win or lose, but in art you neither win nor lose, so this whole thing is paradoxical, but it is like gambling. It’s an absurd but precise hypothesis, which states that it is made by bringing into play the boldness of one’s own ability to gamble. The answer is not so much the extent to which they give you ten times the money as the fact that they give you their consent to gamble. I’m not quite sure what this is, but it isn’t relations with others, it isn’t social relations. It’s the happiness of consent for the boldness that the bet gives you, for the path traced out for everyone. Fortunately there’s consensus, because it has been boldly traced out by someone. So let’s say we’ve reached a consensus of appreciation.
Art as a gamble, rather than as a trading with truth. This is the most important theoretical issue in this lecture and in this exhibition.
Culture not as a closed system: sure, there’s high and low culture in this exhibition, there’s the rock culture of the young, there’s design in Mendini, and there’s fashion in Cinzia Ruggeri, and in the young Pusole, Zanichelli and many others. There’s high culture, the sublime culture of Ryman, Paolini… and there’s this blend of low culture, rock, fashion, design, nothingness… Nothingness, there’s also nothingness. I believe that we can’t consider art as a closed system like architecture, like painting or music, or all of them together. They’re religions, in-groups, and what I ask you, if you want to be my students, is to be great professionals in everything, theoretically in everything. Then of course there are contingent reasons and practices that prevent you, but theoretically you have to be professional in everything, not just in one thing. You have to be far more professional than you would be if you did just one thing. I’m convinced of this, because the information you have, from various sources, from cross-fertilization, means that the things you do in the areas you cover are much more of a reflection… of the innovations of the contemporary world. I don’t see why we’re bombarded by this deluge of information, from countless sources all at the same time, only to have these religions of individual disciplines survive. But in order to be professionals – absolute professionals – and there’s no doubt about that… No, wait, I’ll turn that around: to be really professional you have to have information from areas that are far removed from your own profession. It must be intrinsic. Masters and beginners have finally confronted each other in this exhibition. Twenty, twenty-two-year-olds have taken on… or rather it’s the masters who’ve taken on these young people. But careful, in this exhibition I’m not questioning the information from the young – twenty out of a total of seventy – very young people, which is amazing for an exhibition in a museum like this, but I do question, I do put on the rack the work of the masters with regard to the young and I look, and I see if they hold their own, if the information they give is still valid. In the end it turns out that Comrades, the picture by Schifano, the one of ’68, with those little Chinese guys and the thought of Mao, is a picture that holds up… The masters measure up to this cross-fertilization with the young, so the young are by no means just an appendage in this exhibition. The show could not be what it is without the massive presence of young people, but it’s not a matter of mere youthfulness, don’t misunderstand me. That’s not it. I couldn’t care less but it’s a fact that we lose information with age. There’s a whole world that gradually closes its doors… the openness one has when young gradually closes, although art is one of the areas in which one remains more open than in others. There’s a very big theoretical problem in this view of art as a gamble and art as a closed system. The problem is one of quality. Quality was originally the truth, it was a trade-off, the sum, the production of truth. Art as a bet and as cross-fertilization poses a big theoretical problem: what is quality? I won’t go into this today, I’ll just put it to you. I think there’s a problem and it should be solved by parameters other than those of truth. There’s the issue of the relationship between things, and this is what I’ve tried to show in the exhibition. In other words, the quality of the cangiante is the sense of transition between two colors without a break, when an object gives you that immediate change of criteria, the criteria of vision, of the universe, when there’s that immediate transition that forces you to question the very instant, and there’s a different answer. I believe this should be sought in the area of quality. It’s a matter of relationships in the cangiante. It’s not something intrinsic. And indeed it couldn’t be. With these theoretical premises we can no longer say it’s one thing or another… The quality manual… the quality was there, or it was a subject that expressed religious or secular things or feelings or it was the quality of the painting… There were some quality criteria that were objective. I think we need to re-read all the art of the past with these new criteria in mind. Caravaggio can be seen with these criteria that I’m talking to you about now. It’s a gamble. But, in any case, the issue of quality is a problem of relationships. Here too the relationships are not just between works but with the world, with cross-fertilization, with ourselves. This is where we can look for new quality.
The exhibition design: with this in mind, the space created is not the classic type, not frontal, with the paintings and the works in a room, on the walls, to be looked at, following a particular route, to be admired from the front. On the contrary, the way they’re placed makes it a field, a place of excitement, really physically. The space and the floor are dotted with works, so you almost stumble over them. In other words, there’s no itinerary… You need to watch out for them, or you’ll find yourself on top of them… so you can’t look at the walls in rapture, otherwise you’ll ruin a work… you’ll ruin the work and then… also the works on the walls take the space into account, in all directions. It’s a place of excitement, a place where, wherever you are, you can be pulled in any direction. That’s the spatial concept of the exhibition, which is different from other exhibitions, from those I put on to show Merz, Tony Cragg, Buren… They were always to be admired, either frontally or by being in the midst of them. Strangely enough, as you’ll see on the ground plan, this whole whirlwind of works at PAC doesn’t mean being immersed in things, for the subject, or rather the fact that you’re always pulled this way and that… because you just need to tilt your head, just a bit, the way the cangiante changes color – the scene – means that there’s a greater independence of the subject, for it’s bombarded by all these influences; the viewer is not part of the works, it has nothing to do with this American and European current of incorporating the viewer into the work. The work remains an external gamble. It would be crazy if I took the visitor inside the work: on the contrary, this gives greater independence.
The diversity of position – ceiling, floor, walls – and of quality and works is another difference that I have tried to create, through a change of method. I didn’t want there just to be a single method, an “Oh, right, I see how these things are placed.” No, you don’t see at all, because I myself don’t understand why the next time, on the next wall, I wanted to take on new risks, and make new bets… because for me too it’s a gamble making the display like this… So, for example, in the second room there are all the Americans, placed in such a way that the center of each work is at the same height above the floor, and the distances between the works are all identical… And then, in the middle, there’s the work by Denys Santachiara, which moves, and in front there’s a painting by Andreas Schulze almost up to the ceiling, and other things placed down low… Let me just say one more thing: the muscular movement of the neck… you’re obliged to move your neck, to move your muscles to see this show, you have to walk, and move your muscles… muscles you don’t normally use at an exhibition… and this is also a way of distracting the mind from negative thoughts about works of art. One other feature of the display is that the part is equal to the whole. In other words, there’s no evolution: four or five works in the first room are like the exhibition as a whole, because there’s a mix of many different things, high and low culture, cross-fertilization, masters and the young, different cultures… It’s a discrete section of the exhibition. Discrete in the sense of four or five works the same as all the other four or five works, the same in terms of spirit. They aren’t the same, of course, but they’re equal to the whole, the part that’s equal to the whole and the part that’s equal to the part. There’s no evolution because if there were… I could have said “what has nothing to do with them”… Evolution would be like periodization, like the truth of development, a truth of sequence – but that’s not what this exhibition’s about, so there’s no evolution and the part is equal to the whole.
The perimeter of the building is by Gardella, a great rationalist architect from Milan, who now takes from Rossi and makes things like the theatre in Genoa in the canonical style. It’s a lovely building, slightly Italian – very Italian – in that it’s pretty, it’s a beautiful building, well made, with these bays, which were supposed to be movable, but they’ve fixed them. As you know, these things happen… There’s a lower part with glazing, it’s nice like that. Fixed, against his expectations, possibly. When it’s fixed it’s quite blocked, it’s pretty as it is. Rather Italian – great quality but rather Italian. Quite well done, with all its qualities, because it’s one of the beautiful buildings of modern Milan, made in ’46. I think museum spaces that aren’t defined need to focus on this… Apart from the rooms that may have been moveable, there is still definition in the lower part, where there’s the glazing, and above there’s the balcony in the drawings… Basically there are fixities in a museum, then you’re stuck with them forever. You can’t do without them, I believe there should be more openness, but it’s a beautiful building all the same. I’ve had to struggle a bit against this fixity of the rooms – there are five open rooms and then there’s that glazing below… and I fought in two ways… in addition to placing the works like I said, I also put that row of chairs which, on an incline, goes into one of these rooms. Then, since I was bothered by the separation between this common space, which acts as a hall for the opening, and the space for the works, I also dotted the common area with a number of works… Merz, Carol Rama… This prevents a complete view in this part of the hall… Stefano Arienti’s hanging algae… So my feeling at the inauguration was that it worked, for everyone was captured by the works rather than by the social event. I’ve nothing against social gatherings, but I didn’t want this separation. I felt it ran counter to an evolution and passing of the times. If there had been high society… but high society was gathering everywhere.
There are small bits of paper on the floor, and there’s this sheet painted by Della Vedova on the ceiling, so to see the work as cangiante you had to jump from top to bottom continuously. This is Pesce’s cupboard, which plays music when it opens – Rossini’s “L’occasione fa il ladro,” and this is Tony Cragg’s Spectrum. It’s incredible. We’ll talk about the works another time, this is not a lecture on the works. So, I tried to break up the areas of the building, and its boundaries too. I tried to force them, to negate them. For example, there’s a panel when you enter, and one of the most prestigious works is on the back… by a young American, Peter Nagy. It’s the first time one of his works has been shown in Milan… and Picabia too is here, almost hidden, Picabia is with Dix and De Pisis… They are the three great masters, so you can see I didn’t put Picabia and that picture there at the center of a wall, with the most beautiful in Rome, but actually in nooks and crannies, at the back, just as Billy Woodrow is under the staircase that goes up to the floor above. It’s almost like saying that the crevices, back rooms and places that are not central or grand in the building are just as important as the main ones, those in full view, because since there’s no hierarchy in the importance of the space… We’ve talked about the Zenith and the Nadir, above and below, and it’s a pleasure to mention a wonderful study into the Zenith and Nadir by Escher…
The ground plan: this exhibition has made me realize I’m an architect. I think of myself as playing about with art but I’ve realized I’m more of an architect even than an architect, I’ve put on this exhibition… I had a few hours to spare at the airport in Milan when the plane to London was delayed. I was going there to find some paintings by Simon Linke – he makes reproductions of Art Forum advertisements and paints them in oil. During the wait I had the list of artists, but I didn’t have a map of the building, so I made my own, from memory. I’m an architect and I can remember how a building’s made, so I could draw the ground plan, with no photographs of the works in front of me. And I started from the bottom of the list… because I thought: “well, I’m not going start from the beginning, I’ll start from the end.” I could have chosen another way, quite randomly, but it had to be a random choice, so I started with Zorio and then Zanichelli and gradually I placed these works with all the preoccupations I was talking about. I put these concepts down on the map, writing each name, and from that moment on this was the layout of the exhibition. There were no changes after that – it acted as a site map, the freight forwarders came and, using the map, we said: “this work goes there.” Then there was the problem of the heights, which we discussed many times with the assistants, but one work that I’d missed, that I’d forgotten, really made me worry about where to put it. And there’s more: I often didn’t know where to put something because of unexpected glitches, so instead of deciding where would be best, where the best place would be, I went back to my map and, on the map, decided where it would go… So it was interesting, I wasn’t expecting that… It was a discovery for me, and I remember how Albini always used to tell us that the pencil and the map are work tools. It’s not like… since you aren’t in the space you place it on the map – I was right there on the spot, but I still used the map to make decisions. This means it’s a theoretical display, not one of taste. The proximities and distances between the various works have been set to create this cangiante, this detachment, this different inspiration of emotions and universes. Listen, going back again to the issue of quality, combinations are created… It would be easy for me to say it’s through greater differences, but that’s not true… that it’s through greater dissonances that you create greater cangiante, but you need to remember that, in an exhibition, if you make a rule then you’ll have to break it all the time, otherwise it gets boring. If I were putting on a show with the greatest differences, it would become a real bore, so sometimes you let yourself go for similarities, sometimes for conflicts. It’s also a methodological cangiante… And I want to add something important – how this exhibition display was made… very slowly, we spent a couple of weeks. I’m still thanking the assistants I mentioned earlier – in silence and with great intelligence, they didn’t fill the cangiante… what did we do… we skipped from one thing to the next, so we never finished a room but went on to the next, because it meant losing our inner contact with all the things – I mean, we realized that moving a work just a few inches would affect a work five rooms away, so we didn’t work on one room at a time, but constantly skipped from one thing to another. We generally put in the sculptures first – the heavier things – because we knew that it would then be easier to move the lighter objects. So there was this minimal practical rule, but never by finishing one thing – always going from one to another that was distant in terms of space and culture. Listen, flowers have a special place in this exhibition, in this room there’s a bunch of flowers on the ground – red roses – as full as possible of nothingness – the nothingness I mentioned earlier – of average taste. It’s a bunch of flowers with an intarsia of roses, really mundane… the first I came across on the market stall… Red roses, eleven of them. Piergiorgio told me it must always be an odd number. From a legal point of view, I say it’s a work of mine, in the sense that there’s one of my paintings, if that’s what it is, nearby. A work of mine on the wall, so if someone says the flowers are part of my work, well, it’s not my work, it’s just a bunch of flowers, a vase that I wouldn’t even say is mundane, because it’s much more mundane than that. There an energy, I’m looking for low culture: I told you last year, it’s not a Mendini-style mundane. It’s something different, because there’s nothing mundane about low culture, it has enormous ethical richness, with its mobility, full of things. Quite fascinating. So the roses are nothingness, they aren’t works of art and what does this mean… it means that roses are a way out of the system in this cross-fertilization of art as a closed system… the biggest escape from the system in the whole exhibition… There’s nothing in them that concerns art or design or rock or low culture or high culture: they’re just roses, so they’re where the theory behind the exhibition shifts. I attribute enormous importance to this: it’s my risk, one of the risks in the show… and it works because when you take the right risk… unfortunately… and I’ll tell you: when you take the right risk, you risk nothing.
The catalog: I didn’t want to write an introductory essay – I explained the things I’ve been telling you now. It would have been fairly easy, but I didn’t want to… partly because the whole process of the exhibition is clear to me now, but I didn’t want to think about it too closely, I didn’t want the show to become the practical version of the theory. I prefer theory to be an interpretation of the exhibition, in other words, reversing the sense of the theory… I don’t believe that theory precedes things, and an art exhibition in particular needs to be an art exhibition, not an educational event. I built up the theory as I was setting up the display, it became clear while I was putting the pictures up, when I had to invent the flowers – sorry if I say “invent” – while I was betting on the flowers. So the theory came later, a month after the catalog was finished. A month earlier I certainly couldn’t have said the things I’m saying now that the exhibition has come to an end. And there’s also a huge theoretical aspect behind this refusal to make a theory about the show in the catalog: I mean the things with a “no” in front of them in this list are just as important as the ones with a “yes.”
The works in the catalog are arranged in alphabetical order, so I had the pleasant surprise of seeing who was measuring up to whom, who happened to be there. For example, Accardi was with Anselmo on the first page. I enjoyed these combinations like a gift from the cangiante, which I hadn’t expected. There are little comments on the works, and a comment is a sort of subtitle that I gave the works. I first thought “I’ll write three lines for each artist, for each work,” because it’s an exhibition of works, not artists, so I chose the works, not the artists, and then the three lines became half a line and then half a line was too much. It was a sort of reduction, partly out of a sort of snobbery, partly because of the wealth of materials, and I thought the comment had to be far leaner, but I didn’t want theory. There had to be subtitles, not explanations, because there’s nothing to explain. There are no judgements – it would be crazy if I started making judgements, because I like all of them… because red’s better or green’s better in the cangiante when you move from one to the next… No, it’s better not to have either – no judgements, no explanations – just tangents. A tangent is a line that touches a curve at a certain point and tells you something about the curve. Fortunately, it doesn’t tell you everything… it says something about the curve at that particular point, it gives you the curvature there, and the orientation, but not everything… I don’t presume to think that a work of art can explain everything. Points of it can be touched, and I chose a number of points, a point of richness for each work, and I carried out this tangent operation… I think there’s still cross-fertilization between literature, art and criticism, in so far as I’ve put in my experience with the words of a poet – not like trading in words, knowledge of words.
Interaction with the institution: Italy’s a strange country where nothing ever works, there’s nothing, and then they let you do a course like this, and I don’t even know what’s going on with the Board. They serve you up an exhibition to put on, saying “do what you like”… and you really do what you like, I didn’t have the slightest interference from the institution, I had unconditional support, affection and respect. Here, I don’t know, maybe it’s the fact that I never ask for anything, I’ve never asked for anything, I didn’t lift a finger to get this exhibition, I was very excited when they asked me, when I went up the stairs to see Dottoressa Garberi, who called me to give me the job, but I didn’t do anything to get it, and then I was in this great position, because without even lifting a finger it was clear that I had absolute freedom… Italy’s really strange… or rather, there are different social needs which are met in Italy, at least there’s a search for these things, these things do happen… I mean it’s not true that the institutions are always closed, always bigoted, always against culture. They are, the institutions are, but there are cases when they aren’t, even without a social aspect, for their internal needs, and I’m so grateful both to the school, and to this museum, for they let me do things with you and with others… I’ll stop here, but if anyone has a question or wants to discuss something, I’d be only too pleased.
A peek at the diary notes of Corrado Levi, organizer of the exhibition titled Il Cangiante (Iridescence) held at the PAC in Milan
1) I have held several exhibitions in my Milan studio over the last two years, and one of them was Protocol (a title taken from formal logic because it nurtured the idea of free restructurization) which included Mazzucconi, Martegani, Carzedda, Camoni, Stoisa, Chierici, Spoldi, Arienti, Biffare and myself. Following the organization of this exhibition rather like a museum (or perhaps it was a museum that resembled an exhibition), I was asked to arrange an exhibition for PAC, Italy’s most important and prestigious Modern Art Museum. Sometimes, when one does something to the best of his ability, giving the greatest care and attention to detail and quality under the extreme tension that accompanies a superhuman effort to succeed, there is always a nagging fear of not being fully understood; or sometimes there may be a reaction to the showing that can provide the necessary impetus to reach even greater heights of creativity. In fact, if there is a definite and positive quality to the work, the stimulus to try again and to do even better the next time is never lacking. But the timing should be thought out properly, because a cultural reaction is not always immediate in the way that a physical reaction is. This cultural interval in time is fraught with both trepidation and trust on the part of the organizer and, of course, the artists.
2) The original project was to include both Art and Fashion, half and half, reflecting a quality of thought that seemed coherent and homogenous although it was to cover various differing bur important contemporary movements.
Then this commission was dropped, but the original idea became even more firmly implanted in my mind, still covering the same wide range but confined to one single field, and the field itself proved to be unexpectedly vast and rich in diversity.
3) For the curator or organizer, an exhibition is always autobiographical. It reflects the subject he is interested in at that time as well as his cultural preparation and standpoint, his relationship with the artists, and his own personal sense of daring or restraint.
4) He puts his own autobiography and cultural knowledge on the line, a risk directed both inwardly and outwardly, a casting of the dice against unknown odds with the fear of losing all, but knowing that the courage to risk all is his only real insurance against defeat.
5) Who liked him and who didn’t! This was said in making the posthumous discovery of an adored Florentine artist’s last series of frescos. When the pain of criticism is felt, this is a phrase that can console. But what always seems strange is that the excitement and pleasure experienced in doing, in creating, are not communicable through the works themselves.
6) “Iridescence” is noI a gradual mutation; it is the property that oriental shot silks possess to change color unexpectedly, from green to red, from purple to yellow, from black to blue etc., with an imperceptible shifting of the viewer’s position. There are no intermediate passages, and this is fantastic: no forewarning or gradual shading, and yet the material remains unaltered. Without an intermediate phase, the slightest movement takes you from one pole to the other and back again in a continual search for the secret of this mysterious mechanism. Sometimes street advertisements give the same effect, like the Christ that I have just bought whose eyes are either open or closed as I move around him; when I shoot him a glance, I am never sure whether I will find him dead or judging me.
7) At the airport in New York, I had a roll of canvases from some of my artist friends who had entrusted their works to me for inclusion in this exhibition. The customs official made me unroll them in front of everyone. Canvases four meters by two were unfurled on the airport floor, and all those people just stood there gaping. At the time, the thought crossed my mind that the peculiarity of finding myself in this sort of situation was a theoretical characteristic of my practice of criticism.
8) Another theoretical indication lies in the fact that I did not write a critical analysis for the catalog: it would have had to be ready a month before the exhibition opened, and that would have meant that during that last month the exhibition would have been committed to what had been written, deep-frozen in forced compliance. I wanted to be able to iron out any flaws that I might find right up to the opening date, and I wanted the evidence to speak for itself, convinced as I am that no words can compete with the evidence of one’s own senses.
9) Words can explain, elucidate, illustrate or suggest the interpretation of an exhibition but the evidence is authoritatively “self-evident,” provoking an immediate recognition of disassociations and associations with unarguable assertiveness.
10) In the catalog, words are used on each page in reference to the various artworks shown, bur the words are merely a linguistic contraction, tangential with respect to the artwork itself. They are intended firstly to impart information and secondly as a useful aid in priming the viewer to recognize or appreciate what he sees, but they are never meant to explain. The genesis of the word is a contraction of expression; there is perforce an abyss of subjective experience between the word and the work and each viewer uses his own discretion to interpret what he sees. I have had to use mine in knowing just where my word tangents should touch on the work and where not.
11) Today, with everything already behind me, I feel like writing, but I am also trying to broaden my effort so that what is of value now will also be of value in the future. Other people know how to do this but I must be careful in going through my ten positions of the week; I must not risk tautology.
12) Outside of time, like the passage in Iridescence, the indulgence with which the present is privileged is like a philosophy, and in its glow anxiety, hope, intelligence, nobility and modesty cohabit; even in the future the present never becomes the past.
13) The present is an intellectual riddle, like one of those theoretical calculations in mathematics that ends up in absurd hypotheses, not a truth in itself but a dizzy projection of what might result on the basis of hypothetical premises – the “if” game, in other words. But in art the final verification is not mathematical or definitive and depends on subjectivity and circumstance.
14) Art as a gamble, as a matter of luck, and not art as a search for truth. Which is not postmodernism. On the contrary, it is a relaunching; it assumes postmodernism’s unprejudiced eclecticism but removes it from a preeminently formal sphere. It is the thrill of risking freedom.
15) The simultaneous presentation on several plates at the same time (and this also happens in the work of the same artist, such as Walter Robinson, with paintings done while spinning them around and around at high speed and paintings copied from movie posters) allows the viewer to enjoy the mechanics and the thrill of a risk for its own sake; one is conscious of each separate risk, identifying the various cards in the game and choosing the ones that seem the most favorable to bet on.
16) Art expresses the essence of gambling with all its intrinsic formal heritage. Much of it cannot be transformed into words. Art is a bet placed by certain cultural environments of which its expression or form – that is, the manner of carrying it out – is the object.
17) Art (or the game of Art) is ambitious and humble at the same time: ambitious because men and women are the subjects of the bets, and humble because it allows no trafficking with the truth.
18) A bet eliminates the unknown as a premise; instead, it creates a new unknown each time, opening up new fields and not attempting to align itself with the unknown as a premise.
19) Then we have Art as truth: of the soul and its spiraling expressionism, of the contracting or relaxing muscles of an arm, of the raw materials in a search for ever newer combinations of molecules, of a study into the position coordinates of the artist.
20) Art as a search for truth also has, in tacit background presence, art as a gambling game, and this has been revealed clearly by the art of the last few years.
21) The various movements of Modern Art, Trans-avantgarde, Arte Colta (Cultured Art), Neo-Geometry, are each a gamble when seen from the outside, but only by believing in each separate movement do they become a faith.
22) The world and the system of art tend to force research into hibernation, making its youngest exponents wait around stewing in their own juice (at least in the economically weaker zones) while the big shots on their exclusive circuits of famous museums and art galleries are idolized and consequently lose contact with a more fluid reality over the years, while the young artists lose contact with art culture.
23) It is great to see 25-year-old Arienti’s Alga, done in 1986, together with companion pieces done by Schifano in ‘68; great because two gambles so distant in time can be compared on the same footing today.
24) It is great that a nation like the United States can contemporaneously appreciate the new geometry, the East Village today after its contingent (discovered here) was not apparently accepted in the economic Olympus of art, the paradoxists who redo Morandi and Raffaello, and the conceptual “explosives experts” with their street posters on canvas.
25) It’s great to see the provocative paradoxes of the Cologne artists and the fantastic forms of the Dsseldorf sculptors.
26) It’s great to see the subtle young artists of Milan, and the ones from Florence who arrest time itself through their use of form, and some disconcertingly young artists from Rome who are on the track of some concrete ephemera.
27) It’s great to see Dix, the culture of the docklands and of Altdorfer, de Pisis, all the possible pluricultures, Picabia, a meridian of differences, Carol Rama, haughtiness, all undissolved in the liquid of art.
28) The bets on art are all on the table – rien ne va plus?
29) l’m going out now, I bet not just to bet.
30) The bunch of roses on the floor: is it part of a mural or is it a bunch of red roses in a cut glass vase of water on the living room floor? A case of iridescent identity.
31) The exhibition has been arranged, not on the spot, but on the drawing-board, with the works of art as criteria; not with taste, but with theoretical taste. The wide range of different exhibits has been displayed to advantage but sometimes the logic changes. One advances from one work to the next with a minimum of residual recall and a maximum of receptiveness.
Milan, 15-18 January, 1987.