The Reception of Italian Art in the United States

A Dialogue with Carlos Basualdo

Lara Demori

Since the 1950s, Italian art has looked to the United States as the site of affirmation and internationalisation par excellence. In trying to understand how the current scene is perceived outside Italy, it is thus worth looking at the situation and the dynamics at work across the Atlantic. Here we present a discussion with Carlos Basualdo, The Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Curator of Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and previously Senior Curator at MAXXI in Rome, here helps us to define the degree of internationalisation that twenty-first-century Italian art can count on today.

Carlos, you have an in-depth knowledge of Italian art from the post-war period to the present. You were also a professor at the IUAV University of Venice from 2004 until 2010. What perception is there abroad, and especially in the United States, of the art scene that has developed in Italy over the last twenty years?

I think that there is very little perception of the current state of Italian artistic production; certainly, there is no perception of a contextual production. This is a complex issue. In the last twenty years, some historic Italian artists have had a very major reception and critical discussion also across the Atlantic: Fontana (with an exhibition at the Met Breuer, ed.) Manzoni, and Burri come to mind, in this sense, as does the exhibition on futurism at the Guggenheim in 2014, though unfortunately I do not think it changed, or improved, the understanding of futurism in the Anglophone world. Alongside these names, arte povera, and especially some of its major figures, has certainly been the object of considerable interest: Boetti (with an exhibition at MoMA in 2012), Pistoletto (exhibition at MAXXI and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2010, ed.) and now Kounellis (at the Walker Art Center, September 2022). However, if these exhibitions have grown in number recently, they are also bound to market interest, which is currently more receptive to this moment in Italian art. This does not take away from the fact that such attention has meant that, even in the United States, there is almost a more organic understanding of Italian art. Unfortunately, in the last two years, with the pandemic, the US art world has closed in on itself; this glimmer of openness has been interrupted and a certain closure towards Italian (but also European) art has rebounded especially on young artists’ work.

However, one positive thing to note, here across the Atlantic, is the presence of spaces that work exclusively with Italian art and contribute to its dissemination, such as CIMA (Center for Italian Modern Art) and Magazzino Italian Art, which, albeit with different agendas and focuses, are doing a very important work of promotion there.

And in Philadelphia, I might add, you are pursuing many projects related to Italian art from the post-war period onwards, like the exhibition of Penone’s drawings that we are working on together, and you have also acquired works for the museum’s permanent collection.

Yes. During my tenure at MAXXI (2009-2012) I had the opportunity to work more intensively with young artists. There are some very interesting personalities like Rosa Barba, Elisabetta Benassi and Nico Vascellari, who have distinguished themselves and stand out as isolated figures. But there is also a general context, a generation that appropriates and re-elaborates the languages belonging to what has been defined as arte povera, and translates them into contemporary terms. It seems to me that the generation of the last twenty years has both the ability to critically engage with the art of the past and a very clear perception of the international context, and is therefore able to undertake, to set in motion, an effective dialectic of negotiation between opposite poles. And it does this in a much more convincing way than the previous generation had. You know, I think there is a missing generation in Italy, after the transavantgarde generation…

In this regard, arte povera – and certainly owed to Celant, truly the author of a “brand” – was the movement that was exported abroad most, especially to the United States but not only there. . Do you think that the fact that contemporary Italian art is still identified almost exclusively with arte povera has obscured or prevented the international reception of other contexts or other artists?

Yes, but at the same time we shouldn’t make the mistake of imagining that arte povera is known in great depth in the United States. There have been exhibitions of private collections of arte povera, thanks for instance to institutions such as the Walker Art Center or Hauser & Wirth (curated by Ingvild Goetz), but not in an institution with a wider reception, and most importantly there has never been a major critical re-examination of arte povera and its legacy.

I would add that this has not only been lacking in the United States, but it has also been missing in Italy itself: that is, a critical approach to what the arte povera “brand” has represented.

Indeed, as you know, arte povera is not a movement, the “poveristi” are not a group. They are more a collection of heterogeneous artists who Germano Celant had the insight to bring together.

So, he was a critic who understood that if he was going to create a “brand” for himself, he would first have to create a movement that met and had certain requirements for its dissemination, both in Italy and beyond its borders.

Indeed, understanding the profound complexity of arte povera implies going beyond this logic of the “movement” and understanding the heterogeneity of the artists, their relations both with the international scene and with the legacy of the Italian art of the early twentieth century. And you know, one fundamental point for Italian art is futurism; and the reception of futurism, which you and I have discussed many times, is unfortunately conditioned in the United States by its presumed association with fascism. As you can see, there are many obstacles to the reception of Italian art, which have conditioned the art of the early twentieth century, that of the post-war period, and necessarily the current generation.

Indeed, I am convinced that you cannot make an accurate and critical examination of the actual situation without looking at history. The current generation also suffers from many obstacles in terms of its reception abroad. But it is impossible to forego the need to highlight a certain line of continuity.

It is important to understand a series of generational relations: to understand arte povera, you need to understand the supposed relations between futurism and fascism; to understand the (near-)lack of internationalisation of the current generation, you need to understand the phenomena that affected the reception of arte povera.

Every now and then, I wonder if the academic world can provide a way out of this series of impasses…

Unfortunately, I see the academic world and the institutional and market world as still very separate from one another. And I think that separation is absurd. And unfortunately, the Anglophone academic world is currently very short-sighted and its interests lie in quite different topics…

There was a strong prejudice not only against futurism, but also against Fontana, in the Anglophone academic world, and then more recently things started to change. But I wonder: if you cannot understand either futurism or Fontana’s work, how is it possible to put together a reception for more recent Italian art?

If you had to pick some names that represent Italian art today, who would you think of? Is this generation capable of presenting itself on an international, global stage? Is it able to tell its story in Italy?

This is a question linked to a series of projects I have worked on. The MAXXI project, for example, sought to produce a context for “young” Italian art. Big names are always there, but big names don’t tell you anything about a context. MAXXI’s initial aim was precisely to bring the context into view, but for that you need a network of institutions. In the United States, for example, there is an institutional network that was already established in the 1960s and 1970s, that not only produces outstanding artistic personalities but also the related context. For example, if we think about Martine Syms, there is no need to explain the context, the context is already there, it is obvious. But as far as Italian art is concerned, if I mention an artist like Gian Maria Tosatti, it is not immediately obvious which are the concerns are from which a work like Tosatti’s emerges. When you see a work by Gian Maria, you notice many things that are obviously particular to the artist’s individual personality, but then you also notice something else, like the relationship with Gino De Dominicis or Ettore Spalletti. These relational aspects are invisible in the United States.

Do you mean that the context from which the current generation originates is not easily deciphered or recognisable? I agree.

The context is there. But the institutional and systemic network that allows this context to come into view is not strong enough, to the point that it is left imperceptible from a US perspective The conversations, the Urdoxa, the substrate from which figures emerge, doesn’t come through. If this substratum does become visible, it is possible to get the bearings that allow you to see and understand the interventions made by individual artists. There is always a dialectic between context and particularity. And the particularity does not come through if there is no tie to the context. You first have to understand the general level and then understand how individual personalities operate on this level, even if they are contradicting and surpassing it.

But there is a strong context in Italy, even if it is invisible from the outside.

I have felt the very strong presence of a generation that is looking at the art that preceded it. Francesco Arena has an obvious relationship with arte povera, like Marzia Migliora, and Nico Vascellari, whom I have already mentioned.

And do you think that all these single cases can be traced back to an attempt to negotiate between arte povera and contemporaneity?

No, I don’t want to “reduce” their work to that. What I mean is that I see, in them, the possibility of digesting the legacy of a certain preceding Italian art and of conjugating, translating and articulating it in an international context. They are the first generation in Italy that I see with this potential – or with the interest – to move forward in this direction. But to make that possible, we need to make the context visible.

So, the capacity is there, but there is no institutional network able to effectively promote its visibility.

Yes, and because this network is lacking, some figures do rise at an individual level, but that owes to biographical factors. For instance, Rosa Barba. She lives in Berlin and is making another path for herself. The same goes for Monica Bonvicini. But if they emerge as singular cases, then you can’t speak of “Italian art”, because when you talk about “Italian art” you are necessarily talking about the context.

But do you think we can speak of a current Italian art?

Yes, I think we can, but without exclusively referring to questions of nationality. I think you can find many artists working on the ground who have a common language. During my tenure at MAXXI, I was very surprised to discover that artists had this intense relationship with the art of their own recent past.

Do you think that Italy needs institutional changes that would encourage a better reception and translation of the languages that have developed over the last twenty years abroad?

Look, I think that MAXXI – and I mention it because it is the National Museum of 21st Century Arts – should have a leading role, with a programmatic activity aimed at promoting Italian (and not only Italian) art through a series of focused exhibitions, each year. The activities of the Castello di Rivoli or the Madre Museum also lack a clearly articulated institutional project regarding Italian art. On the other hand, what the Italian Council is doing now, focused on the promotion and dissemination of Italian art abroad, is, in my view, absolutely remarkable in its scope and its importance.

How do you see the situation in the United States over the next few years – do you see a possibility of Italian art making headway?

The United States depends a lot on the market, and today the market isn’t looking at international art, it is looking at local art. This is a moment of deep closedness, in the USA.