Friday, September 26, 2014

Creative Earthquake at Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice - AZIMUT/H & HEINZ MACK and the Light

Luca Massimo Barbera, Philip Rylands & Heinz Mack
on rooftop terrace at Peggy Guggenheim Collection - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) Six rooms at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection contain chunks of a creative earthquake that happened in Milan between September 1959 and July 1960. Back then, two young artists, Enrico Castellani and Piero Manzoni, joined forces to create the Azimut Gallery, together with an art review called Azimuth. The result rocked the art world on its axis; the aftershocks are still felt today.

In AZIMUTH/H - CONTINUITY AND NEWNESS, Curator Luca Massimo Barbera inserts that creative earthquake into the artistic graph, providing a road map for young artists to navigate their way through the galaxy - what came before, and how the world of art arrived at the point where it is today. 

I am a Saint by Lucio Fontana (1958)
Even though Azimut/h only existed for eleven months - from September 1959 to July 1960 - as the world pivoted into the new decade, it connected post-war neo-avantgarde thinkers not only in Italy, but on an international scale. It was a new concept of art itself.

The first room at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection contains works by Italians Lucio Fontana and Albert Burri, French Yves Klein, Swiss-French Jean Tinguely, and Americans Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Azimuth featured Rauschenberg and Johns before most of the world knew they existed.

Artist's Shit by Piero Manzoni (1961)
Adding to the mystic of Azimut/h was the death of Piero Manzoni (1933-1963), who died young of a heart attack at the age of 29. He created 90 cans of "Artist's Shit" or "Merde d'artista," which have never been opened because it would devalue the work -- an irony since they were created as a parody of consumerism -- the cans were priced by weight based on the value of gold. The most recent can sold in 2008 for £97,250, about $150,000 or €124,000. (Do you think Manzoni is chuckling in the Afterworld?)

White Surface by Enrico Castellani (1959)
Enrico Castellani (1930-) was the more conservative and intellectual of the two artists. He said, “In the cultural climate of that time, and despite the fierce polemics existing between groups of diverse cultural extraction, it wasn’t at all uncommon to exchange the documents of our reciprocal experiences. This is how the first issue of the review came about, in the spring of ’59, and it is an anthology of what was valid and what could be criticized at the time, albeit with glaring omissions that were to some extent remedied by the activity of the gallery [...]. In our work we took a dialectical position with a ‘partial’ synthesis of the historical avantgarde. The second issue of Azimuth and the resulting gallery exhibitions are a product of this stance. They both come from a discrimination and from a co-option. The discrimination is based on everything that we feel is compromised about the historical avantgarde; in light of this differentiation one co-opts the results of the experiences held to be valid.”

The Joy of Calvin by Heinz Mack (1963)
Castellani went on to become part of the ZERO movement, founded by the Germans Heinz Mack and Otto Piene in 1957, and joined by Gunther Eucker in 1961, whose aspiration was to transform and redefine art after World War II. It has since morphed into an international network of like-minded artists from Europe, Japan and the Americas, and will have its "first large scale historical survey in the United States" opening on October 10, 2014 at the Guggenheim in New York City entitled: ZERO - COUNTDOWN TO TOMORROW, 1950s-60s.

Luca Massimo Barbera and Heinz Mack (with interpreter) - Photo: Cat Bauer
Heinz Mack's first Italian solo exhibition was at the Galleria Azimut in March, 1960. He said: “[Manzoni] brought a dozen girls, one more beautiful than the other, and they all wore sunglasses, something that was certainly crazy at the time, since they were not yet in fashion. Some sunglasses seemed as if they were made by hand. Then the girls said in front of the television audience: 'Yes, so much light is emanating from Mack’s work that wearing sunglasses is necessary.' Today one would call this a trendy joke.”

Heinz Mack spoke at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection on September 19th, and it was riveting. He spoke in German, and it was interpreted in Italian, so let's hope I got most of it right:) He said that what happened back then was a real phenomenon. There was no way to communicate like there is today, and yet all these artists in different parts of the world were working on the same wavelength. After the war there was a vacuum that needed to be filled and artists had an obligation to fill it. After such devastation, without spirituality, with enormous suffering, the artists were optimistic.

He said it was not "team work" like today, but that they worked alone, yet with friends. To experience the reality that you are absolutely alone in this world, and then to meet like-minded artists gave them a sense of security. It confirmed the Light.

Light is extremely important to Heinz Mack. Light is like the heart; miraculous; happiness. It is a metaphysical phenomenon. It is immaterial, a miracle of this world. After World War II, the artists wanted to defend the concept of Light.

The Sky Over Nine Columns by Heinz Mack - Photo by Cat Bauer
The Sky Over Nine Columns by Heinz Mack - Photo: Cat Bauer
Those words moved me deeply, as had Mack's The Sky Over Nine Columns that I saw on June 4, 2014 on the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore. I thought that if all these artists could still see the Light after growing up during the horrors of World War II, surely we can still see the Light today.

I spoke to Heinz Mack after the discussion (and some of the best fried prawns I have ever eaten -- the delicate batter was like biting into a bird's nest) and told him that he had saved my life with the Light reflected on those golden columns after all the darkness we had been experiencing here in Venice -- it was the same day that the mayor had been arrested for corruption. Heinz Mack asked if I were an artist, and I said I was a writer. I told him that his columns had moved me to tears, they were so filled with joy. He said, "It means a lot to me to hear that." 

Heinz Mack said, "If we don't see the light anymore, then we are dead." This time, we were speaking in English, so I know exactly what he said.

AZIMUT/H. Continuity and Newness
Peggy Guggenheim Collection
20 September 2014 – 19 January 2015
Curated by Luca Massimo Barbero

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog