When times get weird, even weird people can become professors.
Among all the various enterprises that during the 1980s and 1990s passed fireflies for lanterns in the field of art, I will dwell on the one that goes by the name of “Transavanguardia”. I crossed paths with Achille Bonito Oliva in Filiberto Menna’s Lavatoio Contumaciale in Rome’s Piazza Perin del Vaga in the mid-1970s. I had the pleasure of having Menna as a professor in the course of Institutions of Art History at the Faculty of Architecture in Rome. Of him I remember frank and passionate conversations about art and philosophy. I remember his essays including the beautiful Mondrian, Cultura e Poesia. I can only reproach him for giving space to a character skilled only in betting puns, one of the many papier-mâché figures who occupied the official art scene from the 1980s onward. The infamous years when the decline began not only in the field of art….
Few may know that Mr. Oliva tried his hand at art.
During the 1960s he was living in the shadow of all the radical changes that had taken place in the field of plastic arts during the first half of the twentieth century and, like so many aspiring artists of those years, he was obsessed with the idea of having to do at all costs something that would be considered avant-garde. The path to glory and success seemed precluded unless they invented something that no one had done before them. How to be avant-garde in the second half of the twentieth century, however, no one knew.
In those years Oliva tried his hand at so-called “visual poetry”; a strange thing that was never understood what it was and what it was for. Perhaps he never understood it either, so much so that he soon abandoned it.
“Having found his own language, the artist finds himself free from the labors of the avant-garde.” (Fausto Melotti)
The problem of ours and others was that, despite so many efforts, a language of their own they just could not find it. And so it was that, thinking and rethinking, the future professor found the solution: why toil so much in trying to be what we cannot? Just reverse the terms of the question and proclaim each vanguard outdated. In this way Prof. Oliva managed to turn his existential malaise into a slogan that only the clueless could consider a phenomenon worthy of being called art.
An incapable artist recycles himself into a “creative critic.”
I remember Oliva, in the mid-1970s, sitting in a corner of the Lavatoio Contumaciale while smoking a pipe and probably already pondering possible strategies. At that time the idea was beginning to spread, of North American import, that a repeated presence on the circuit of certain museums, certain galleries and the media was enough to guarantee success. The mentality was that of Big Brother: put a stranger on TV every night and after six months he becomes a star. The disorientation in which the public approaching art lived played into it. Abandoning the idea of being an artist, Oliva wrote books to explain that in truth the real demiurge is not the artist but the art critic. Excluded from the temple of art as an artist, ours was trying to re-enter it as a “creative critic.”
The newly graduated Prof. Oliva wrote books to tell us that painting needed to be recovered.
“After the Lenten period of conceptual art it was necessary to recover the manual skill of painting making.” So said Oliva who, in the meantime, in order to gain more authority and the security of a pension, had become a professor. In truth, we had never forgotten painting. Could we therefore take up and continue on the path started by Matisse and Mondrian?
Not a chance. Oliva’s discovery had very little to do with painting and much more to do with the art of making do. On the strength of financial, media and even political support (the infamous PSi – Italian Socialist Party – of the 1980s), Oliva put together a group of young boys seeking, like himself, glory and, above all, money. The recipe was more or less this: a bit of local neo-expressionism with a side dish of metaphysics in an erotic sentimental version and a touch of the Roman school; all served on large canvases. You know, for some people size matters….
After the radical changes introduced in the art of the early twentieth century and especially with the evolution of painting in an abstract sense, the public no longer knew what was or was not art. They had to be oriented, advised and made to believe that, in spite of everything, some thing already seen (read: understandable..) that did not engage the mind and spirit too much, still existed and that, indeed, that very thing was the art of our time. I remember the exhibitions in New York at the galleries on West Broadway, Madison Avenue, 57th Street and their correspondents in London, Cologne, Paris. Yes, because in the meantime an international consortium of temporary art galleries and museums had been created that, by supporting each other, managed to influence the official scene and, above all, to drive its market. Thus poor Oliva was finally able to overcome the baleful nagging of the avant-garde, emerge from the anonymity that weighed so heavily on him and, above all, increase his bank account. From those days I also remember the dinners at Silvano’s on Sixth Avenue with Mary Boone sitting at Leo Castelli’s table groping her thighs while she explained the “cultural programs” of his gallery.
The creative critic rediscovers painting.
The “Transavanguardia” was one of the responses devised by the “art system” as it was called by its promoters, to make art digestible to potential buyers who presented culturally sparse profiles but were looking for prestige. They would not be able to discern the qualities of a painting but valued the fact that everyone could recognize at home the works that had been seen in museums, on television and in magazines. North American galleries with their rather crass mentality played a major role. I lived in New York City from 1980 to 1985. One day a lady asked me what I did, and when I told her I was a painter, she asked if I could make a good living from my work; to my denial she marveled and said, “..sorry…but then why do you paint?” According to this mentality we would not have Impressionist, Expressionist, Cubist, Neoplastic paintings today. The only person in sight who in the 1980s in New York City, while attending the grand party of making money art, recognized its insubstantiality, was Ileana Sonnabend, Leo Castelli’s ex-wife who, in a meeting at his gallery on West Broadway, showed appreciation for my watercolors and then, in a sincere tone that seemed to express regret, told me that she was tied up with other agendas at that time and could do nothing but what she was doing. She encouraged me to go ahead and let her see me again. I cherish a fond memory of that meeting.
Of the “Transavanguardia” painters you don’t hear more about today.
It is understandable. They have achieved their goal. Painting is no longer needed.
In this, too, our time is not so different from the time when to Monet, Cèzanne, Renoir, Van Gogh the salons and official critics preferred les artistes pompiers, mediocre painters, concerned with pleasing an audience of ignorant bourgeois. Painters who left nothing worth remembering today.
In later years Prof. Oliva organized an exhibition with which to remind us all that he was the inventor of the creative critic; that thanks to him the critic is no longer subservient and no longer has to just explain art made by others. May all historians and art critics who had been unable to escape the tyrannical hegemony of artists rest in peace.
The praise of the ephemeral.
Says Cézanne, “Everything we see is diluted. Nature is always the same but nothing remains of it, of what it appears. Our art must give the thrill of its duration, must make us taste it eternal.”
And says Matisse: “Beneath the succession of moments, which composes the superficial existence of beings and things, cladding them in changeable appearances that soon vanish, one can look for a truer, more essential character, to which the artist will cling in order to give a more lasting interpretation of reality.”
Later Mondrian would write, “Art must express the universal.”
Oliva believes, however, that the true purpose of art is the ephemeral. Having failed to invent anything, the professor writes “…in the transition from an art of invention to an art of quotation, that is, when one loses faith in the future there is no longer a drive, an experimental optimism, here memory takes over, sheltering oneself from the lack of future by reinforcing the present, quoting the past.” It is no coincidence that he sponsors metaphysical painting today. In this he should be credited with consistency since metaphysical painting is also reaction, preservation and the inability to look forward.
Dear Prof. Oliva: those who do not see a future should make room for those who demonstrate abilities to do so.
At the time of the Impressionists and those who were able to invent something new, mediocrity opposed them with open and heated opposition; today, however, fearing to advertise true artists in that way, certain insiders adopt a more “democratic” strategy of indifference.
“Indifference is cowardice, ineptitude, parasitism. The indifferent is the dead weight of history.” (Antonio Gramsci)
Poor Prof. Oliva who once, when it was fashionable, declared himself a Marxist.