Beyond the Avant Garde

I’ve always been partial to contemporary Italian. It’s melancholy, humorous, clever, tongue-ino-check and even slap-in-the-face. And for the past 100 years, Italian art and artists have been the underdogs of the modern and contemporary scene.

Admit it. When you think about contemporary artists, or any artist from 1920s to the present, approximately 2% of your thoughts may meander towards Italian artists, if they even get past Manet, Picasso, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Pollock, Bacon, Wharhol, Koons and Hirst.

And if you try the equation Italy + Artist, the sum is several non-Italian artists who have reside in Italy—like Twombly and Kostabi (don’t groan, Sting lives here too), and for a while Koons, along with all the others who have been invited to create installations et all around the peninsula. Can you name three Italian artists who live and work internationally?

Maybe you don’t think this is all that important, considering that Italian artists dominated two millennia with amazing art and architecture. Master painters and sculptures from Italy invented what we know of as High Art. Blah blah blah. Maybe Italy shouldn’t care about its 5th or 6th place finishes in the Art World, behind New York, London, Paris and Los Angeles—yes, even LA kicks Italy’s ass.

I don’t think its fair that most people barely recognize Vanessa Beecroft as an Italian artist, and when discussing contemporary Italian art, Maurizio Catalan is pretty much the only name that arises. Has Italy been exempt in the latter half of the 20th century art world? Or were her shining stars quickly spent?

Italy’s rock stars: Giotto, Fra Angelico, Rafael, Carvaggio, Severini, Modigliani, Fontana, Schifano, Acconci and the 3 Cs.

3 C’s, you ask. That’s my personal name for them. The Italian neo-expressionists of the late 1970s, who helped make the word “artist” synonymous with “bad boy”.Transavanguardia (beyond the avant-garde): Italian Neo-Expressionism movement, Italy, 1970s. Reaction to conceptional art and minimalism. Aka: revival of expressionism. Aka #2: Bad boys painting big canvases. Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi were the triology of Transavaguardia, the Italian counterparts to New York Neo-Expressionists like Schnabel, Basquiat and Guston. In the beginning of the 80s, paintings—by living artists—were selling through the roof. Completely overpriced. Artists and musicians were hanging out at Studio 54. A Schnabel painting was practically the main feature of Billy Idol’s Rock the Cradle of Love. (Couple starts making out on the couch and plates fly out of the painting on the wall.) Basquiat was in a Blondie video.

And Cucchi, Clemente and Chia were part of this band of boys, painting big canvases in downtown Manhattan. Cerebral, introspective-- to me, the work is moody. And I love it. The large canvases make you look inside yourself—whether figure or abstract, violet or subtle, melancholy colors or vibrant hues. Transavanguardia was a return to mark making—which can be similar to a dog peeing on a corner “I DID THIS” is what every painting seems to say.

Why do I care? Normally, the over-the-top display of testerone drives me insane. I can’t stand the Painter’s Painter, a beloved icon for all male art students in grad school, modeled after the story about how Monet was found dead with a paintbrush for genitals instead of a penis. But Clemente makes me smile—even when his artwork was used in the remake of Great Expectations. And Chia and Cucchi remind how much I love drawing, and how easy it should feel. Lastly, the Transavanguardia artists, the Italians, influenced practically every painter after them—around the world.

If you are in Rome, you are lucky. There are two shows this month with new work from Clemente and Cucchi. And then of course, there is the Galleria Nazional d’Arte Moderna to remind how Italian artists have rocked the 20th century.



Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

PS This week entrance for all state-owned/run museums and archaeological sites in Italy is FREE.