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Excerpts from an Interview with Achille Bonito Oliva

Critic and curator Achille Bonito Oliva is currently at work on Minimalia, an exhibition of Italian art that will open at PS1 Museum in October of this year. He was interviewed from his studio in Rome.

DKR – What did you think of the exhibition of Italian art curated by Germano Celant at the Guggenheim Museum in 1994?

ABO – It was an exhibition that lacked the courage to address Italian art after the 1960s, the years of his development as a critic. Celant has an almost Darwinistic conception of artistic development that is bound to the realm of abstraction. The Guggenheim exhibition reflects his rigid conception of Italian art. Art is more complex and cannot be reduced to a simple formula. Celant, however, was unable to include artists who appertain to the Transavanguardia movement. I believe that contemporary art should include artists who address diverse conceptual and stylistic issues.

Achille Bonito Oliva, The Critic Stripped Bare by the Nature of Art, photograph, 1981.

DKR – What would you like to convey with your exhibition of Italian art?

ABO – Through my exhibition Minimalia, I wish to exhibit historical works and recent artistic production that characterize a reductive linguistic tendency that I would define as Mediterranean or particularly Italian. This art is not based on the geometry of straight lines but rather on that of the curve. It is a geometry that comes from renaissance perspective, and such a geometry describes organic form, where figurative imagery and geometric abstraction intermingle. It is a complex geometry that may include deconstruction, ornamentation, and figuration. This geometry has helped to develop a language that embraces the pluralism of expression of Italian art.

DKR – Why do you believe that Giacomo Balla was a seminal influence in the development of this geometry of the curve?

ABO – He had a great capacity to reduce organic forms in nature into geometric structure. Balla found rhythm in this geometry of triangulated shapes. His work constitutes the starting point for my exhibition, together with Sant’Elia the futurist architect or Bragaglia the futurist photographer. Through the latter’s work one arrives at the photographic abstraction of Veronesi. Futurism was very much the precursor of abstraction.

DKR – How do you view the relationship between Italian and American art?

ABO – I view it as fertile and altogether positive. Europe provided the experimental framework of avant-gardism and America the breadth and dimensions of a vast continent. I view American art as being, by its very nature, cosmopolitan. As an immigrant culture it has given rise to a multiculturalism that enriches art.

DKR – In a recent essay you describe nationalistic feelings as a “tribal” response to the global economy. What questions of identity does an Italian artist have to address today?

ABO – Thanks to the European community, with its relaxed borders, an Italian artist working today lives in a cosmopolitan environment. Italians are heirs to the Roman empire, and this does not mean that they have an imperialist mentality. Italians are neither racist nor imperialistic. At times nations foster a tribal or nationalistic sensibility, but art is anti-tribal. Italians are a nomadic people and are not limited by the circumscribed territory of a tribal sensibility.

DKR – What do you think of the state of contemporary art criticism in Italy?

ABO – I believe that art criticism is healthy in Italy. One can easily follow a tradition of great historians that runs from Venturi to Longhi, Argan, and Brandi, to myself. I teach contemporary art history at the University of Rome and a number of colleagues there have broad historical understanding, conceptual depth, and active interest in contemporary issues.

DKR – Do you follow the work of Enrico Pedrini?

ABO – Yes. He is an intellectual who arrived at art criticism through an intense love of art. He embodies both emotional appreciation of art and analytic capacity.

DKR – You stated that Minimalia is not a dogmatic exhibition. From Futurism on down, however, Italian art has nearly always been defined by schools. How would you characterize the rapport between art and ideology in Italy today?

ABO – I view ideology as the point of departure, but what is important is where one arrives. A work of art often transcends the stated goals of its creator, and such a work of art is never dogmatic, but rather is complex, articulate, ambivalent, and ambiguous. In this exhibition there are artists who appertain to diverse schools and traditions. Let us examine the Transavanguardia for example. The artists that I selected were Clemente, Palladino and De Maria because certain of their works have an interchangeable quality, and lack expressive content. Their work is controlled and schematic. Likewise I selected Arte povera works that most eloquently speak to the issues of the movement. Instead of inviting artists, I have invited specific works to be part of this exhibition.

© Daniel Rothbart, 2000.

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