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A Generation That Didn’t Agree?
A Testimony Through a Decade

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in: Italiano

The year was 2017.

New York had fallen.
Pestilence and fear were running rampant across America, threatening the entire Western world.
This is what happened in my first feature film, NYsferatu — Symphony of a Century (2017), which I decided to introduce with the following, short quote from System Of A Down’s Sad Statue (2005):

You and me
We’ll all go down in history
With a sad Statue of Liberty
And a generation that didn’t agree

The “generation that “didn’t agree” that I have been asked to talk about in this article clearly means our generation in art, which we can roughly identify with those born between the late 1960s and start of the 1980s — let’s say from 1967, when Arcangelo Sassolino was born, up till 1980, when Gian Maria Tosatti was born in Rome.

Curiously, this same timespan corresponds to that of the birth, development, peak and (partial and momentary) decline of the major Italian artistic movement of the latter half of the twentieth century: arte povera.

Appunti per una guerriglia, the legendary text by Germano Celant, was in fact published in the November-December 1967 issue of Flash Art, whereas exactly twelve years later, in the November 1979 edition of the same magazine, Achille Bonito Oliva published La Transavanguardia italiana, dedicated to the movement that was for a few brilliant years able to capture the attention of the entire world (artistic and otherwise), bringing painting back into vogue, assisted by the more enduring German Neuen Wilden (New Savages).

But let’s get back to us and to our generation that didn’t agree — a generation which carries arte povera on its back — indeed, on its shoulders — as a sort of putative (step)father, with all its internal contradictions, from Boetti to Fabro, from Kounellis to Merz and Penone. As children of contradictions and diversities, we had to be contradictory and different from each other, with research that takes off from positions that are often antithetical, almost enemies, antipathic to each other. Of course, from time to time, points of contact among all of us do appear. It was indeed by leveraging those points, in the early 2010s, that there was even an attempt to get us all to agree. What follows is the story of that. That is, the story more or less as I remember it — and in the end, the important thing is not so much what really happened, as what we remember of a given event and, above all, how we know how to tell it.

I think that I met most of the Italian artists of my generation abroad: I met Cattaneo and Francesconi in Geneva at the turn of the century; Tosatti, Andreotta Calò, Senatore, Sassolino, Stampone, Picco, Balliano, Tweedy, Rabbia, Simeti, Vezzoli, etc., all through encounters in New York, somewhere in between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Anyway, it’s easier to meet like-minded (albeit varied!) people abroad — and speaking Italian outside Italian borders is always a pleasant concession to laziness.

That was how I met Tosatti. In late 2011, at an opening at Gavin Brown’s, he brought me back an old, used and, alas, now rather crusty inflatable mattress that I had previously lent to Andrea Galvani. I needed it for the assistants in the studio to sleep on; at the time we didn’t even have enough money to afford a hostel anymore.

Gian Maria then forced me — as per his custom — to go all the way to Governors Island to see his work Apt #102. I didn’t understand a damn thing, but I pretended I admired it. After all, it was a new language and when someone does something new, it doesn’t necessarily have to be good or successful. It was new, though. So, I became interested in that strange artist with the beard, since I also had a beard, but mine was the unkempt beard of a football ultra who spent a life attending away games, whereas his was the beard of a ‘68er priest.

Giamma had it in for everyone — for the art system, critics, gallery owners, curators, artists. On closer inspection, he hasn’t changed much even today; he has it in for everyone even now, or rather, everyone has it in for him, or so he says, but this isn’t entirely true. I, for instance, don’t have it in for him, not at all. Indeed, I’m grateful to him for that afternoon in early 2013 when we both found shelter from the rain in the warmth of an old pub in Chelsea. We started complaining about galleries, as always (it’s artists’ favourite sport), and he came up with this idea of opening a gallery run exclusively by artists for artists. I told him that I thought it was a load of rubbish, but then, while talking about what he’d been through with Reload (2011) in Rome and recalling when, with Francesconi and others a few months earlier, I had asked him to contribute to my Manabile per giovani artisti[1] we came up with the idea of starting with artists, the raw material of art, to try — TO TRY, I said — to pull together an Italian artistic discourse that, now orphaned of critics, was struggling to take shape and take off. I told him that he would have to organise everything, as between exhibitions and Atalanta matches I simply didn’t have the time. He came up with the title, La costruzione di una cosmologiavol. 1, and the format: a series of meetings between artists of our generation and from the previous one. At the time, Artribune[2] gave us a lot of space, online, and if you Google it, you’ll find the videos of all five debates from that first experience, held at the Fondazione Morra in Naples: Giuseppe Stampone with Alfredo Pirri, me with Giuseppe Gallo, Alessandro Bulgini with Gianfranco Baruchello, Andrea Nacciarriti with Stefano Arienti and Gian Maria Tosatti with Jannis Kounellis.

All I remember of my encounter with Gallo in Naples is that after the discussion, when we were trying to go and get a pizza, I was almost run over by a moped being ridden on the wrong side of the road by two helmetless nine-year-olds, and that Gallo always got pissed off as soon as I tried to say anything and told me that “the artist is a bastard, art is a bastard and does whatever the fuck it wants”. True, after all — as Cassano would say: chapeau!

And so, given the premises, the transition from encounters to actual clashes was exceedingly short.

In the summer of that year, 2013, we tried something I had only seen done in the academy by Stefano Arienti, who in class every now and then organised the Microscopio — a direct confrontation between us students who, from time to time, showed our work, exposing it to the others’ comments. Well, we tried it too, to compare our works with each other, but without a professor to moderate us. There were five artists in conversation at the Cantiere in Ascoli Piceno: myself, Tosatti, Stampone, Bulgini and Nacciarriti. I arrived soaked in sweat — I didn’t feel like air conditioning and Ascoli is six hours from Bergamo — wearing a tank top and cropped shorts. Immediately they all took the piss out of me because, well, I seemed like some hick from deepest, darkest Bergamo. “We’re off to a good start”, I thought. Each of us had been tasked with bringing along — as well as our own ones — two or three portfolios or files concerning other artists we held in high regard. I’d chosen Alice Cattaneo, Luca Francesconi, Nico Vascellari, Gabriele Picco and Pietro Ruffo. Giamma had brought Eugenio Tibaldi and I can’t remember who else; Stampone, Marinella Senatore, Andrea Nacciarriti and, maybe, Davide Tranchina? I don’t remember much about it anymore, except that at one point we started to show our portfolios, all of us with some distrust for each other — and wow, we went at it hard, like in Paolo Genovese’s Perfetti sconosciuti.

All the works were harshly criticised — all except my own, that is, and this is something that has always amazed me. Every now and then, I think about that and tell myself that maybe I have this strange power to calm people down, to always find a compromise, a point contact between opposites. Maybe my work also has this gift, that it didn’t piss anyone off, but made for cooler tempers. The next day, we were at each other’s throats again, looking at the work of the artists that we’d chosen: only a few survived the selection and even then there were those who put up vetoes, shouted and went off slamming the door behind them. In short, thanks to all this bickering, at the end of the experience we discovered that we were all friends.[3]

You know, it’s unusual for us artists to confront each other openly: we are artists, therefore, we are — one way or another — whores massively in love with ourselves and who have a hard time accepting criticism of our work. Everyone tends, by nature, to protect his own work and criticise others’, in a game of mors tua vita mea that, as we well know, has proved lethal for Italian art today. That Ascoli residency remains in my memories as one of the highest moments of unity and friendship between artists that I have ever known. I’m sure it was also that for my companions, although some of them are no longer speaking to each other.

This first volume of Cosmologia wasfollowed by a second one, between 2013 and 2014. It was curated by Giuseppe Stampone at the American Academy and MAAM in Rome, and joined the five of us — the hard core of the initiative — and some of the artists whose portfolios had survived the bloodbath in Ascoli. The aim was to begin to develop a brief and articulate history of twenty-first-century Italian art through the shared experiences of the various pairs of artists: Stampone and Senatore, Cattaneo and I, Tosatti and Sassolino, Bulgini and Frigo, Nacciarriti and Francesconi. We were trying to widen the circle that was included, and things seemed to be working. This modus operandi had triggered a virtuous cycle, in which us artists started to talk about art again. At the time, that was something I’d only seen done in New York, where confrontation between artists and artists, artists and curators is normal and — like the city — harsh and sometimes violent.[4]

For our meeting, Alice Cattaneo and I had become very close again after many years, telling stories — including about ourselves — and discovering each other’s passions and artistic preferences and references.

For Alice, the research of Mario Airò and Amedeo Martegani had been decisively important, along with Alessandra Spranzi’s videos, Gianni Caravaggio and Francesco Gennari’s sculptures, and Stefano Arienti’s drawings. For my part, I was thinking of Kauffmann’s Cella #7; Arienti’s modelling clay and puzzles (ultimately, Arienti is a bit like a father to many of us); Caligola by Pessoli; Abbassare le montagne by Francesconi; Cingolani’s colours; Adrian Paci’s extraordinary The Column; Nico Vascellari, who threw his drums down a mountain; or Federico Pietrella, who brought the starry night to the Assab One warehouses at the turn of the millennium. That evening in Rome, we discovered — among other things — how many of the names we mentioned were from the North and little-known in Rome, and at the same time how many names of Roman artists mentioned by the audience during the discussion sounded almost new to our ears. In short, Milan stood to Rome like New York to Los Angeles: as diametrically opposed worlds. Conversely, Marinella and Giuseppe, in their meeting, had agreed on not identifying, up to that point, a clear and precise path of Italian art in the twenty-first century. Perhaps ten years later, we can begin to glimpse that emerging between the folds of participatory and performance art, between the interest in history — recent or otherwise — and a widespread practice of drawing and its thousands of possibilities, with its declensions in both private and social narratives.

I have no memory of the other meetings, given that I wasn’t present and no video was published for the occasion. But someone told me that there were more points of disagreement than common ground, and that some meetings verged on fisticuffs: after all, we all remain children of Boccioni and his fists…

Something, then, was already starting to crumble. And when, in July 2014, seven of us found ourselves in Rome for a second mini-residency, it all ended in the shit.

We all quarrelled (except me — I never lose my temper about non-serious things, i.e. all matters that don’t concern Atalanta football club). From one fuck-off and the next, the occupied Teatro Valle saw us say “goodbye” forever to building the Cosmologia thatwas really taking shape between us.

I will copy from the website “The construction of a cosmology is the refounding of a coherent idea of Italian art that wants to replace the analogy of a cosmos made of individual stars with the image of a readable cosmology in which the current identity of a country and its culture are written[5]”. There, perhaps this concept was too much. Too much for stars light-years apart, who surely did receive light from each other, but in a time that was always out of step and dimmed rather. Protagonism, the fear of being criticised, of being seen as a kind of sect or of appearing too close to others, dislikes, foibles, bad smells under the nose, many, too many commitments. These and others were the reasons for the end of that experience, which Tosatti and I then tried to continue immediately afterwards with The Brooklyn Circle in which, periodically, with Davide Balliano and Ian Tweedy, we would meet in each other’s studios to talk about our work. But, as we know, in New York nothing stands still, everything is always running, everything changes, and even that habit didn’t last for long, although it did eventually strengthen our friendship.

Friendship, indeed. In a recent interview for Radio Ca’ Foscari, I was asked what had given rise to The Drawing Hall, the project that Marco Marcassoli, Walter Carrera and I dedicated to Italian drawing in 2021. “From the friendship between the three of us (Marco, Walter and I) and the friendship between us artists”, I replied. Artists of national and international renown who agreed, out of friendship and mutual trust, to get stuck in and come to exhibit in a barn in Grassobbio, on the periphery of Bergamo.

The lesson of Cosmologia has not been lost. Those meetings/clashes taught many of us that unity truly does make us strong, even in the Land of a Thousand Town Halls.  Slowly, amidst all the usual difficulties of always being out in the world, of endless projects, of money that is never enough, I find that at root there is great mutual respect for each other’s work.

Today, The Drawing Hallis home to the drawing projects of many of the artists whom we initially involved in Cosmologia. They will easily understand the authentic nature of this initiative, exclusively aimed at rediscovering a practice shared by all but in Italy inexplicably relegated to a second-class stage. Today, Tosatti, with “his” Quadriennale, is trying to pick up the thread of the discourse that was dropped during that hot summer nine years ago — extending it, among other things, to the younger generations of artists, of whom I admit to knowing almost nothing, even while recognising that dialogue between artists of different ages is fundamental for the vitality of art itself.

To conclude, then, I can only quote lesson 24 from the famous article “How to Be An Artist”[6] by Jerry Saltz, who always showers me with insults (!) when he meets me here in New York: “Stay up late every night with other artists around your age. Show up. Go to openings, events, parties, wherever there are more than two of your kind. Artists must commune with their own kind all the time. There are no exceptions to this rule, even if you live “out in the woods”. Preferably commune in person, but online is more than fine. It doesn’t matter where you live: big city, small city, little town. You will fight and love together; you will develop new languages together and give each other comfort, conversation, and the strength to carry on. This is how you will change the world — and your art. To protect yourselves, form small gangs. Protect one another no matter what; this gang will allow all of you to go out into and take over parts of the world. Argue, sleep with, love, hate, get sick of your fellow gang members. Whatever happens, you need one another — for now. Protect the weakest artist in your gang, because there are people in the gang who think you’re the weak one”.

[1] Manabile per giovani artisti, edited by C. Benigni and A. Mastrovito, Libri Aparte, 2013.
[2] (February 14, 2023).
[3] On that occasion I got to know, in addition to Bulgini and Nacciarriti, a very kind woman with a curious blue tuft of hair, Adele Cappelli. Literally lovable, a woman of great generosity and intellectual honesty, this very dear friend sadly left us in 2021. I still have the sweetest memories of her.
[4] I was in New York in January 2008 thanks to the New York Prize. Silvia Vendramel and I were invited one night by a student in the Master of Fine Arts programme to attend a evening meeting between young artists and curators. We arrived at this half-abandoned building under an overpass on 116th Street, and headed to the basement where, to our surprise, we found a large crowd of young people — led by the young man who had invited us, who was none other than Leigh Ledare, now a renowned artist — listening attentively to the lecture of a half-bald curator in his forties. Once the slideshow was over, the young artists began in unison to attack the curator with questions about what he had just shown, putting him in obvious difficulty. After the umpteenth sharply pitched question that he could neither answer nor explain, the guy walked away crying. Mamma mia!
[5] (February 14, 2023).
[6] J. Saltz, How To Be An Artist Lesson 24, «Vulture Magazine», 27 November 2018 (February 14, 2023).