Re-contextualizing the Art Fair: Part Three

Installation view of the Desposito d'Arte Present, 1967-68. Photo Paolo Bressano. Courtesy Archivio Pistoletto, Biella.

The Exhibitionist is partnering with the Artissima art fair for the 2017 iteration of Artissima Live, which invites international publications to be in residence during the course of the fair, to publish about the art, programs, and events taking place over the course of four days in the city of Turin, Italy. Alongside the editors of ATP Diary (Milan), Artdependence Magazine (Antwerp), Aujourd’hui Magazine (Lisbon), Fruit of the Forest (Milan and Miami), and Kabul Magazine (Milan), The Exhibitionist will publishing columns, essays, and interviews highlighting the work of curators, artists, and others involved in Artissima 2017. As a journal focused on curatorial practice and the history of exhibitions, The Exhibitionist will aim to examine various forms of curatorial labor visible at the fair, consider the historical contexts that the fair itself aims to reconsider, and think about the art fair as a particular form of exhibition.

Here, curator and art historian Vittoria Martini elaborates on the
Deposito d’Arte Italiano Presente, a curated section conceived for Artissima 2017. Organized by Martini and Ilaria Bonacossa, Artissima’s Director, Deposito d’Arte Italiano Presente reconsiders the history of Italian art since 1994, the year in which Artissima was founded. Through works by 124 artists made in the past twenty-three years, Deposito d’Arte Italiano Presente offers an object-based archive of contemporary Italian art. Through a series of four texts published over the course of the fair’s four days, Martini will explore the art historical context of Turin, the legacy and influence of Arte Povera on the Italian scene, and Artissima’s role as a catalyst within contemporary Italian art since the 1990s.

The Deposito d’Arte Presente (1967-68)

In 1966, Michelangelo Pistoletto had opened his studio, which he described as a “free space,” in the basement of a historical building located on via Genova in Turin. At the same time, Piero Gilardi told his friends and colleagues—including Pistoletto, Aldo Mondino, Mario Merz, Gilberto Zorio, Alighiero Boetti and Giovanni Anselmo—about the artist-run spaces he had visited in New York. The group met frequently, and Gilardi described it as a community in which everyone was searching for a “primary energy,” a new understanding of subjectivity that allowed each individual to maintain their own identities, while overcoming differences through dialogue. They aimed to give shape to an “autonomous space,” an “artist community” that could “run itself independent of the market” in a constant relationship with others and with the environment itself; an artist cooperative that could be “a place for meeting and discussing works” primarily among the artists of the Turin group.11. Piero Gilardi, interview with the author. Turin, September 2017. This idea would materialize into the Deposito d’Arte Presente.

A brief aside might be helpful here. This story, like so many others of the period, and like all those related to Arte Povera, is difficult to understand clearly. The story of the Deposito d’Arte Presente, which was in existence for a little more than a year, immediately became legend—a collective tale, to be sure, but one that is remembered differently by each of its protagonists. Access to all the individual artist’s archives would be necessary in order to compare all these different versions, but today only one published source exists: a text on Marcello Levi, which clearly shapes the narrative from his particular point of view.22. Francesco Manacorda, Robert Lumley, Marcello Levi. Ritratto di un collezionista. Dal Futurismo all’Arte Povera (Torino: Hopefulmonster, 2005). There are, of course, articles and writings from that time, but the narrative is generally based on interviews with the individual artists and others involved in the show. We have collected the versions of Sperone, Zorio and Gilardi, which do not exactly match one another. I will therefore try to relate the history of Deposito d’Arte Presente leaving aside anecdotal accounts, in order to arrive at the exhibition’s central themes.

A group of Turin artists—Pistoletto, Gilardi, and Zorio in particular—worked in close interaction with one another and felt the need for a space that was not a traditional gallery, but an open, living space in which their works could be experienced “by a wider circle of people, and through an overall view that allowed for immediate comparison.”33. Letter from Gian Enzo Sperone to Ilaria Bonacossa, June 25, 2017. New spaces, “theaters outside theaters,” art outside galleries. Sperone, then a young gallery owner actively involved in the debate, proposed to substitute “the gallery as shop with a big theater—brutal, unadorned,” in which to present this groundbreaking new work, the subversive art of the poveristi.44. Ibid.

Sperone decided that his “prime objective was to take Ileana Sonnabend and Leo Castelli back to Turin and strengthen his relationship with them, with the aim of creating a permanent place for Arte Povera in Paris and then in New York.”55. Ibid. He wanted a space that could be both a center for production and exhibition, as well a hub for the emerging market, attracting gallery owners and, importantly, a new generation of collectors. Working with the artists and assisted by Marcello Levi (an entrepreneur and collector who was interested in supporting the project), Sperone chose a former garage in a bourgeois area of Turin. But they needed to raise funds to renovate the building and pay the rent before they were able to make it available to artists. An association was founded and its members were required to pay a monthly fee. The members included some of the upper class of Turin, an entrepreneurial and professional elite, many of whom were already collectors, and others, like Christian Stein, owned galleries themselves. 

Installation view of the Desposito d'Arte Present, 1967-68. Photo Paolo Bressano. Courtesy Archivio Pistoletto, Biella.

The space went down in history thanks to the photographs of a group exhibition that opened in June 1968, which gives us a clear picture of how the project tried to make the public adjust to this change in perspective. The work of art was no longer a single object to be admired, but was presented as something raw, without the formality or the aura usually attached to objects shown in traditional institutional contexts. The spectators were placed right in the middle of the art-making process: they found themselves physically in touch with “living” art, works in progress, surrounded by the smell of rubber, hot wax, and acid.

No significant solo exhibitions or events were held at the Deposito, apart from Pistoletto’s Zoo show, Play, and the premiere of Pasolini’s Orgia, which included a stage structure designedby Mario Ceroliand music by Ennio Morricone. But the Deposito established a paradigm in the way it operated. Everybody knew of this radical space. Ileana Sonnabend and Leo Castelli visited; and Swiss curator Harald Szeemann learned about the Deposito from Gilardi, who at the time was advising Szeemann on the show he was organizing forthe Kunsthalle Bern. And it was Gilardi who advised Szeemann to turn his exhibition into “a workshop and a locus of discussion.”66. Bruce Altshuler, Biennials and Beyond. Exhibitions that Made Art History 1962-2002, (London: Phaidon 2013), 95. Following this poverista approach to display, Live in your head:When attitudes become form opened in March of1969at the Kunsthalle Bern, the building transformed by the artists into a working studio, a space of both production and exhibition. Szeemann’s exhibition also included many of the Italian artists involved in Arte Povera: Anselmo, Boetti, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Jannis Kounellis, Merz, Pino Pascali, Pistoletto, Emilio Prini and Zorio. Later, in the summer of 1968, Germano Celant curated a two day exhibition/event in Amalfi, where he would also employ this mode of display, creating a space that served as both a workshop and a forum for debate.

The utopian idea of the artist-run space soon drowned in the swamp of ideology. The Deposito d’Arte Presente was born in a period marked by strong social and political tensions, grounded in a gloomy Turin in the days immediately preceding the rise of the great student and worker’s movements of 1968. Moving away from the Deposito, Sperone opened his new Turin exhibition space in an industrial environment; and in 1968 Leo Castelli opened his warehouse, and asked Robert Morris to curate a show there, inviting Zorio and Anselmo. Fabio Sargentini had already moved his gallery to a garage in Rome. The energy that had built the Deposito had accumulated quickly, and just as quickly dissipated. But despite the rapid change, Turin had left an indelible mark.

Vittoria Martini is a curator, art historian, and writer based in Turin, Italy.

This text was translated from Italian by Elisabetta Zoni.