A Review of Margherita Stein: Rebel With a Cause at Magazzino Italian Art, Cold Spring, New York.
“What is happening? Banality is entering the arena of art. The insignificant is coming into being or, rather, it is beginning to impose itself. Physical presence and behavior have themselves become art. . . . We are living in a period of deculturation. Iconographic conventions are collapsing, symbolic and conventional languages crumbling.”
So wrote Germano Celant in 1967 in his post-exhibition manifesto, Arte Povera: Notes for a Guerilla War. Celant, now the Artistic Director of the Fondazione Prada in (Milan), linked the Italian neo-avant-gardes conceptually, rather than with or to any formal or stylistic bases. Celant saw the artists common desire to destroy "the dichotomy between art and life" with process-oriented practices.
The Italian art that emerged and matured in the 1960s was humble, initially made from pre-industrial, everyday materials. It was art made in stark contrast to American-led Minimalism and Pop Art, both of which were viewed with disdain, even contempt. Both art-making activities – genres, perhaps – were thought to epitomize Post-War consumer culture. In fact, there was considerable controversy when Robert Rauschenberg won the Golden Lion at the 1964 Venice Biennale.
Celant organized a number of group shows under the title Arte Povera beginning in 1967 at Galleria La Bertesca in Genoa. This venue was a logical choice. Michelangelo Pistoletto, an Arte Povera artist, had exhibited here in 1966. In the same year, Margherita (“Christian”) Stein launched a gallery in Turin, where she pioneered the careers many of the Arte Povera artists who lived there, like Pistoletto. The gallery, which did double duty as an apartment, morphed into a meeting place for artists, where art and culture were debated. “Works were exhibited in the hall, the drawing room, the billiard room and site-specific pieces were made for certain places like the bathroom, the kitchen or the corridors.” There was no dichotomy between art and life.
“Margherita Stein: Rebel With a Cause” is the inaugural exhibition at Magazzino Italian Art, a new venue in the Hudson Valley devoted to Post-War and contemporary Italian art. The exhibition is a “tribute” to Stein’s commitment as a gallerist and as an unusually focused collector of Arte Povera and the contemporary artists who followed. Stein’s combined role of gallery-owner as collector, enabled her to acquire works about which she was passionate from artists who were her friends. She chose the crème de la crème.
Magazzino, a private venue 20 minutes south of Dia:Beacon, was created by Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu to house their personal collection. More than 85 percent of the works in their collection had been personally owned by Stein; their homage to Stein makes sense. As Spanu opined, “Like us, she lived physically with these works, she took care of them. So we started studying this person, and realized this was a fascinating woman who had so much courage in the 1960s to start this gallery out of her own house.” The importance of Stein’s singular vision cannot be overstated. Likewise, the distinctive concentration of Olnick and Spanu is refreshing. Few private collections that have opened have the both the rigor and substance as Magazzino. It is apt that Magazzino offers both a contrast and complement to Dia:Beacon’s Minimalist collections.
The selection of works at Magazzino presents a cohesive, clear overview of Arte Povera and its Italian contemporary art descendants. It spans five decades of art making. Each gallery offers uncluttered breathing room to encounter, to see the work. The first gallery offers Alighiero Boetti, Luciano Fabro, and Michelangelo Pistoletto in resonance. A later gallery, maybe the most compelling, presents an arresting arrangement of Alighiero Boetti, Giuseppe Penone, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Giulio Paolini, and Mario Merz. The venues final gallery presents works by Domenico Bianchi, Marco Bagnoli, Remo Salvadori, artists who have helped define Italian contemporary. The overall experience is enough to induce the Stendhal syndrome.
Architecturally, Magazzino has been defined as “rationalist.” It is partially a reclaimed warehouse with an extension by Miguel Quismondo, a Spanish architect. The overarching consideration, according to Spanu was that “the new space had one protagonist: The art. [The building] had to be a container that could explain its content.” It succeeds. The art, the building, and the siting are collaborators.
The exhibition and venue are antidotes to the disorganization and banality of art fairs and the overpopulated, over-weight biennales. In this new “period of deculturation,” aided and abetted by social media and short-term memory loss, Magazzino reminds us of the value of art as art. Stein would be pleased with the compassion for and care of her gallerist-collector legacy.
Written by Clayton Press, a contributor to Arteviste.com