Are we to believe the ancient Romans who declared that all roads lead to Rome? Or Edward Gibbon, who, in 1787, lamented the decline and fall of the Roman empire? Or F. T. Marinetti who, in 1909, managed to commandeer the front page of a major Parisian newspaper, Le Figaro, for his “Futurist Manifesto,” in which he ranted:
It is in Italy that we hurl this overthrowing and inflammatory Declaration…for we will free Italy from her numberless museums which cover her with countless cemeteries.
Museums, cemeteries ???
Ever since Marinetti announced his extreme disaffection with Italy as a museum of past splendors, young Italians have been chafing in much the same way. Now Rome, discovering that all roads—at least in modern art—do not lead to Rome, has put in her bid to be a center for modern art, like other cities in the United States and Europe, with its very own chic museums and “art world.”
With a fanfare rivaling Marinetti, Rome recently inaugurated what one journalist called “a grand happening” (using the American word “happening” somewhat loosely.) Celebrating the opening of MAXXI, Rome’s new institution to be devoted only to “contemporary” art, journalists in most Italian newspapers were rather awed. The architect of MAXXI, whom several called an “archistar,” is Zaha Hadid, who gave us a preview in Central Park of her versatility with temporariness. One of Italy’s most respected newspapers, La Repubblica, offered the headline for its review of MAXXI, “Voyage in the astronaut museum too beautiful to serve artists.” I don’t know about its being too “beautiful,” but I do know that it certainly doesn’t serve visitors who can never know exactly where they are, or where to find specific works of art. With all the dipping, tilting, and asymmetrical ramps, Hadid seems to want to outsmart Piranesi. This sense that there is no “there” there (forgive me Gertude Stein) inevitably affects how one sees the works, mostly installations. For instance, if perchance you want to revisit something you saw in passing, you may very well be stranded in a labyrinthine junction, from which no minotaur will extract you. Whither? Forget about it, just trudge on with flapping hopes.
It may very well be that there were highly worthy displays that Hadid’s ego successfully obscured. Obviously a lot of time and money went into each presentation (and as always in the history of art, dubious sources and compromising associations were unavoidable) and these resources enabled artists to work on a grand scale, not always to their advantage. The American tic—bigger is better—has journeyed everywhere. Not for nothing is the museum called “maxi.” I’m sure these installation artists had, as we used to say, something to say, but their luxurious extravagance overwhelmed their message. Except in one case: as always, Alfredo Jaar managed to address the viewer with immense dignity, even power, in his permanent homage to one of Italy’s great modern thinkers, Antonio Gramsci. Although it is almost certain that Rome’s new instant art world is quite oblivious to the significance of Gramsci, whose ideas were powerful enough to cause Mussolini to salt him away in prison, Jaar is determined to keep him among us.
Recently Italy’s present leader made a gaffe: he alluded to Mussolini. Whoever doubted that Berlusconi’s idol is Mussolini, though until recently he never dared reveal it? The fascist model, if you are of a skeptical turn of mind, has always had allure for Italians weary of clownish legislators and petty squabbles on the left. And he did make the trains run on time, after all. Wandering happily in the streets of Rome, I couldn’t help noticing the herds of tourists (and not just Japanese) tramping meekly after guides who flourished their little flags. So well organized! Nor did I fail to notice the orderly lines outside each monument and museum, and the elaborate measures one had to take to get tickets (if you didn’t know somebody, which luckily I did). The very idea of “order,” so endemic to the Fascist viewpoint, was once again at work, with all its bureaucratic bluster and inevitable blunders.
But if undertones and historic memory haunted my rambles through present-day Rome, I found a blessed respite in the Borghese gardens, with their magnificent pines—the umbrella trees I always loved—and splendid fountains. There, in the modest museum building once the orangerie of the Villa Borghese and now the Museo Carlo Bilotti, Peter Benson Miller has installed a remarkable exhibition of the great Rome lover, Philip Guston. His love affair with Rome lasted almost all his life. As an adolescent he immersed himself in Italian imagery gleaned from books, and from the beginning of his career as a painter, The Painter, the Italians hovered in his imagination. Aside from de Chirico, who himself was wedded to ancient associations, there was Piero, about whom Guston wrote a magnificent essay. But unquestionably it was the Rome of the ancients to which this complicated artist responded to. When it came time to recall his first encounters with the old story in stones, Guston focused on the eternal city with his now loving, now acerbic eye (that eye also commemorated in various paintings) and offered up a huge oeuvre of paintings on paper. Miller has gathered together so many of them that a viewer can easily feel the furor that gripped the artist when, in 1970, he spent nine months in Europe, but made Rome his spiritual center. Although he had won the Prix de Rome in 1948 and headed straight to Italy, Guston returned in 1960 and 1970, when this group of Roman motifs was painted.
Oh, how deceptive they are!
They gather up a lifetime of observations, condense them, satirize them, reach for elisions in time—which is to say, history—and, while he is about it, the artist proposes radical innovations in purely painterly terms. By that I mean that Guston had a fertile visual imagination, always pushing him to gather and group forms in challenging compositions. For example, nobody had yet explored the spatial implications of propinquity. Guston had been probing that question for decades. Even in his early elegant abstractions of the 1950s, he had shown forms like barnacles clinging to other forms. He had suggested recession by almost invisible adjustments to these conjoined shapes in ways that no one had ever explored before. And, as his commentators so often forget, he did it with paint. Paint, the very matter of the matter.
A propos, or so I hope, the poet Clark Coolidge will soon publish a wonderful anthology of Guston’s thoughts in lectures and writings (University of California Press). The very last entry, as I wrote in the foreword for the anthology, is an undisguised testament to his all-consuming love of painting: “Thank God for yellow ochre, cadmium red medium and permanent green light.” That being said, we can attend to the motifs Guston reiterated in the works of around 1970. First of all, there is that ubiquitous foot. I have no doubt that it is the foot of a colossus that is still displayed prominently for tourists in Rome. Then there are the castellated hill towns presented by Guston as somewhat decrepit. There are also caricatures of the numerous relics and the tablets with inscriptions all over the place. And of course, there are those versatile bricks that have always featured in Guston’s paintings. And brickbats. The thin, beautifully-laid bricks of the ruined houses in Ostia Antica and Cerveteri appear again and again, often suggesting the coloration of Siena, one of Guston’s favorite places, not the least because of Signorelli’s terrifying visions of damnation. Rome is still full of very old cobblestones that Guston mentions in his Rome paintings, although the administration seems bent on asphalting them over. Finally, those with an iconographical inclination will be able to read in these Rome paintings amalgams of his old motifs ranging from Ku Kluxers to inquisitioners to ordinary hoods from the hood. In short, as always, there is more to Guston than that which meets the eye.