Vista & Intervista




    The viewpoint of a shipping broker and a potato farmer are inevitably separated by a great distance. But what happens when the shipper finds himself confronted by the practical logistics of transporting from one place to another a large cargo of potatoes in the dead of winter? In the case of Napoleon Bonaparte, this question arose circa 1805 regarding a few hundred wagons loaded with these nourishing pommes de terre, sent off to somewhere in Poland. Bonaparte had a great many things on his mind in those days, but he took the time to dash off a note in this regard to his brother, then Regent of Poland. The Emperor's epistle is to be found in a delightful volume entitled Napoleon racconté par soi même. His brother's response has been lost.

After so many interviews with all kinds of artists, do you think there is a common denominator among them?

     The great thing about having a dialogue or conversation with an artist in the studio or just shooting the breeze over a beer in some bar, is that the animal himself when you meet him in real life is so different from the way they make them look in the history book, the museum brochure or in a movie. So I guess my answer to the question would be that the common denominator is often bewilderment.

On your part, or on the part of the artist?

     On the part of the artist. They are trying to figure out what they've done by having somebody else look at it. Like visiting a rehearsal. What I mean is, when you go into the studio of any artist the things you see represent what he is working on at that very moment, things he himself is trying to understand before the curators, the critics and the collectors start bombarding him with all sorts of questions once it arrives on the gallery walls. Artists and pirates never apologize. Warhol was a great master of non-explanation. But behind the artist's bewilderment there is also this feeling of excitement, even the adrenaline that comes from fatigue, like going around the corner of a house and running into a bunch of kids who have been playing Cowboy and Indian in the backyard all afternoon. Have lunch with a painter, and they are always looking over the shoulder: your shoulder, not their own. They're gazing off into the space at some picture plane or some shadow on the wall that only they can see.

When you go to an artist's studio do you have a preconceived idea of what to expect in case you know already the work?

     Puccini had absolutely no expectations when he first heard Mario Caruso sing "O, Sole Mio..." What he said afterwards was, Who sent you to me: God? The great art dealer Leo Castelli famously experienced this epiphany the first time he walked into the studio of Jasper Johns. I follow the artists the way a sports reporter specialized in horse racing follows the ponies. It means following not only the breeders, the trainers, the stable hands, but especially the jockeys. When it comes to artists whose work I already admire but have never met personally, I've never been disappointed when I finally did.

Crossovers in art is something that you have often written about, particularly between painter-poet.

     Maybe in the garden of the Muses the grass is always greener on the other side of the wall. At this very moment, one of the most famous photographers in the world is still dreaming of being recognized for his guitar playing. Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, and just about every other actor or singer you would care to mention are all avid amateur painters. The amateur remains a very neglected category, particularly today. What I like about the amateur is his shyness, his timid highly reverent approach to the altar of whatever art he practices in his spare time. Man Ray, who himself was a strange example of the gifted amateur in practically everything he did, once said that a certain brutality was essential in the process of transforming art materials into art works. Think of Art Brut. Several architects have crossed the line from functionality to uselessness, and by uselessness I mean the making of objets d'art. The great Austrian architect Frederick Kiesler who created Peggy Guggenheim's gallery Art of this Century in New York was an equally gifted sculptor. Another mythic art dealer, Betty Parsons, commissioned the young American architect Tony Smith to design her gallery space on Fifty Seventh Street, without knowing that he would soon turn out to be the father of minimalist sculpture. Two examples of the interchangeability between architecture and art were themselves born in Switzerland: Le Corbusier and Max Bill. And let's not forget that the great Swiss writer Max Frisch first dedicated himself to the drawingboard, with the ambition to become an architect. The same is true of Thomas Hardy in England. A artist once asked somebody to explain the meaning of idiot savant. It's the difference between poetry and prose.

And yet we live in a world that increasingly demands a high degree of specialization.

     Yes, and this is exactly why the artist is the last Mohican still on his feet in our society. Any caveman worth his salt had to be a jack of all trades simply in order to survive. Even now the farmer and his wife are both able to successfully manage a hundred practical arts throughout the four seasons of the year. I'd like to see the computer programmer who can shoe a horse, shingle a barn, distill bootleg whiskey, or the photo model who can raise chickens, pickle onions, or make home-made soap from scratch.

Many today who write about the visual arts appear to spend more time reading post-modernist theory, translated from French, instead of looking at works of art.

     Maybe they're right not to bother. Art has been reduced by theory-driven ideology to the point that there isn't much left to look at. I feel sorry for young vulnerable artists who for decades have been intimidated to the point of paralysis by kowtowing to a bunch of bluffeurs. At least Cagliostro was an amusing charlatan. An editor, who enjoyed a certain international prestige a few years ago, once asked me to contribute something to a special issue of his magazine. The theme was The Sublime. We were at Bar Giamaica in Milan, so I wrote on a paper napkin, "Sublime, good name for an ice cream sundae." For some reason it didn't make it into the special edition.

How do you view technology in the arts?

     I have always hated science fiction. Journalists asked Albert Einstein what was the future of warfare. He answered, In the future men will hit each other with sticks and stones. We live in an age of alarming Technolatry. The damage being done to the human spirit by technolgy is incalculable. This worship of cybernetic advances, for the most part useless, reminds me of the pharmaceutical companies who concoct a new pill for the mind, and then invent the mental disease it will cure. When the computer goes on, the mind turns off. People never got excited about their typewriter, the way they do about a new computer program. The artist Jannis Kounellis stresses that the artist practices the most ancient of human activities. No art today benefits from access to any medium that was not already available to prehistoric man.

Then what is the role of the artist in today's society?
     The job of the poet is to cultivate his virtù, in the sense by which Dante understood the word. One small step toward dasein might be knowing which way is North. The most important role the artist can play in today's society is to set an example by enjoying himself. The impact of the artist in the neighborhood where he lives is more important than any effect he could have on the "Global Village." Dante and Shakespeare lived in the World, not on the "Planet." I regret having to say it, but Jennifer's new video is not going to save the Earth.

You appreciate a wide spectrum of artists, from Neo-Expressionists to Post-Minimalists, from de Kooning to Koons.

     I was born in the month of October, under the sign of Libra. Maybe that's why I like things in art that are usually considered irreconcilable. Poets are great students of coincidence. I enjoy a good surprise once in a while. Even the unpleasant ones can grab your attention. Visual rhethoric comes in many forms.  

How can you tell the difference between what is authentically enigmatic and what is no more than an accumulation of pretentious eccentricities?

     This was the rare gift of Ileana Sonnabend, whose dictum could be roughly paraphrased as: Collect what you don't like for the right reasons.

But what about Napoleon and his potatoes?

     One evening Jean Cocteau came home to his apartment at the Palais Royale in Paris, that most perfect of places built by the hand of man, and found Marcel Proust sitting with his hat and walkingstick on a small bench outside his door. "Why didn't you ask the maid to let you in," asked Cocteau. Proust answered: "Napoleon had a man shot for waiting inside his tent."

What was it that struck you the first time you saw Sandro Zendralli's paintings?

     The authenticity of his expression. His work possesses a sincerity, an inevitability, all its own, a geistliche herausforderung, a challenge to our perceptions. Or I could use a simpler term:






The Creative Impulse, Alan Jones, Electa 2014.

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