Germano Celant, a curator and critic who worked tirelessly to shape the history of Italian contemporary art, has died at 80. La Reppublica, a prominent Italian publication, reported that he died of coronavirus-related causes.
A series of important surveys devoted to Italian art have cemented Celant’s reputation as one of the most important curators of the past century. But his passion for cutting-edge art in his home country caused some to eye him with suspicion—in choosing to pay less attention to American art during the 1960s, when the United States was considered to be world’s new art center, Celant was presumed by some to have been misguided in his endeavors. “I have often been accused in Europe of being pro-American and in the United States of being pro-European,” he once said.
Celant’s early interest in Italian art helped birth an avant-garde movement during the 1960s known as Arte Povera. In a famed essay for Flash Art called “Arte Povera: Notes on a Guerrilla War,” published in 1967, Celant focused on Italian artists new tendency toward using organic, “low” materials in their work. With their ramshackle, lo-fi constructions, often made to look as though they were created by someone who lacked artistic skill, these artists had set out to create art that existed in opposition to bourgeois mediums such as painting and sculpture, Celant suggested. The movement’s title translated to “Poor Art,” which Celant said was a riposte to “rich art.”
“No longer among the ranks of the exploited, the artist becomes a guerrilla fighter, capable of choosing his places of battle and with the advantages conferred by mobility, surprising and striking, rather than the other way around,” Celant said, underlining a revolutionary context to Arte Povera that has occasionally been lost in institutions outside Italy. (Many scholars now agree that the movement was in a way a response to Italy’s devastation during World War II, though Celant did not originally make that argument.)
Much of Arte Povera’s strange interventions—staged in Turin and Rome, primarily—often did not look like art. There was Jannis Kounellis, who famously placed 12 horses in a gallery and called that an installation. There was Michelangelo Pistoletto, who, before creating a series of mirrored sculptures, made the “Minus Objects,” which included a blown-up photograph of Jasper Johns and a cardboard construction. There was Pino Pascali, whose sculptures relied on fabrics, cement, and pieces of wood. Other important members of the movement—which was initially considered to be male-dominated—included Alighiero e Boetti, Mario Merz, Giovanni Anselmo, and Giulio Paolini.
Arte Povera is now considered a movement that altered the course of Italian art history, and Celant, who also curated the first Arte Povera show (“Im Spazio” at Galleria La Bertesca in Genoa in 1967), is widely credited with having identified it.
The radicalism of “Notes on a Guerrilla War” continued to pervade Celant’s curatorial work throughout his career, which went on to involve staging blockbuster exhibitions at the world’s top museums and offering boundary-pushing presentations at biennials of international importance. A grandiosity coursed through it all, too, and Celant is sometimes considered one of the first curator-as-impresario types.
If Celant was once considered a defender of art that existed outside, and in opposition to, the market—“To exist from outside the system amounts to revolution,” he once wrote—he was accused of having sold out by the end of his career. When he served as artistic director of the 1997 Venice Biennale in Italy, New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote that the main exhibition was overly filled with marquee names that were popular in the commercial sphere. “Walking through it,” she wrote, “one can almost hear the sound of chips being cashed in.” And, as artistic director for the Fondazione Prada in Milan, Celant staged shows of various blue-chip artists. In 2019 alone, he curated two surveys for KAWS, an artist whose prices at auction are rapidly rising.
Germano Celant was born in 1940 in Genoa. Having attended the University of Genoa, he became an editor at the now-defunct journal Marcatrè, which was related to Group 63, an Italian literary movement, and published texts with radical leftist sensibilities.
After making Arte Povera famous, Celant continued to invest himself in showcasing work that pushed against expectations for how art might look. At the 1976 Venice Biennale, for example, he created a presentation of what he called “ambient” art, or what would now be called environmental art—installations that take up significant amounts of space. Included were contemporary artists that one might expect to appear in the show, such as Dan Graham, Mario Merz, and Bruce Nauman, but alongside them were works by their modernist forerunners. An El Lissitzky “Proun” room from the 1920s, in which abstractions expanded into the third dimension, was shown alongside a then-recent Joseph Beuys installation that featured a room filled with blackboards.
In keeping with this interest in boundary-pushing art, Celant also served as the editor of a catalogue raisonné for Piero Manzoni, an Italian artist who died at just 29 but is nonetheless essential in his role in helping push art toward what would ultimately be called Conceptualism, a movement that placed an emphasis on ideas over aesthetics. Among Manzoni’s most famous projects is Artist’s Shit, which involved the selling of cans that allegedly contained Manzoni’s feces at prices tied to the value of gold. In 2009, decades after that catalogue raisonné was originally published, Celant would go on to curate a retrospective of Manzoni’s art at Gagosian gallery in New York.
After working independently for years, Celant was named senior curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1988, where he curated an important Mario Merz retrospective the following year. And then, in 1993, he became artistic director of the Fondazione Prada, which further cemented his reputation.
“We are deeply saddened for the loss of a friend and travelling companion. Germano Celant was one of the central figures in the learning and research process that art has represented for us since the early times of the foundation,” Patrizio Bertelli and Miuccia Prada, the presidents of the Fondazione Prada, said in a statement. “The many experiences and intense exchanges we have shared with him over the years have helped us rethink the meaning of culture in our present. Intellectual curiosity, respect for the work of artists, the seriousness of his curatorial practice are lessons that we consider essential for us and the younger generations.”
Celant’s Fondazione Prada exhibition program has earned major international attention, and it offered an odd balance that showed off his late-career love of commercial art and his deep knowledge of Italian art history in equal measure. He curated solo shows there for some of today’s biggest names, including Steve McQueen, Sam Taylor-Wood, and Anish Kapoor, while also managing to do exhibitions that have pushed art history in new directions, with important surveys of Italian modernism and the influence of sound on art of the past few centuries. One of his most notable endeavors in that latter category was 2018’s “Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943,” which assembled 600 works and 800 documents in an attempt to show how Italian politics influenced art, from Futurism onward.
Yet all this did not mean that Celant’s curatorial program for the Fondazione Prada was without its weirdness. In 2013, he restaged the exhibition “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form,” which is considered a landmark show within the history of Conceptual art. First staged in Bern, Switzerland, in 1969 by Harald Szeemann, Celant transplanted work by Bruce Nauman, Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, and many more to an entirely different setting. When the original works that appeared in Szeemann’s show couldn’t be obtained, outlines of the pieces appeared in their place. “What a brilliant and telling show this is, not in bringing together key works of the period, in all their worn and dowdy everyday magnificence, but in acting as a reminder of how things have changed,” Adrian Searle wrote in the Guardian.
Such a baroque tendency could also be found in Celant’s 1997 Venice Biennale, which he assembled over the course of a five-month period—an unusually short one for a curator working on the world’s most preeminent art exhibition. The show was slammed—“It’s like walking through an art fair,” curator Dan Cameron quipped in an Artforum review—but it included works that are now considered notable, including mirrored sculptures by Jeff Koons and an installation by Marina Abramović that meditated on Balkan rituals, as well as pieces by Ed Ruscha, Michael Heizer, Rebecca Horn, Mariko Mori, Robert Longo, and others.
Celant continued working up until the very end. He recently published a catalogue raisonné for Mimmo Rotella, an artist known for creating works constructed from torn advertisements in a style known as décollagisme, and he said in a 2017 podcast by Art Agency, Partners that he was at work on a show about dance. On that podcast, he said that he often felt encouraged by something once said to him by artist Luciano Fabro—all art is best judged 30 years after its making. He disagreed vehemently with that. “I’m not waiting 30 years,” he said. “I don’t have this kind of time.”