It is difficult to even begin summing up curator Germano Celant’s lengthy career, which was cut short this week after he died at 80 of coronavirus-related causes. Having helped define the Arte Povera movement during the 1960s in Italy, Celant would go on to stage numerous exhibitions throughout his career from organizing the main exhibition at the Venice Biennale to shows that furthered many historians’ understanding of Italian art history. Below, a look at five of Celant’s most important exhibitions.
“Arte Povera: Im Spazio” (1967)
Galleria La Bertesca, Genoa, Italy
This group show was the one that started it all for Arte Povera, a movement that Celant made famous with a Flash Art essay. According to Celant, Arte Povera was a style founded largely upon conceptual inclinations rather than aesthetic ones—its promulgators made use of organic and industrial materials that were intended as “poor” ones, as opposed to the “rich” ones associated with traditional painting and sculpture. The title of “Im Spazio” (“The Space of Thoughts”) referred to these lofty ideas, and it included key pieces by Pino Pascali, Alighiero e Boetti, and Luciano Fabro. Among the works was Jannis Kounellis’s Untitled (Coal Bin), from 1967, which was exactly what it sounded like—a bin filled with unsightly lumps of coal.
“Ambient Art from Futurism to Body Art” (1976)
Various venues, Venice, Italy
Before installation art became popular, Celant termed such works occupying large amounts of space “ambient” works. For this exhibition staged as part of the 1976 Venice Biennale, Celant surveyed large-scale installations by artists over the years, placing new pieces alongside those by modernist forerunners such as Wassily Kandinsky, Kurt Schwitters, and El Lissitzky. The show’s most widely celebrated offering was Maria Nordman’s Venezia (1975), an installation that simply appeared to be a white room with a slit in it; because of the way the light poured in, it seemed as though the space was filled with mist when, in fact, there was none.
1997 Venice Biennale (1997)
Various venues, Venice, Italy
Celant scraped together his Venice Biennale main exhibition, titled “Future, Present, Past,” in just a five-month-long period. (By contrast, most people who have served as artistic director for the vaunted biennial have gotten more than a year to work on their shows.) If Celant had scrambled to get his exhibition together, most couldn’t tell—the show was as high-gloss as ever. But that was also the problem: many perceived his exhibition as being too commercial, populated by too many blue-chip names, among them Jeff Koons, Michael Heizer, Robert Longo, and Roy Lichtenstein. “Walking through it, one can almost hear the sound of chips being cashed in,” Roberta Smith wrote in her New York Times review. While the exhibition’s reviews were less than lackluster, the show stands as proof of Celant’s savvy—most curators couldn’t assemble such an all-star crew of artists in such a short amount of time.
“When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013” (2013)
Fondazione Prada, Venice
The first time “When Attitudes Become Form,” one of the first major surveys of Conceptualism, was staged, it was a sensation. More than 40 years later, Celant returned to Harald Szeemann’s famed show and attempted to do it all over again, working painstakingly to bring back all the objects that appeared in the 1969 show, by the likes of Yves Klein, Bruce Nauman, and Claes Oldenburg. (Sometimes, it was not possible to get these works, however, and Celant alluded to their placement in the exhibition through silhouettes of the pieces.) Why restage the show? “Ultimately,” Celant told Frieze in 2017, “this project was an exploration of the fluid exchange between material and temporal space.”
“Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943” (2018)
Fondazione Prada, Milan
Throughout his career, Celant often went to bat for Italian art, leading him to curate important retrospectives for such luminaries as Mario Merz, Piero Manzoni, and others. One of his greatest shows devoted to the subject was this one, which traced the evolution of Italian art between World Wars I and II, specifically considering how political movements had shaped works by Giacomo Balla, Giorgio de Chirico, Fausto Melotti, Giorgio Morandi, and others. (The “Zang Tumb Tuuum” in the exhibition’s title is a reference to a 1914 concrete poem by Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.) Over the course of a sprawling presentation that included 600 artworks and 800 documents, Celant laid bare how art and politics could not be separated in Europe, which was war-torn for much of the first half of the 20th century. Asked once why he focused so much on this topic, he said, “Art history has to be rewritten.”