GERMANO CELANT It’s been fifty years since 1956, the year you moved to Rome. You and I share memories, encounters and conversations, and we could easily spend all night talking. However, my role here is to facilitate a discourse on the formal aspects of your practice. In order to do so, we will have to begin from the historical context of the late ‘50s. Back then, the art world was a very self-contained universe, at least from my perspective as a student and emerging collaborator of galleries and magazines. There was a closed-minded, static vision of the artist and the dynamics of the art world. Slowly, with the passing of time, this static condition was forced to drift along. Our generation was the one to build a bridge to a more nomadic approach, though I am not sure if it was by choice, or because we felt forced to become wanderers—wandering monks, theorists or artists—in order to survive. I believe we should start by talking about this condition of freedom, which is taken for granted by today’s generation, but which you helped to enable—one which allows movement, circulation and exchange. Can you compare the initially, let’s say, claustrophobic situation you experienced in Italy or Greece,with today’s dynamic universe?
JANNIS KOUNELLIS The problem is, we belong to a late post-war era in which a provincial middle class was really behind Morandi’s hypothesis of poetry. Not that he wasn’t good, because he was good, and smart too. But for me, his easel painting, the crepuscular idea of tonality, was always extremely distant. Painting was never about the will to paint this or that shape, it was about a certain rhythm and how it affected the space. Since I was a student in the late ‘50s, this is how I differed from the context. My position became more and more that of an outsider, and I started to write about it—about the freedom to decline a return to painting, and rather pursue a vaster dialectic.
The post-war-era crisis of national borders allowed us to go towards Germany, France. We walked in the footsteps of Boccioni. I felt very close to the path he had indicated, though not because he is a Futurist—which he is, though only partly. He dances in Futurism. But his formal experience revolved entirely around the figure of the mother. I often asked myself why, and I believe that it must of course be symbolic. He wanted to say something else about his country, birth, resurgence, the interventionist movement.
Anyway, we were born in this reality, with these narrow perspectives, with these obstacles that created rather significant limitations—the lack of structure, of a convincing middle class capable of supporting a cultural discourse, of the artists’ will to be protagonists in the Italian territory. And yet, even if there wasn’t a clear definition of national identity behind this broad formal discourse that we initiated, the reason we emerged was because of the friends that came before us—not only same-generation peers, but also people like Fontana, Burri, and even Sironi. Sironi’s Periferie (“Urban Landscapes,” 1920-onwards) were an extremely important indication. Without them, you can’t have Pasolini’s suburbs. For good or worse, national identity can come down to just that: the frustration that the country brings, the limits imposed by the obligations of tradition. We are modern artists, but I shall not forget Caravaggio’s indication just because I am a modern artist.