In his leather coat and lavender-tinted glasses, Germano Celant cut a jagged figure in the often prim arena of international art. Standing in the vast, baroque hall of the Fondazione Prada’s Venetian palazzo in May 2019 – before a steel wall sculpture by his deceased friend, the Greek-Italian artist Jannis Kounellis – he was asked by a reporter about the show’s aim. Celant answered bluntly: ‘To know more about Jannis Kounellis and his importance.’ In other words: see for yourself.
Celant, the unfussy curator, critic and art historian, made his name, in the late 1960s, forging a coterie of postwar Italian artists, including Kounellis, whose work he termed ‘poor’ – that is to say, marked by material restraint and the use of everyday and natural substances. Despite once protesting that he ‘didn’t invent anything’, his work and ambition nonetheless landed him a figure of influence and gravity, almost Shakespearean in his affiliations and rivalries. When he died on 29 April in Milan, of Covid-19, it was clear that one of the people who had shaped the trajectory of 20th-century art had lapsed into legend.
‘When he visited your studio, it was like a freight train coming: you heard the rumbling and hooting from afar,’ the Los Angeles- and Berlin-based artist Thomas Demand recalled when I spoke to him soon after the curator’s death. ‘Celant was a monument, a rare case in which you could say that he wrote art history as much as it was written about him.’
It’s hard now to conceive of the cultural ambiance of 1960s Turin and Genoa, when a critic could corral an entire movement into significance. Back then, curating was more an act of academic conservation than a lifestyle catchword. Celant – a 27-year-old critic and magazine editor, fresh out of college – grouped the artists he met under the heading ‘arte povera’. What started as a 1967 exhibition in Genoa’s Galleria La Bertesca led to perhaps the most enduring artistic movement of postwar continental Europe.
The movement was, in part, a reaction to the commodified pop art and rigid minimalist forms shipped in from the US. In contrast, per Celant’s definition (in his publication Arte Povera, 1967), theirs was an art of ‘taking away, eliminating, downgrading things to a minimum, impoverishing signs to reduce them to their archetypes’. Makeshift and subdued, such works were often marked by an entropic heaping-up of environmental and natural material (‘animals, vegetables and minerals’) yet they were driven, above all, by a political intuition. The subdued power of Kounellis’s coal heaps, or later installations of coats and shoes, for example, reached deep into the horrors of industrialization, displacement and war. Still, Celant’s own interest was never in material itself but in the ‘alchemical’ (as he called it): reversals between figure and ground, life and dead matter, body and space, language and material.
For the thirteen figures that would emerge from this movement – including, in addition to Kounellis, Piero Manzoni, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz and Michelangelo Pistoletto – being in the artworld in the second half of the last century meant at least two things: participating in a vigorous artistic community while turning that same network into business. (‘Curators are the best vampires,’ Celant joked during a talk in Toronto in 2014.) Yet, despite the almost-inconceivable expansion throughout the 21st-century of the field he had helped to shape, he would observe (in that same talk), with his usual candour and iconoclasm: ‘Contemporary art is disappearing fast and is becoming more and more of an event.’
Soon after the term gained currency and acceptance, becoming a brand in itself, in 1971 Celant disavowed his own coinage as irrelevant. In the early 1980s, however, amid the excesses of a highly commercialized artworld and neo-expressionist painting especially – and edged on by critical rivalries in the US and in Italy – he decided that ‘poor art’ had renewed import. He began penning essays that revisited the heading, bringing together his cohort, like a metal guitarist regrouping his band. With Celant, once you were in, you were in for life.
The artist and musician Laurie Anderson first met Celant in 1974. ‘He looked like Zorro in his tight, all-black outfits,’ she wrote to me, adding: ‘He did a lot of laughing and, when he wasn’t laughing, he was listening in a way I rarely saw: his head tilted to the side, his eyes trained straight ahead.’ This ‘listening’ resulted in Anderson’s first show in Europe, at the Fondazione Prada. ‘He showed me how to have fun and to think at the same time. He helped me on so many projects, but it was his kindness and sweetness that I loved the most.’
Celant was a contradictory personality. He could organize installations of undeniable gravity and presence, such as Edward and Nancy Kienholz's macabre presentation in Milan (2016–17); yet, he could equally lament the exhibition format itself, so often dependent on events and grandiose spectacle. Instead, he pined for long-form, durational attention. In the 1982 catalogue for Documenta 7, for instance, working under director Rudi Fuchs, he wrote of exhibitions as ‘a phenomenon of appearances’, noting that ‘the present economy of culture thrives on this system, where the principal product is represented by “showing”’. Instead, he proposed that exhibitions and art be treated like texts, understanding ‘language as the ultimate artistic abstraction’, as he later wrote. ‘Appearance’, wrote Celant, ‘is of little importance compared to internal significance.’
Over time, Celant’s diverse interests unknotted themselves to span artist’s books and multiples, the legacy of Italian fascism, environmental or ‘ambient’ art, the relationship between art and food, even the fashion of Giorgio Armani (controversially, in a 2000 show at the Guggenheim funded by Armani himself). A ‘baroque and disciplined thinker’, as Demand called him, Celant could swiftly sketch out the links between book art, environmental installations and media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 notion of a ‘global village’, which he argued in Book as Artwork 1960/1972 (1972).
His range and ambition was dizzying. Tate’s international curator, Osei Bonsu, wrote to me of meeting Celant: ‘We discussed his organizing of Latin and Pan-African festivals as a student in Genoa, and the connections between arte povera’s anti-materialist sentiment and non-Western spiritual practices.’
In 1993, Celant – then a senior curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, a position he held from 1989 to 2008 – was invited by the fashion designer Miuccia Prada to work on an ambitious series of exhibitions of ‘dream projects’, first by the artists Anish Kapoor and Louise Bourgeois, as well as an early show by the filmmaker Steve McQueen. Celant was always at pains to stress the non-commercial aspect of the Fondazione Prada (where he worked until his death), the foundation’s aim to work beyond ‘products’. And what could be less product-oriented than Celant, in 2013, recreating Harald Szeemann’s epochal 1969 exhibition ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ at the Fondazione Prada, as a ‘readymade’? For this Herculean act, he commissioned Rem Koolhaas’s office to create a life-sized replica of the Kunsthalle Bern, where Szeemann’s original show had taken place, inside the sinking palazzo in Venice. As Demand, who co-curated the project with Celant, described: ‘He did shows that seemed impossible to pull off. Everyone had an opinion about them before they even saw them – but then they were just great, unforgettable experiences.’
When I saw the show myself, I wrote in a review for frieze of its hallucinatory quality, its sculptural flickering between reproductions of memories, imagined memories and real ones. It was as if Celant wanted you to distrust what you were seeing by impregnating vision with memory and illusion. Demand, whose own works accomplish similar, put it well: ‘Redoing “When Attitudes Become Form” and not looking like a revisionist? I know that wasn’t easy for him, but he handled it gracefully and anyone younger than 60 would not have had a clue what Szeemann’s efforts were about if he hadn’t restaged it.’
Paolo Icaro – one of the original artists in the 1967 ‘Arte Povera’ exhibition, whose work also featured in Szeemann’s show – shared with me a letter he had written to Celant after he learned of his death. He recalled: ‘When you called me to ask for a work from 1969 to show again in Venice, in a flash, all that time, all that distance vanished, and we met again,’ adding: ‘I arrived with a metal wire in my hand inside your bunker of books and works of art in Milan, and you said: “Balance it there in front of my desk, so when I sit down I can look at it, and it will greet me.”’
Main Image: Germano Celant, photograph: Ugo Dalla Porta / Fondazione Prada