Of painting, writing and all things radical

3 December 2012

Mario Diacono and Bob Nickas in conversation with Luca Lo Pinto

Renowned Italian man of letters and international art critic and dealer, Mario Diacono is the inspiring mind behind the prestigious Collezione Maramotti, that is now hosting his exhibition Painting as a radical form. Several artworks diplayed in the show are also discussed in the book Archetypes and Historicity / Painting and Other Radical Forms 1995-2007, that collects the whole body of critical writings connected to the activity of Diacono’s gallery in Boston.
The book was launched last October at the Collezione Maramotti with the intervention of New York based independent curator Bob Nickas, who joined Mario Diacono in a public conversation.
Luca Lo Pinto was also there and after the talk he got the two long time friends to engage in a casual discourse, bringing us a sketch of invaluable understatement, vanity and wit.

Luca Lo Pinto: When and where did you first meet each other?

Bob Nickas: In Boston.

Mario Diacono: Yes, at the opening of Philip Taaffe in 1988.

LLP: And at that time, Bob, did you know anything about Mario’s background in poetry and literature?

BN: Strangely enough I didn’t know much. It’s funny but I only knew about the Vito Acconci book, which is one of the first art books Mario made. And it’s funny because Vito still remains a strong connection between the two of us.

MD: In one of our first conversations I remember you telling me that the book had become a reference for a number of young artists, even for those who didn’t understand Italian.

BN: Vito Acconci has a strong relationship to Mario’s thinking, because he came from poetry. This is why Mario found him so interesting.

MD: Yes, it’s true.

BN: There is poetry, writing and literature. Vito goes into performance, then to the street then to installations, then sound. He combines writing, poetry, installation and architecture. That is why he is pivotal for us.

MD: Vito Acconci was a peak of all the radicalism up to 1978 and his work is still radical, to this day.

BN: Some things take time. By 1988 Vito became important for people like Mike Kelley, Joan Wallace or to some extent Cady Noland.

MD: Vito Acconci has really been the element that represented a link between us, even before we met.

LLP: For you, Mario, Acconci also worked as a bridge between poetry and visual art.

MD: Yes, a bridge between the end of literature and the end of art as we knew them at that time.

LLP: I recently went through the three volumes of your writings. In the third one you write, “Painting is the most specific ground where the debate on the direction of art takes place”. Personally I don’t agree, it’s way too radical for me. What do you think about it, Bob?

BN: Mario is saying it is the most specific, not the only one or the most engaged. To be specific means to be focused on one thing. This is a time in which artists want to be able to do everything. They are interesting and we like them. Someone like Alessandro Pessoli, for example, could do a show and be taken for a painter. But ten months later, he could do another show with films and video, or some very installation-sculptural kind of thing, like props from the movies yet related to the figures in the paintings. So there is a sense today that certain artists are moving and going in different places. But there are also some people who actually just paint and tell their stories through their work over thirty or forty years without ever changing their means of expression. So when Mario talks about that specificity, in my opinion he’s thinking of those artists who work within that field.

MD: Today a painter can subsume in his work not only the history of painting, but also all the other histories of the last one hundred years. If you take an artist like Jeff Koons, his work can only talk about Jeff Koons. There is no history of art that is layered in his work in the way history of art, including Jeff Koons himself, could be layered in the work of a painter.

BN: You see how that is true when you have these big heavy auction catalogues and their purpose is to sell the Jeff Koons. They will always have a reproduction of an Andy Warhol and that allows them to try to ask maybe an extra two million. Then in the next page they have a reproduction of another pop artist or whatever. I find it bizarre when they start going back to hundreds of years before. It’s only valid up to a point. Let’s say they have a Basquiat and they put a small reproduction of a Picasso and in the next page they have an African mask. I mean, it’s true. But really all they’re trying to do is booster as much money they can get by saying it has this history.

MD: From an artistic point of view, the layers you can read in Jeff Koons don’t go beyond the work itself or even beyond the Warhol attitude.

LLP: I personally consider someone like Felix Gonzalez-Torres as one of the most influential artists in the past twenty years, and he is not a painter. So, whether or not painting is that place where the most radical art occurs, I very much admire the coherence in your choice of the works for the Maramotti Collection. I see a quasi-scientific approach to it. Take Sandro Chia: I am not a big fan of his, but when I see the work you now have on the first floor, I can’t help but consider it crucial in the way it shows a shift from the object to the painting.

BN: What interested me and what I know interested Mario as well is how you can invest forms with meaning, giving them a new life. So mentioning Felix Gonzalez-Torres is important because you could say that one of the things he did – and this is true also for Cady Noland – is that he invested minimalism with a subject matter. Like real bodies in real space. People go to Panza Collection and look at Bruce Nauman thinking about theatricality of minimalism. But theatricality of minimalism was really not animated until twenty or more years later by people like Felix. Cady, from her side, was injecting social political information into these forms that once carried only material weight.

MD: Bob was much more personally involved in Gonzalez-Torres than I was. I was more interested in Cady Noland. In any case, those were the real radical artists and neither him nor me ever took a step back from that type of art. We recognized its potentiality. The point of painting is probably this: today, among the object-oriented artists there is no one really questioning art in the very deep sense. They are all skin deep. Like Jeff Koons, or Gursky.

BN: I believe that painting is involved in its own history more than any other forms. Video artists, for example, are not involved in the history of video art. It’s just what the camera is looking at now, what the narrative is now.

MD: Through painting I tried to understand the entire history of art. It’s something that I cannot do with Koons or Damien Hirst.

LLP: This comes out clearly in your writings. Even though I may not share your notion of painting as art’s primary language, I appreciate your purely intellectual method of research and sometimes your interpretations of some artworks are more meaningful to me than the artworks themselves.

MD: Yes, but you should always keep in mind that my monograph on Vito Acconci came first. It’s the foundation of everything, even when it comes to painting.

BN: It’s true, Mario is sometimes interested in artists I’m not interested in, but then when I read the texts I think “Wow that’s intelligent”. The artists should consider themselves very lucky that he wrote about them because he brings his incredible knowledge to it. You could say that Mario is using art to understand the world and how we got to this point here. It’s what some artists do.

MD: I use painting in order to do that.

BN: Joan Wallace said something amazing: “When you are at the head of a culture, you use the image to see”. Mario, with painting is really using the image in order to see. Something like: how can I look at the world through this work?

LLP: Mario, what do you think about an artist like Josh Smith?

MD: Bob is a big supporter of Josh Smith. When he was only writing his name, I felt him as a kind of one-liner, a sort of Andy Warhol using his own name, instead of photography, to encompass the world in just writing. At the same time he seemed to perceive the limits of his art, declaring them expressly.

BN: You could say that because he’s painting his name, that is very literally a pretext to paint. A lot of paintings that interested Mario are directly related to writing as a need for image making. Josh is a good example of that because he is looking at how the image is inscribed, a sort of picture writing or visual poetry.

LLP: My second all time favorite artist is Mike Kelley. For the collection you chose a piece of his that maybe is not the most representing of Kelley’s imaginary. Is it another example of how you use chosen artworks to display a certain idea of art that you have?

BN: A lot of works are here because Mario showed them, wrote about them and he was intimately involved with them, since these are pieces that have gone from the studio to the gallery and then to the collection. At the same time, in terms of what there is or isn’t, any collection is a matter of opportunities that were or were not available.

MD: To be frank, I chose that painting because it quotes esotericism which is something that contemporary art never touches. This meant that Kelley’s vision goes deeper than someone could think by looking at his other works.

BN: This is also the case for the Basquiat painting, which is in the collection because of its reference to alchemy. You could say, why this Basquiat painting and not a different one?

MD: In the Mike Kelley piece there is a clear reference to magic. The fact that an artist like Kelley would think about magic just enough to make a painting to me was revealing.

LLP: Your collected writings, Theft is Vision, include a very interesting interview in which John Armleder gives a synthetic portrait of three different generations. In a way, the very same that Mario has portrayed in his three books. Shortly, Armleder says that the Sixties were a time when every artist was trying to make signature pieces, while in the Eighties everyone was doing their own thing, using what was available but still quoting the sources. Then in the Nineties younger people were still recycling, but with almost no attention to the sources.

BN: He also says that it doesn’t matter whether they know them or not, if they don’t know them, they don’t care. This is a kind of freedom that didn’t exist in the Sixties and Seventies.

LLP: It’s interesting to relate this to what Mike Kelley wrote about Rauschenberg and to the usage of found images by Rauschenberg compared to Jim Nutt. Kelley said that he didn’t like the way Rauschenberg was using images so much because the subject matter was of little importance. In this sense each image could replace another. Rauschenberg used mass cultural images that were so omnipresent that they could be understood as analogous to abstract paint gesture. Nutt instead chose low and degraded images. This relates to what Mario wrote about the new generation of artists that use found images in their paintings, but they don’t care about the specific and individual value of the images they’re using.

MD: They care about the way the image works within the context of their making painting, not about the image per se. Jim Nutt, in that sense, is totally self-inclusive. The early paintings by Rauschenberg, with just images and silkscreen on the canvas, are phenomenal paintings. They do not make the world implode, they explode it. They explore the world of painting, yet they still allude to painting. For me it’s phenomenal that, after having done the combine paintings, Rauschenberg felt he had to go back to canvas.

BN: It’s funny how certain artists’ work looks old, dated and I would say that this happens more often with Rauschenberg than with Nutt. It’s interesting how an artist closer to pop and with a very strange realistic and surrealistic representation has survived a kind of movement across big pieces of space and time. Rauschenberg’s work looks as if it is from the Fifties.

MD: Unintentionally some of these are historic paintings. They may look old, I agree, but in a way they embody the past. And it’s interesting to compare them to the works of an artist like Jim Nutt, whose way to deal with imagination is more general. But anyway, the Sixties are not there. They are in Rauschenberg’s work.