Parallel Views: Italian and Japanese Art from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s
Fourteen years ago, we acquired the first Italian artwork to enter The Rachofsky Collection—a dark pierced painting on cardboard from 1952 by Lucio Fontana. Modest in dimension, it was far from the grand scale of the concurrent American Abstract Expressionism that had been favored by American museums and collectors to the exclusion of postwar European art. And yet the boundlessness of the universe that it seemed to depict nonetheless shared an underlying sense of the contemporary with the American art our historians had isolated it from. If the detonation of the atomic bomb could be seen to have provided a broader cultural understanding for the explosive paintings of Jackson Pollock, then the exploration of outer space could be understood to have provided a framework for experiencing the pierced paintings that Fontana began to create in 1949 and that the artist saw as portraying what he called “fourth dimensional space.” We might also understand that this preoccupation with space beyond the canvas that would be played out for the rest of Fontana’s life also helped set the stage for what would evolve into a transnational preoccupation in the 1960s and 70s with sculpture and environmental art in Western and Eastern Europe, the United States, Latin America, and Japan.
Before acquiring the Fontana, the collection had been focused on American Minimalism, and in our search to create a historical framework for Minimalism, we had acquired a black painting by Ad Reinhardt. The Fontana, we reasoned, would add a meaningful historical reference, one that was not common in American collections. This single acquisition would soon change the course of the collection by allowing us to recognize that the art of the United States and Europe after World War II were not as far apart as we had been trained to perceive them to be, and that this road not taken was ripe territory for exploration for a collection that did not want to follow in the mold of others and that was being formed to become part of the Dallas Museum of Art.
Since then, we have assembled an extensive collection of Italian art of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, with a concentrated group of works by the masters of the postwar period—Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri, Piero Manzoni, Mimmo Rotella, and Enrico Castellani—and of the Arte Povera movement—Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Jannis Kounellis, Giovanni Anselmo, Luciano Fabro, Giulio Paolini, and Giuseppe Penone, whose art they set in motion, and who have provided many opportunities for us to better understand art after Minimalism as a network of overlapping artistic investigations that were occurring concurrently in different parts of the world.
Early in the process of evolving this conception of the collection, we examined a historically incisive painting by Jannis Kounellis, Lunedi, Martedi, Mercoledi (1963), which we soon acquired. While viewing that work at the home of the collector who owned it, we couldn’t help but notice a large and commanding abstract painting hanging nearby; it had been so heavily worked that its surface had ripped apart and was dominated by gaping holes. Who made this? The process-driven surface made us think a little of early Manzoni, a little of Burri, while the holes had an undeniable relationship with Fontana; and yet this work, while evidently made of the same artistic moment, was also somehow clearly something else entirely. (Its tattered materiality would also have strong links to the early works of Rotella that would enter the collection years later.) It was by Shozo Shimamoto, a name we had not known, who was part of a Japanese postwar movement we had not heard of called Gutai. Not fully understanding the work, but being as captivated by it as we had been by that first Fontana, we set about trying to find a Shimamoto for the collection, which a few years later we did.
Around the same time, we had been introduced to the paintings of Kazuo Shiraga, another central Gutai artist. We were captivated by the intense physicality of the work, and yet we struggled with how to understand it as distinct from and equally authentic to the gestural paintings of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline that we had been conditioned to view it as derivative of. Even though we wouldn’t pursue a Shiraga until years later, we couldn’t dismiss it either; the work was simply too potent.
A few years ago, through a confluence of opportunity, access, and nagging curiosity, we set as a priority to collect masterworks of Gutai. Around this same time, Tim Blum of Blum & Poe told us about a show he was intending to organize on the subject of Mono-ha, a sculpture-based movement in Japan of the late 1960s. Many of the works that were cornerstones of Mono-ha had evident connections to American Post-Minimalism and Process Art, and to Italian Arte Povera; as we had already been on this path, this was a bridge we could more speedily cross. And so in the last few years, the collection of postwar Japanese art has grown to about the same scale and breadth as the postwar Italian collection.
Certainly there are known contemporary links between Italian and Japanese art in the years following World War II: Fontana was featured prominently in Gutai journals and exhibitions of the 1950s, and Arte Povera artists were shown alongside those of Mono-ha (as well as American Minimal and Post-Minimal artists) at the 1970 Tokyo Biennale. But this history remains little understood. Parallel Views: Italian and Japanese Art from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s is presented as a proposition about underexplored historical confluences, an invitation to more fully examine the connections, influences, and simultaneities in the postwar period between the art of these two cultures that were facing a similar set of conditions after the war—rejecting fascist tyrannies, and, in turn, positioning themselves in relation to a world they were now linking to economically and politically, and in the case of artists, defining their connection to (or away from) their own cultural pasts, and their relationship to art made elsewhere in the world at that time.
The exhibition is principally installed in two parallel tracks that examine the development of art in postwar Japan and Italy independently. There are several rooms of cohabitation. Gallery 1 looks at works made of the scraps and bits of a postwar condition. Such work was made well beyond Italy and Japan, and we chose to suggest this with the inclusion of works from Europe (Christo, Marcel Broodthaers) and the United States (Bruce Conner, Robert Rauschenberg).
Gallery 2 connects works that do not naturally belong together, but that resonate with parallels: the punctured canvases of Lucio Fontana and the sculpture of rock breaking glass of Lee Ufan. And Gallery 3 presents a cohabitation of Arte Povera and Mono-ha masterworks that resonate, principally, without evident cultural differentiation.
There are many parallels to explore. I mention here a few: the scarce materiality of a war-torn world in the bits of newspaper of Shimamoto and the posters ripped from the streets by Rotella, and the underlying political implications to both; the stabs and slashes of Fontana and the holed surfaces of Shimamoto; the experiments in materiality of Burri and Takesada Matsutani; the pendulous sculptures comprising the unlikely marriage of materials in the canvas and rock of Nobuo Sekine and the marble and steel of Fabro; the existential riddle of Pistoletto’s cube of mirrors turned inward and of Lee’s rock-smashed glass atop a nearly imperceptible sheet of steel; the parallel mirrored hall of photographs of photographs (memories of memories) in the art of Takamatsu and Paolini; the personal poetry of Marisa Merz rooted in the self and that of Yayoi Kusama rooted in the abstract.
But more than the look of things, what all these artists share is their own individual spirit of investigation, of, as in the case of Gutai (and as in the broader spirit of the avant-garde), making something that hasn’t been made before. Of course, there are many differences between the art of Italy and Japan (and beyond) in the postwar period, and these are ripe for exploration as well. For example, the Gutai artists closely linked themselves to the performative nature of contemporary American (and to a lesser extent the conventions of European) painting, while the artists of Italy searched for their way out of painting, materially and spatially. Or, consider, Manzoni’s highly esthetic ghostly painting of wrinkles formed by chance of process and Takamatsu’s vinyl sculpture of a seemingly casual heap of wrinkles that are so meticulously constructed.
This interest in better understanding simultaneous interrelationships of art in different parts of the world in the postwar period is shared throughout the Dallas community. Many of the Japanese works were jointly acquired with the Dallas Museum of Art. Vernon Faulconer, co-founder of The Warehouse, is also a lender to this exhibition. A number of the Japanese and Italian works were acquired jointly with Deedie Rose, a frequent collaborator who is also donating her collection to the DMA.
Indeed, while the art of Gutai was often formed in direct response to contemporary painting in the United States and Europe, one could also explore the interconnections and responses in Brazil in the postwar period to European Constructivism, which it was simultaneously rooted in and differentiating itself from. This could well be the subject of another exhibition, as the Rose Collection has set as one of its priorities to collect major Brazilian art of this same time period (and beyond). If we had more space, we could just as well have featured American art as part of this international artistic stew, and looked at the great Minimalism that has been collected by the DMA and the Rose and Rachofsky Collections, as well as the remarkable Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and Ellsworth Kelly works in the collection of Marguerite Hoffman, whose wonderful Pistoletto sculpture adds immeasurably to Parallel Views.
Parallel Views is but a starting point for exploring historical relationships that not so long ago we were blinded from seeing. And as such, the exhibition articulates the hope that The Warehouse can be a laboratory for fresh thinking about art that we believe made a difference.
Allan Schwartzman is the curator of Parallel Views: Italian and Japanese Art from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.