Collecting Ideas: Conceptual Art In Naples
Giuseppe Merlino (Naples, 1941), a scholar of French Literature and European civilization, lectures at the University of Naples, "Federico II".He collaborates with Radiotre and writes for L’Indice and Il Mattino. He is the author of exhibition catalogues and essays.
Maria Pia Masella caught up with this gentleman to discuss Conceptual Art in the 20th century, particularly as it developed in Naples.
Maria Pia Masella: By the end of the 1960s, conceptual artists radically changed the understanding of what is art. Suddenly, a gesture, a walk, the definition of a word in a dictionary or an empty room could become “art.” Retrospectively, how would you explain this revolution?
Giuseppe Merlino: The gesture of rupture was made by Marcel Duchamp in the '20s. He was the first to question the nature of art and the people loved it. Even now, when the conversation goes beyond French Literature, the most frequent questions asked by my students involve Duchamp. Somehow they see him as the Christopher Colombus of Contemporary Art: a person who took an ordinary object, signed it, put it on a plinth and said: this is art! Fountain (1) is not art outside a museum… How do we explain this?
I think that conceptual artists are true maîtres à penser – masters of thinking – individuals who throw ideas into the world that eventually succeed. Often this success is because they have radical, anti-commercial, purified ideas.
MPM: Meaning that in Conceptual Art, the idea is more important than its realisation.
GM: And this appealed to many because it brought a high rate of intellectuality into art. The conceptual side replaced the pleasant forms: all these unusual materials and brilliant techniques that had been defining art up to that moment. This process strikes but eventually rewards the beholder. The most complex, sophisticated and successful French philosophers like Deleuze,(2) Derrida,(3) Lacan,(4) all significantly influenced conceptual artists through their texts.
In conceptual art both the radical aspect of bringing the idea at the core of the work of art, but also the pleasure of semi-incomprehensibility, coexist.
We no longer have oracles, but we have philosophers and artists who continue to provide formulas we can study and analyse until the moment we realise what they actually meant. Maybe the analogy between artists and oracles is a bit risky, but I think that somehow, the link is in the voluptuousness of the obscure formula, which arises as a revelation.
MPM: This comparison is actually well grounded in literature. Kosuth begins his iconic essay "Art after Philosophy" (5) with this statement: “The 20th century brought in a time which could be called: the end of philosophy and the beginning of art.” Is this similar to you were just saying?
GM: Why not? Artists, philosophers and oracles deal with what is beyond reality ...
I actually met Kosuth one evening at a dinner hosted by a mutual friend: Graziella Lonardi Buontempo(6). We were both impressed by a work that Sol LeWitt had made for Graziella. It was one of his typical geometric lines and curves drawn onto two pieces of wall in Graziella’s sitting room. After her death, when the house was dismantled, the walls were demolished to respect Sol LeWitt, who had given instructions to either maintain the work in situ or to destroy it.
MPM: Together with Kosuth, Sol LeWitt (7) belongs to the first generation of conceptualists. In 1967, the LeWitt published the essay Paragraphs on conceptual art(8) where he states that the idea is a work of art as much as a finished product. It is a radical and fascinating statement – in line with what you have been saying – but I wonder what drives a collector to buy such an idea.
GM: Many collectors would say that the reason why they buy art (ideas included) is called: art disease. Lidia Berlingieri (9) one of the most impressive of Minimalism and Conceptual art collectors in Italy, along with the famous Panza Collection, explained the phenomenon quite well.
In an interview about her family’s collection she expressed some of the experiences she shared with the artists invited to create works in the family’s manor in Basilicata. In the early 70s, Christo (10) was one of them. Berlingieri says that he was given carte blanche and decided to: «pack one of the family’s 18thcentury carriages». This caused horror among the more traditional members of the family.
A few years later, Steinbach (11) was also invited and he chose to use an old passage which had come to light after the restoration of the manor, where he installed there a work made of a hundred pair of glasses of various periods bought in local markets.
A possible reason for the desire to collect these ideas could be the privilege they provide to observe the creative process in all of its stages working towards significance. The creative process is observed alongside the added pleasure of witnessing all the connections established between the place, the artist, the commissioner and the visitors.
These reasons, lead to a desire to retain the idea - if not in its explosive vitality, at least in its certification. Furthermore, I would add the sociological reason to achieve the status of “collector,” which in Naples, is particularly sought after.
MPM: When did Naples become a centre for conceptual art and who were the most active promoters?
GM: The gallerist Lucio Amelio (12) launched conceptual art in the Neapolitan scene. He distanced himself from the Neapolitan school, inviting foreign artists to work in Naples. In the ‘70s he invited pre-conceptualists such as Rauschenberg (13) to his gallery, an institution active since 1965 and later called the Modern Art Agency. He also invited Baldessari (14) and Abramovic. (15) I also remember evenings with Beuys(16) and Warhol,(17) both involved in complex exhibitions with equally dense catalogues.
It was quite vibrant. There were initiatives such as the exhibition of Von Gloeden(18) organised after the purchase of the photographer’s archive by Lucio Amelio who then asked Beuys, Warhol and Pistoletto(19) to respond to the archive with their own works. The project was completed by a beautiful text by Roland Barthes(20).
The gallerist Lia Rumma also had and still has an important role in the scene. She opened her first space with the exhibition of the young American artist [mentioned earlier]: Joseph Kosuth. It was 1971. I think that Kosuth at that time had only exhibited with Castelli in New York. The show was called The Eighth Investigation, the title of Kosuth's work. It consisted of an installation of clocks, tables and notebooks. It was an investigation onto the formation of meaning via interrelated information.
To answer your first question, I would say that Naples had the opportunity to be exposed to conceptual art practices from the early days of its inception. As the public responded well, the gallerists kept exhibiting this new art. Both were mutually encouraged by the Magna Graecia spirit of the place: open, philosophical, xenophilic.
MPM: Are you saying that it is mainly thanks to the gallerists that the city became part conceptual art circuit?
GM: Patrons also had a key role. Graziella Lonardi Buontempo was one of the most proactive and enlightened patrons we had. She approached Daniel Buren(21) (not difficult though because he was living in Procida at the time) and commissioned a work for the aqueduct of Naples. As a result this nice Art Deco building was coated by Buren’s clean lines and colours.
Furthermore, through her organisation: Incontri Internazionali d’Arte, Graziella Buontempo coordinated (and partly sponsored) a programme of exhibitions in the hall of Camuccini, at Capodimonte, and Kosuth had an exhibition there called Modus Operandi.(22)
There had been some attempts at the time to encourage Capodimonte to buy the works of the contemporary artists exhibited in order to create a permanent collection; however, the results were scarce. Excluding Graziella Buontempo’s initiatives, in recent times, Conceptual Art has been seen in Naples quite sporadically.
Despite the vibrant cultural scene, galleries were subject to practical constraints: personal relationships, availability of works, spaces and funds. We suffered from the lack of a public institution up to 2005, when our first museum of contemporary art finally opened. Its curator Eduardo Cicelyn was the first to say: we have to organise a programme of exhibitions to educate the audience to the developments and the chronology of contemporary art in Naples. MADRE(23) is under new management [since 2013]: we'll see how it goes.
MPM : Today, who are the main promoters of conceptual art in Naples?
1. Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) Fountain, 1917, Porcelain. Tate Modern, London
2. Gilles Deleuze (Paris, 1925-1995)
3. Jacques Derrida (El Biar,1930- Paris, 2004)
4. Jacques Lacan (Paris, 1901-1981)
5. Joseph Kosuth (United States, b. 1945) Art After Philosophy, Studio International, 178, 915-17. [November-December, 1969] Reprinted in his: Art after Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1966-1990. Mitt Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991.
6. Graziella Lonardi Buontempo (Napoli, 1928-2010) Collector, patron, philanthropist and founder of Incontri Internazionali d’Arte, a Roman organization whose aim is to promote contemporary art in Italy http://www.incontrinternazionalidarte.it
7. Sol Le Witt ( United States, 1928-2007)
8. Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, Artforum, [Summer 1967] 79-83 Reprinted in Conceptual Art, Peter Osborne, Phaidon Press, London & New York[ 2002] 213-215
9. Lidia Berlingieri Leopardi, daughter of Annibale Berlingieri interviewed by Guido Costa in 2013. Quaderni del Collezionismo, Johan & Levi Editore  55-69
12. Lucio Amelio (Napoli, 1931-1994)
13. Robert Rauschenberg (United States, 1925-2008)
16. Joseph Beuys (Germany, 1921-1986)
17. Andy Warhol ( United States, 1928-1987)
18. Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden ( 1856-1931). German photographer
20. Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) – philosopher
22. Modus Operandi, Museo Capodimonte, Napoli, 1988
Cover Image: Joseph Kosuth L’Ottava Investigazione (A.A.I.A.I.) proposizione 6, 1971
Installation view, Lia Rumma/Studio d’arte, Napoli 16 dicembre 1971.
Photocredit Mimmo Iodice
Courtesy Archivio Lia Rumma