CORIANDOLI di FESTA A passport to Hell By Laura Cherubini
“The distance from Milan to Rome was short. The A1, just completed and deserted, allowed a very quick trip. And a light-hearted one because, having left the fogs and mists of the Po Valley, you went with your Roman friends to have lunch at the “Due Ponti” in the open air in January. And the difference in climate wasn’t only atmospheric. What fascinated those of us who came from the North was the difference in relationships between the artists of the various tendencies and different generations and the promiscuity of the people who worked in the most varied of disciplines who all used to come together in the same places. The geographical discriminant was not the only one that determined the difference between Rome and Milan and, in any case, it had a corollary in the diversified cultural ambitions. Whereas in Milan one looked with a Calvinist spirit to the rest of Europe, Rome seemed attracted by suggestions from the North Atlantic. One has talked about Roman Pop Art with regard to Angeli, Festa and Schifano. Perhaps for them at the beginning the American tendency was a methodological revelation although the development of their work has shown a personal path and dialectic towards what was proposed and imposed from the United States with considerable arrogance and considerable means. And so here the mythology of American consumerism was proudly contrasted by the revisitations of grand Italian and European culture: the “Arnolfini Couple” as against hamburgers, the Futurist saga as compared to Campbell’s Soup and the emancipation of peoples as against the symbols of imperialism. Of the many, I have ended up only talking about three of them, who are no longer with us, because to a greater degree than others they were fraternal friends, irrespective of the difference of approach to the problem of art. On the other hand, this type of exhibition can’t escape commemorative temptations because history is always interspersed and sustained by painful absences.” 1 Enrico Castellani in Voci. 1958 Roma 1968, exhibition catalogue, Studio Sotis, Rome 1998
If you look closely, Tano Festa’s early work already brings together a flat coat of paint, made of a single, unambiguous colour, and the application of layers of paper, adopting the criterion of superimposition. But look carefully: early Tano Festa is monochrome too, like Enrico Castellani, like his brother (not half-brother, in spite of the name) Francesco Lo Savio, like nearly all the authors of the seminal, precocious experimental works born in the fertile shadow of the obelisk in Piazza del Popolo (Mauri’s Schermi, the Calze and veiled paintings by Angeli, the pictorial Cementi by Schifano and the architectural ones by Uncini, and even Rotella’s Retro d’affiche). A Raffele, dedicated to Sandro Penna’s young friend, and the other red painting dedicated to the poet himself, are dry monochromes, very different from the voluptuous, soft works by Schifano (Giorgio Franchetti pointed out this distinction to me). Tano Festa’s penchant for elementary colours emerges in his works of 19601962, together with a clean-cut picture space and the articulation of the canvas (Via Veneto n. 1, 1961, and a series of pictures made with vertical bands). Pierre Restany has underlined the importance of Rothko’s “walls of light” for the early development of Festa (Per Mark Rothko, 1962). Then the adventure of the object begins: “For some time I had been looking at items of domestic furniture, which being the most private objects, are those with which we’re most in touch. In those moments, every object in the room took on an unusual value with respect to their normal, everyday quality. I thought of reconstructing objects that had been shorn of their functions, objects that in their physicality expressed a subtle anxiety in the face of their too easy and certain presence, a sense of ambiguity and impotence before their physical, inorganic, dull being, and also a sense of mystery and impenetrability in their cold, dark geometry.” He begins the series Finestre (Windows) - one is dedicated to Vermeer, another point of reference, according to Vivaldi. Sometimes, next to the ordered rectangular partition, there appears the striation of window blinds (Festa himself speaks of his fear of the dark, and of blinds left partly open to let in the street light, of the novel appearance of objects in the room when seen in that light). And then Porte (Doors) addresses the subject of the threshold, always shuttered; opaque, impenetrable objects; mute, solitary and to a certain extent ‘metaphysical’ presences, as has already been observed. The series of Armadi (Wardrobes) presents the shared quality of the surfaces of shutters and mirrors: just as the glass of a window fails to offer transparency, so the surface of a mirror does not reflect. The characteristic feature of this ‘domestic furniture’ truly seems to be that of opaqueness. In the series of piano keys, he returns to the
abstract articulation of his first paintings: “These objects are reconstructed as we perceive them, not in the moment in which they are used, but that of contemplation – they are only appearances, false objects. But it is precisely their being false that prompts the expression of the way in which I perceived them.” “The deepest insult a painter can give to a canvas is to throw confetti over it. Tano wanted to provoke a sense of discomfort vis-à-vis society. In the confetti pictures he showed a conceptual, spiritual strength: an intolerance worthy of a great artist. Tano Festa was not seeking painting in these pictures; he perceives its sweat and immobility in that particular moment, thus turning it into a dramatic obstacle. These are paintings that, as far as I know, are very much liked by us painters; they are a passport to Hell.” Giuseppe Gallo The Obelischi (Obelisks) and the Lapidi (Headstones) are already a sign of Festa’s attention to an urban iconosphere, while references to art history are made in a work entitled Le Stanze del Vaticano, but through words, not images. Then Festa’s screens begin to feature glimpses of cities and the history of art. Typically, his shutters open out onto exteriors – onto the sky itself (he declared that he had imagined a blue sky full of white clouds behind these doors). One of his obsessions is Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, which had already provided him with a starting-point for reflecting on the survival of objects: but if he initially considered the chandelier as the protagonist of that painting, now it was the figures who came to the surface. “I’m sorry for Americans, who have so little history behind them, but for a Roman artist – and someone who grew up at stone’s throw from the Vatican walls – popular means the Sistine Chapel, a true Made in Italy brand.” It was Festa himself who established the difference between pop and popular: “The Americans were pop artists because they depicted real consumer goods as artistic symbols from which to draw inspiration. We Italians have been popular because we succeeded, conversely, in being consumers of the art itself, with citations and extrapolations, like the ones I did with fragments of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement”. In an in-depth essay on the relationship between Festa and Michelangelo, Elisa Francesconi mentions the American writer William Demby’s important text about Articolazioni totali by Lo Savio (I have already quoted from this several times
regarding the latter), which speaks of Michelangelo’s Adam and Eve, of the Miracle of the Creation, and of the Pietà. The author correctly notes that Festa entitled his first Michelangelo iconography Particolare della Sistina dedicato a mio fratello Lo Savio (Detail from the Sistine Chapel dedicated to my brother Lo Savio), and she connects this series with the exhibition on Michelangelo curated by Paolo Portoghesi and Bruno Zevi in 1964. This was the same year as the Biennale that saw the triumph of Pop Art, in which Festa exhibited two versions of The Creation of Man, where the images were printed on large-scale sheets glued onto wood panel and then repainted. A different way of using collage, which generally came from an assemblage of numerous fragments, and of making it, as the artist himself says, the protagonist of the picture. “I remember him walking near Via del Panico, obese and apathetic, dragging a swollen and visibly sick leg: it was Tano Festa, an artist, they told me. I was a boy, and only later did I understood his importance, and that he had achieved detachment from that / this society. He exchanged small painted canvases and portraits for food or money, and a friend of his who owned a pizzeria often gave him dinner. Tano Festa; Ora Pro Nobis. Then I grew up with his works, and those of Franco Angeli and Mario Schifano, the putative fathers of my being an artist, and of the path I took. Tano Festa; Ora Pro Nobis. So, Dear Tano, my father, I thank you for the contempt, the paintings and the intelligence with which you countered this petty bourgeois world. Tano Festa; Ora Pro Nobis. Dear Tano, thanks for the poetic gesture you succeeded in translating into your ‘Coriandoli’ – the coloured desperation of an endless Carnival. Tano Festa; Ora Pro Nobis.” Paolo Canevari
Long afterwards, with the Coriandoli, Festa returned to the fragment, but retaining the idea of a single surface. Francesconi herself emphasises the importance in those years of a text like Rudolf Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception, for its investigation of both Gestalt theory and figurative art. Festa may also have taken up this interesting reference in the Coriandoli. When he returned from the U.S. (his mother, Signora Anita Vezzani, told me that Tano didn’t want to live there) for his 1965 one-man show at the Galleria Tartaruga, he began to overlay Michelangelo’s figures from the Medici Tombs with squares, latticework and little discs – small round shapes which Morosini and Francesconi connected with American optical art. In that same year, in New York, The Responsive Eye, the great exhibition of op and kinetic art, was held at MoMA - it also involved Italian artists such as Castellani himself, and Getulio Alviani; and Brian De Palma made an excellent film about it. As always trenchant and lightning-quick, Maurizio Fagiolo spoke of an “homage-insult to op-art”. Could those little balls, for instance, in Particolare delle Tombe Medicee, perhaps be the ancestors of the Coriandoli? In other words: could the Coriandoli come from a number of schematic, rigid visual patterns, maybe updated through the structure of pixels? The artist always stressed the cerebral nature of his work, going as far as to say “I believe that pop art has nothing to do with my work. In some respect I feel closer to conceptual artists”. The mental grid that Tano Festa draws over his vision of the world in paintings like Il clima felice degli anni Sessanta (The Happy Climate of the Sixties) or Gli amici del cuore (Best Friends) – paintings that contain words, names of artists and friends who together with him form an extraordinary cultural fabric – is the representation of a conceptual sort of attitude that Festa shares with his brother, the great prophet of minimalism Francesco Lo Savio, and with other comrades like Mario Schifano. For Schifano, it was about framing a picture like a slide (the symptom of an already-reproduced world), filtered through the tools of mechanical reproduction – camera, movie camera, television. For Festa, it was a squared grate enclosing and displaying words, a show of language, a mechanism for conveying thought through visualisation and physical presence. “Coriandoli: if there was ever a sign, a gesture, that was free, and light, and airy, something that could find in a single stroke, like a rolling of dice, Pollock’s space, Klein’s blue, Seurat’s pointillism, Sandro Penna’s sickness, Neorealism and Fellini, boredom, Alfa Romeo and a space made of light ... it was given by Tano Festa ... joy and melancholy, and a feast for our eyes”. Gianni Dessì
But how did the Coriandoli come to be? Let’s listen to what Memmo Mancini, the “coloraio”, says. He was the one every artist trusted – Mario Schifano, Franco Angeli, Balthus, Cy Twombly, Mimmo Paladino, Enzo Cucchi – and in the little old shop in Via del Gesù he provided canvas, acrylic, glazes, pigments, and made stretchers, and took part, with the wisdom of his profession, in the making of the work: “Tano always used to come to me here, he could barely stand up any more. He says to me: ‘I have to work, let’s call up Mazzoli’. We select twenty or thirty 130 x 162 cm canvases. Then he goes away. He’d gone to Vertecchi and comes back with great bags of confetti (coriandoli). We took some washable Morgan’s paint and started making these grounds on absorbent canvas. He spread the glue more or less all over, the way he wanted, and then started to throw handfuls of confetti over it. Then he covered it all with a transparent plastic. We had to send them to Mazzoli. ‘What shall we call them?’ says he, and I said, ‘Call them like the song by Mina – ‘Coriandoli di Festa!’; a pun on Coriandoli “by Festa” and “Party confetti”. Then he made more in other formats, with the same technique. He called them Le Aurighe (the Charioteers). He was having an identity crisis, and sometimes signed himself with other names”. He even signed some pictures ‘Nicoletta Strambelli’, the real name of Patty Pravo, who was his passion, as Alessandro Cucchi has said2. Alessandro himself tells the story, having probably heard it from his father Enzo Cucchi, who spoke to me about it too, in Memmo’s shop: it happened in Via del Babuino in Rome, in the Soligo studio, in a courtyard where Luce Monachesi also had her gallery, after Tano had offered to paint a portrait of Sandro Chia and Enzo himself. Enzo walked away and Festa only made Sandro’s portrait: “As soon as he’d finished the picture, with the paint still wet on the canvas, Tano went down the street, stopped the first luxury car he saw and said [in Romanesco, the regional idiom of Rome], ‘Hey, are you going to buy this picture? Two million [lire]. Too much!? But do you know who this is!?’, pointing to the subject of the portrait, ‘...this is a big one! In America, they sell his pictures for fifty million each – and you’re not going to buy this one for two million!? Go on, grab it!’. The man driving the car bought the work”. Enzo, Sandro and Tano were certainly bound by friendship, respect and affection, but what did Tano think of his two younger friends? Antonella Amendola interviewed him, and he responded thus to the question of whether he felt envious about the successes of Transavanguardia [Italian Neo-expressionism]: “No – how could I be envious of people I care about and respect? I just think with a little regret what America in the 2
in FESTA, ed. by Alessandro Cucchi, Rome: NERO, 2013
Sixties could have been, and what it wasn’t. When I was hanging out in the States, and I was hanging out especially because I had a really beautiful girlfriend called Barbara, I’d become a friend of Oldenburg and Ben Birillo, the great pop art dealer... but the tough nut was Castelli. He was aloof and condescending, and made it clear to me that it was better to beat it. And I can understand that: pop art was the first original movement in American painting, and they were proud of their ‘champions’, finally free of their subjection to European culture: they didn’t want intruders”. Tano was naturally cultivated, his poems are beautiful. Cucchi was a born poet too. Enzo Cucchi himself tells the story that Tano could recite Tolstoy and Ezra Pound by heart. And it was absolutely Cucchi’s idea to have a show in January 2016 at The National Exemplar in New York: Enzo Cucchi, Tano Festa, Dan Colen - the latter another artist who admired Festa.
Trombadori for having suggested that the art of Festa’s Coriandoli may be what lies behind the great expressive freedom of Giulio Turcato (another “artists’ artist”), that light, almost nonchalant manner he has of pasting aspirins, banknotes and carbon paper on the surface, and making light and colour out of it. “A handful of paper stars” as Nikla Cingolani said, the Coriandoli fanno “festa” - a pun in Italian for ‘bringing a festive mood’ – they’re manna from heaven. “A breath of air sends them up and lets them wander until Chaos places them in the splendour of simple form – the sole certainty of art” according to Angelo Capasso. The Coriandoli, which begin to appear in the 1980s, are precise, even if they are randomly arranged on the canvas. They design galaxies. They give vibrancy to the surface. Could they be the heirs of those dots on the body of Dawn, witty re-visitations of optical patterns, like a rediscovery of Michelangelo? This is certainly a way of creating painting without painting. It is once again a gesture that carries within it both painting and anti-painting. An other way of “touching the canvas again”, as Ettore Spalletti once said to me.
“About 10 years ago at a friend’s house, in the dining room, I saw a picture with Festa’s confetti for the first time. ‘How naïve’, said my friend, ‘he thinks it was New York that called him’. I remember that from a distance, it looked like a small burst of light, an artificial fire, but close up it was the party with a roof made of that artificial fire. There was no change of intensity, depending on how close you were – the work remained intense and unpredictable. The picture reminded me of both the night sky, with flying confetti, and the roadway with confetti over it, keeping the same patterns they had in the air. Sky and earth united by an embroidery made of the chance, arcane harmony of a throw of confetti – a joke, a call, a veil, an impermanent colouring of the world”. Massimo Bartolini
The paintings with confetti – like all of Festa’s works, really – are a frontier zone between painting and the world.
Enrico Castellani opening quote Translation by Howard Rodger Maclean, courtesy Fondazione Enrico Castellani
Tano Festa was an “artists’ artist”, loved by his comrades as he was by the younger generation artists. Many of them even bought works by him. “I live surrounded by pictures that keep me company”, says Ettore Spalletti. “At home I have a one with confetti by Tano Festa. I’ve always imagined that he just threw them on the painted canvas when he got home”. Spalletti loves Festa’s Coriandoli, but he is not alone. Emilio Prini loved them too, and so did Gino De Dominicis, who spoke to me about them on several occasions. I am grateful to my friend Duccio
This catalogue was published in the occasion of the exhibition ‘CORIANDOLI – TANO FESTA’, M&L Fine Art, London, October-November 2017 Text by Laura Cherubini Photographs Mario Di Paolo Translation Frank Dabell
“The first time I saw one of the Coriandoli it was in a back room at Poggi [the art supply store in Rome]; it had a blue background. It looked like a work that had been done the day before, and had a marvellous freshness. I wished I’d done it, that painting”. Elisabetta Benassi Ideally, this text should have a soundtrack. Tano Festa singing Angeli negri by Fausto Leali: “Pittore ti voglio parlare, mentre dipingi un altare…” (Painter, I want to speak to you, while you paint an altarpiece). “Because if I went on making confetti I’d be showered with gold in America, but I prefer to be an old Roman tramp, the kind that asks for ten thousand lire for a drink, so I don’t have to make confetti any more.” 3 Tano Festa
3 interview by Aldo Ricci, “L’ultimo giorno di Festa”, Frigidaire, October 1991, no. 130; from FESTA, ed. by Alessandro Cucchi, Rome: NERO, 2013.
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