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Susan Sontag
Guccione comes to America

in Guccione
Fabbri Editori 1989

On the principal meanings of modernity in the arts is their transnationality. For most of the century literature, architecture, and music have developed as an international, that is, modern enterprise. Think of the largest figure among contemporary Italian writers, Italo Calvino: though nourished by Italian models, such as the Operette Morali of Leopardi, Calvino is, precisely as a modern writer, an international one. But this development, which seems normative for modern styles in the arts, operates with difficulty in the case of painting. The transmission and reception of contemporary painting remains locked within national boundaries and identities. It seems harder for painting to travel than for the other arts.
In painting, there is a premium on the provincial. (Some have blamed this on the tendency of the art world to choose a capital – Paris before the Second World War; New York in the 1950s and I960s). Thus American painters dominated the consciousness of the art world for several decades; and if in the last years, Americans have become more aware of contemporary European painting, it is to discover new foreign teams – rather than individual artists. Thus, the interest in the newer German <<Neo-Expressionist>> painters (Kiefer et al) and in several younger Italian painters (who happen to be resident in New York). The result is that our knowledge of contemporary art is skewed, lopsided – particularly, I think, with art made in Italy. Starting with those painters grouped as Futurists – still the Italian painters best known abroad – Italian painting is and continues to be regarded principally in terms of <<schools>> and <<movements>>. The painters who are penalized by this system are precisely the most original, the unclassifiable. It was little more than two years ago that the work of Morandi had its first major exposure in New York at the Guggenheim Museum). And Piero Guccione, whom I consider the best contemporary Italian painter, and one of the finest painters at work today, is just beginning to be known here.
Guccione is a painter who brilliantly depicts both internal space (rooms, with or without figures; walls, windows) and external space. There is a heroic range of subjects – portraits, landscapes, machine studies, abstractions. Though his drawings show that he is a superb draftsman, he is above all a painter, with a stunning color sense. The earlier work alternates between muted and hard colors; many of the shapes are geometrical. For the last ten years the palette is mainly pastel, and the line is soft. Guccione will surely seem to his Italian public to have much of the <<South>> in his use of light, in the luscious palette – the colors of Monet and Degas, sun baked. But to an international audience that is rightfully his, Guccione's work seems as little tied to his native Sicily. (where he was born in 1935, and where he works now) as the subtle art of Richard Diebenkorn is redolent of that painter’s native California. (Like Diebenkorn, Guccione is a contemplative painter). This is subtle, attentive painting; painting that is never arrogant, or merely <<expressive>>; truthful, scrupulous yet subjective. Much of the recent work consists of empty, ecstatic landscapes. Even more recent work is a extraordinary series of blasted, heroic trees.
Guccione is a supremely conscious painter. But when he alludes to other painters with whom he has an affinity, the work is always more than omage. It is a dialogue. I am thinking of the six studies of a photograph of Francis Bacon, done between 1976 and 1979,and the many paintings based on themes of Casper David Friedrich, done between 1981 and 1984. The reference to Friedrich is a key to Guccione's sensibility. Friedrich saw landscape painting as a way of gaining purchase on the infinite. Guccione has similar ambitions. But unlike most other contemporary painters who can be called <<Romantic>>, this is a romanticism that is earned. Guccione is one of the few artists working today who have an intelligent, unbrutal relation to the continuities of western painting. He is painting at full strength, not seeking cheap solutions; aware of the past while infused by the self-consciousness of the modern, he is able to dominate that self-consciousness – and make it something generative and direct, not nihilistic or self-parodying. Guccione's work, neither decorative nor cerebral, always thoughtful, unaffectedly sensuous, gives one hope for the present of painting and its future.

 

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