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Susan Sontag
Guccione's place

in Guccione
Fabbri Editori 1989

For some years now I have been an admirer of Piero Guccione's beautiful, complex itinerary. This is art of large, refined ambition, replete with traditional modernist intensities of personal vision and a serene oattention to the inhuman. What is less than fully modernist about Guccione is that the work does not propose a transgressive relation to painting itself. And – less than typically contemporary about his work – there is no ironic distance from the way painting embodies thought fullness or arouses feeling. Guccione does not regard the past as something either to be annulled or to be (in the current jargon) appropriated. And he is not offering, through art, yet one more assault on the spectator's powers of empathy.
The absence of the familiar forms of mockery or alienation seems to present difficulties for the constructors of reputations – that is of the art genealogies upon which reputations are based. When critical and curatorial judgments are not that different from sociological or journalistic ones, art has to be... relevant. Work that is produced in relative isolation from the dialogue about modern culture and its ruins – I think now about Guccione (but I could also cite Howard Hodgkin, or Richard Diebenkorn) – is harder to locate. What is valued is work that can be described as advancing some cultural argument, or the ongoing debate about painting. For all the prestige that formalist ways of looking at art have enjoyed since the early part of the century, and despite the general agreement that art cannot be construed as progressing in a linear fashion (as the sciences do), the dominant codes of evaluating and ranking painters remain incorrigibly historical. The tendency is to understand art in terms of <<movements>> and << schools>> which emerge, flourish, exhaust themselves, and are superseded by a contrasting movement or school. The relentless multiplication of ambitious museum surveys and retrospectives and of art books confirm the ideology whereby art may be viewed – whatever its tendency – as didactic, vehement, developing; in an interminable argument with the past and with its own means (turning the easy into the difficult, the difficult into the easy); simultaneously destructive and progressive.
There is also geography: for more than a century the historicist criteria for painting are hinged to the history of various national reputations. In painting, far more than in literature, geography is destiny. A modern enterprise is, by definition, an international one; and painting would seem to have a relatively easier way of being international – unlike literature, it is not language – bound. In fact, it has proved much easier for literature, along with architecture and music, to escape the prejudices attached to its national provenance. The conventions of judgment (and the reputation of individual painters) seem firmly bound to the reputation of the country of origin. That Guccione is an Italian (in one version, a Sicilian) painter undoubtedly plays a large part in the relative neglect of his work abroad. Twentieth century Italian painting being defined as one of the provinces of art – in contrast to France, the United States, and more recently, Germany – means that he is expected to illustrate some self-confirming idea of the scope and relevance to be allowed a painter of this nationality. As a foreigner thinking about Guccione, I am aware, more aware than I would like to be, of the fact that his work does not command the attention outside Italy that it deserves. And even when the focus is on Italy, as is the exhibition earlier this year in London, <<Italian Art in 20th Century>>, an apparent absence of self-confidence about the real achievement of Italian painting seemed to make certification by foreign tastemakers and brokers of reputation the criterion for the genealogies constructed. Balla, Boccioni, Sironi, Morandi, safely dead and commanding ever higher prices on the art market, were all there. But the omission of Guccione was nothing less than a scandal, in a comprehensive survey that was supposed to represent (and up to the last decade or two did represent) the best Italian painters of the century. This last decade was treated as the one that produced Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, and Mimmo Paladino – the well-travelled contemporaries who were included. It may be a rule now that work rooted in an uncynical relation to the past will be slower to achieve the recognition it deserves. But in the current circumstances of the production and circulation of painting, it seems almost a necessary decency for a painter not to be rewarded with early celebrity, and to have a career that takes its time.
Guccione 's beautiful, grave, passionate paintings have a contemplative vigor that makes them hard to treat as relevant. When all the surveys are done, the schools constructed, the clamorous transactions of influence noted, this work will continue to speak in the necessary register: of inwardness, of singularity, of the love of painting itself.

 

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