A Tribute to Germano Celant
Robert C. Morgan
At the outset of his career in Genoa, Germano Celant was cited by colleagues as a critic on his way to becoming a major curator and art historian. This was in 1967. Anyone familiar with this eager 27-year-old writer understood Celant as an ambitious critic, a polemical critic, who in addition to writing regularly for the art and design magazine, Marcatre, was possessed by the idea of changing the direction of art.
This was the year he opened a group exhibition. titled Im Spazio (The Space of Thought), at the Galleria La Bertesca (Genoa), devoted to a group of mostly unrecognized Italian artists, who would become known collectively as Arte Povera. Those chosen for this seemingly incidental, out-of-the-way exhibition included Giuseppe Penone, Mario Merz, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Alighiero Boetti, Marisa Merz, and Michelangelo Pistoletto. To accompany this outlandish exhibition, Celant published “Arte Povera: Notes for a Guerilla War” in Flash Art, which opened the door of recognition not only for these artists, but preeminently for Celant.
This was the beginning of a monumental figure in the history and criticism of contemporary art that passed away unexpectedly on April 29 at the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan. His departure has been felt by numerous colleagues, ranging from museum directors, curators, critics, collectors, and major artists, as someone who functioned at the highest level of aesthetic understanding, what the curator Massimiliano Gioni has called his “precision and accuracy” that made itself known in his unfathomably numerous curatorial projects, his more than 200 books, not counting the hundreds of reviews and unending speaking engagements.
My introduction to Germano came in 1995 as we had both been invited to speak at a symposium at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires through the kind invitation (at the time) of Jorge Glusberg. I recall many countries were represented and we spoke on different days. We rarely had an opportunity to cross paths after that occasion, but I always sought out Germano’s consistency and depth of engagement in writing on the works of artists emanating from a variety of origins and his infallible ability to conceive and produce remarkable installations often in vastly distinct territories of cultural involvement. We have asked the following individuals to kindly recall or express their involvement with this luminous and engaging figure who congruously worked to define the varied definitions we understand relative to art today.
There are many things that have prompted me to write about Germano Celant. On the one hand, the need to still be able to hold a dialogue with him in some way and, on the other, the desire to add my own testimony, following his demise, to those of many others. Some of them truly touching. How to forget the intense words filled with affection and admiration with which Giulio Paolini has recalled their long and close working relationship? Or the barely whispered comment of Remo Salvadori, who in a single sentence, without even mentioning his name and in a voice cracking with emotion, said a hundred times more about him than so many others have?
Much has been said about Germano Celant’s extraordinary capacities as an art historian and curator and there is no need to repeat it here. For my part, I would like to take this opportunity to share some of my memories and to throw some light, through these few words of mine, on some aspects more closely linked to his personality and his character.
I first met Germano in America in 1990, when I was a young curator at the Wexner Center for Visual Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Since that time, I have worked with him on very many exhibitions and books. It was he who taught me a serious and professional method of work and research. With him I learned, to take just one example, how to tackle the grueling but fascinating task of compiling a catalogue raisonné.
Over the years we became colleagues and friends, until the time came when, having acquired greater experience, I felt the desire to take off on my own. He understood why I needed to put myself to the test, for one of his capacities was grasping the needs of others. Nevertheless, we continued to work on projects together and he was always there whenever I was in need of advice, generous with his inevitably invaluable suggestions.
It was difficult to get him to change his mind and the people who succeeded in doing it can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But there were exceptions and these were the voices of artists, who following a logic all of their own and passing through subterranean and invisible channels of communication, found a way to converse with him and to make contact with his more intuitive and less predictable side.
It is often said that Germano had a difficult character, in part this is true. At times he could seem harsh, although I cannot personally remember having ever had a real falling-out with him. He was certainly very strict and demanding, not just with others but also with himself, and only because he always wanted to do his best, whatever the occasion. He had a legendary ability to unearth errors. I will never forget him breaking into laughter, together with Anselm Kiefer, when opening at random the catalogue published for one of the artist’s exhibitions, with over 400 pages, he straightaway came across the reproduction of a work representing a tree trunk that had been printed horizontally instead of vertically. These were the sort of mistakes that he flushed out before going on to argue that a good book should contain at least one, two, or three errors, while four became a problem. This kind of observation made him a peerless teacher. Coming as I did from the university world of Rome, a somewhat snobbish one where the academic path was considered the only worthy one for someone who wished to go on studying, I was amazed and impressed by his iron discipline and his ability to get to the bottom of things. A rigor that he applied to the smallest as well as the biggest matters. From him I learned how to establish a relationship with artists, the way to “read” a space before putting an exhibition together, how to select the works, how to deal with history, and how to contribute to research through a method that he liked to call “scientific” and that was based above all on work. Work was also the key word that underpinned the whole of his unparalleled organization, something that often resulted in physical and mental prostration. I can remember spending whole nights putting the finishing touches on an exhibition or the publication of a catalogue on dozens of occasions, an experience with which everyone who has worked with him is familiar. People talk about the magnificence and spectacular nature of his exhibitions, especially the more recent ones, but I can say that it has always been like that. We should speak not just of his intellectual ability and discernment, but also his managerial skills in handling a group of people who were transformed under his direction, myself first and foremost, and gave the maximum of their potential. His teams allowed him to stage unsurpassable and unrepeatable events. But if he expected a great deal from everyone, all of us, in turn, received a lot from him. Because Germano’s true generosity lay in having thrown us continually and unsparingly into new challenges, in having pushed us to test our limits in order to raise us to as high a level of professionalism—this indeed—as it was possible to reach.
Germano Celant’s legacy will be a pervasive one and is certainly going to leave its mark over time. If I had to define it in just a few words, I would say that it is to him that many of us owe the capacity to have faith in ourselves, the wisdom not to try to obtain everything at once but to recognize that it takes time, the ability to make courageous choices, not to rest on our laurels and, no small thing, to succeed in retaining our freedom.
It has been said that Germano, despite the passing of the years, had remained the same militant critic he had been in the ’60s. Nothing could be more true. I would add that his strength lay in never having lost that desire to experiment, to look at everything that was going on in the sphere of art, and outside of it, in an original and never obvious way and in having the physical and mental flexibility that always allowed him to be in the right place at the right time. These are all characteristics that set him apart from the outset, that earned him the respect of the art world and that, united with his manic obsession for work, with his almost feline instinct for recognizing quality in people and in things and with his voracious hunger for knowledge, allowed him to become what he became.
When he did come up against an insurmountable obstacle, Germano, someone who never gave in easily, used in the end to say, with a smile, “that’s life!" by which he implied that in the face of the force, the inescapability of facts, and the concreteness of reality, it’s better to let things go and not to resist. I think that this phrase, in which all his wisdom was concealed, is what I will always carry with me.
Thank you again, Germano.
Translated by Shanti Evans
When Germano told me that his wife, Paris, was pregnant, he was so concerned to have a baby at his age (at the time he was 60). I vividly remember our conversation and I told him that he had such a young spirit so he shouldn't worry about this at all.
When his son Argento was born, that changed everything. His life was transformed and I never saw him so happy. I kept this photo of the three of us as a memory of true happiness.
Germano was not just a great scholar, writer, and curator. He was, most importantly, a wonderful human being and I can still feel his energy around.
It was Germano who made me known in the ’60s, and who accompanied me, from my first steps to the present time, in a felicitous and shared adventure.
Born the same year and in the same city (Genoa, 1940), as someone who has outlived him I bid him farewell this one last time with feelings of disbelief and sadness, confident that I will soon meet with him again in another place and in an unknown future (which future is not unknown?).
Space and Time were the absolute coordinates, but they were also the concrete ones of the work of art that together we would find ourselves indicating in a synchrony of views that constituted a delightful parenthesis amid the confused schools of thought at the time.
Ideas and materials went hand in hand in the endless dialogue with the images: we found ourselves being, together, the authors or the viewers in the scene of the representation.
Many events took place in our personal lives: as we undertook paths and embraced our passions we were far apart for long periods of time. And yet Germano was always there, ready to rekindle our understanding with a complicit gaze and fresh ideas: 1972 is the year of our first monographic text together, 2019 the date of its reprint…outbound, inbound, the end.
Both far apart and close together as always, thank you dearest Germano.
Turin, 29 April 2020
It was 1997. In Kiev. I was meeting you for the first time on the occasion of a group exhibition of Italian art I was part of together with Jannis Kounellis, he was also there with his partner Michelle Coudray. I was a young artist and I looked at all of you as if you belonged to another dimension, made up of truth, real values, true criticism. Foreign to the small world of commerce crowded with gallery owners and merchants, opportunisms and lies. You were History and you welcomed me like a son.
I did not know yet of the energies, teachings, words and actions that you were going to give me. I didn't know you would make me grow by looking inside me, showing me how a true artist lives and acts; that you would have esteemed and supported me; that with wise sensitivity you would have read and revealed some profound, hidden places of my works; that you would have accompanied me in my life as an artist; that together with your son Argento and your wife Paris, you would have been a great reference during my difficult years in the New York jungle. I owe you a lot, Germano.
You are the reference model I grew up with, the example I looked to. You and your fellow artists were my putative fathers, stern but understanding. My job as a young artist was to reach your level, to be your equal. A difficult task that will keep me busy forever.
Over the years you have built an international perspective far from the mainstream ideological conformism, you have defended a critical, ethical, and enlightened vision of art, which has not lived through easy shortcuts; you did it by opposing professionalism and intellectual values to the inconsistency of a devious and servile criticism that today more than ever is rampant.
The artists with whom you have worked and produced new visions, of which I am a proud part, testify to your militancy and your ideals.
For all this, once again I want to thank you. I miss you.
I remember my surprise when I received, around 25 years ago, a message from Studio Celant in Genoa.
They asked me to send to the Archivio Celant any information and publications regarding my works and the exhibitions I participated in over time.
I don’t know where Germano Celant might have seen my works and I only met him in person some years later.
Getting to know him and receiving his words dedicated to my work was an immense gift. A gift as immense as the pain I feel today in this a sadly inverted role as I write these words dedicated to him.
Germano Celant was magnetic, a gravitational system that created other gravitational systems.
He had an incredibly rapid eye for picking up on details in works invisible to others, placing them in relation to materials, time, space and context.
But he also had that slow and responsible awareness of history.
One of his most recent exhibitions, Post Zang Tumb Tuum, Art Life Politics. Italia 1918-1943, investigated the problem of the relationship between art and regime.
The exhibition and his intense catalogue text , “mostrare il mostrare”, oblige us to reflect on the ambiguous and perverse relationship, present even in our insulated contemporaneity, between power (political and otherwise), exhibition system and the scarce dissent on the part of artists with respect to its celebration. It is in fact history that allows us to comprehend the present, and the present that allows us to reinterpret history, and Germano Celant was one of the few with a profound understanding of this relationship.
As with other exhibitions he curated, the structure was immensely elaborate: from the invention of a new mode of representation and reconstruction of spaces, to the selection of works and through to the multitude of photographic reproductions and appendices in the enormous catalogue.
A choral work, to which hundreds of people contributed, this exhibition too created discordant opinions, as was almost always the case with his projects.
Because Germano Celant was eager to explore and provoke debate, as long as it was intelligent.
But he would never devote a moment of his precious time to those he felt were of no interest.
In a relationship with an artist he respected he was extremely generous and affectionate.
The bond was one of great complicity and exchange, the final objective was shared.
He would invent a unique curatorial approach for every project, offering the artist not only his intelligence and friendship, but also the constant and attentive presence of his faithful and competent staff.
Historian, theorist, critic and curator, having studied engineering for some years and received an honorary degree in architecture, he had an immediate understanding not only of space but also of the most physical and technical characteristics of materials.
It was in part this knowledge that enabled him to establish an intimate and fruitful rapport with every artist he approached.
A symbiotic complicity between different intellects, between extreme sensibilities, which compenetrated technically and philosophically to create a new relationship between the work, history and thinking.
A leaden silence had preceded for days and days the news of his death that fell like a razor’s slash. And a leaden silence remained for days to come.
In Italy we had all been locked up at home for weeks and the 29th of April was the peak of the epidemic.
Germano Celant had always done things in grand style and he left us amidst the longest silence of recent decades. Immersed in the most profound grief of recent decades.
Sadly, the terrible silence of the absence of Germano Celant will remain forever.
But his thinking and his words will continue to speak forever, interlacing with the works of art.
And his gravitational system will live on thanks to the people dearest and closest to him and all those who have worked with him on the infinite projects he pursued with the combative strength of a contemporary Titan.