As the unpleasant heat and humidity of summer approach, New York’s contemporary art enthusiasts begin to think about where they can do their art-looking in rather more tolerable conditions. They do not have to look very far. Heading up the Hudson valley, Storm King Art Center (which is 56 miles from Manhattan), Dia:Beacon (60 miles), The School | Jack Shainman Gallery in Kinderhook (125 miles), and even MASS MoCA (165 miles) are all within a day’s round trip drive. There is clearly room for more stops along the way, however, and on June 24 a new and rather significant addition opens in the town of Cold Spring, New York (which at 53 miles makes the it shortest trip of all). It is called Magazzino, a slightly confusing Italian word that simply means ‘warehouse’, and it is a 20,000 square foot space dedicated to postwar and contemporary Italian art. It is free and open to the public by appointment.
At the core of Magazzino is the Olnick Spanu collection of around 400 pieces of Arte Povera that has been put together by husband and wife Giorgio Spanu and Nancy Olnick. This is supplemented by a library and archive of more than 5,000 items, and their intention is nothing less than providing the American art public with a thorough understanding of Arte Povera, the direction that Olnick calls “the last avant garde genre of art in the 20th century.”
The first piece that visitors see as they approach the glass façade of Spanish architect Miguel Quismondo’s remarkable Magazzino building is Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Stracci Italiani (2007). The title translates as Italian Rags, and it describes the piece precisely: an enormous wall hanging made from ripped pieces of discarded clothing in the green, white, and red of the Italian tricolor. Director of Magazzino, Vittorio Calabrese, describes it in these terms, “Exhibiting a national flag made of rags could easily be read as a gesture of irreverence, even hostility. This would be to misunderstand the significance of rags in Pistoletto’s work. Rags are residual material, a ‘poor’ material in the specific sense that interested Pistoletto and other figures in the Art Povera movement. Working with rags, Pistoletto takes the scraps, the trash, the remainder of modern production and consumption and, in a sense, transfigures it. To reimagine the Italian flag as rags is to pose the question of how the founding ideals of Italy as a nation— justice, equality, fraternity—have always depended on, or can even perhaps be rediscovered in, its garbage.” Pistoletto himself is rather less explicit. When he saw Stracci Italiani hanging here, his simple comment was “Poor Italy—always in rags…”
It is true that Arte Povera is less well known in the US than it should be. Although, as Olnick points out, it was less a movement than a loose-knit grouping of “individual artists who expressed themselves uniquely,” it was first identified as a coherent group by Germano Celant in 1967. His expression “poor art” referred primarily to the non-art materials that these artists used, but it was also intended ironically: though the materials were poor, the work still aspired to a deep wealth of meaning and resonance. (Indeed, irony, which also surfaces in Pistoletto’s “always in rags” comment, is typical of Arte Povera itself.) Artists like Pistoletto, Alighiero Boetti, Jannis Kounellis, Marisa and Mario Merz, and Pier Paolo Calzolari (all of whom are in the Olnick Spanu collection) worked in the context of Sixties political radicalism and with a particular awareness of their country’s remarkable artistic legacy, to evolve an understated poetry in their art. Their sculpture and installations tend to demand a good deal of spectators, as the links between the disparate objects they employ, and the sense that they accumulate together, are often obtuse, rarely explicit, and perennially open to interpretation.
Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu did not begin by collecting Italian art. They started with American Pop Art (which Olnick had collected before they met) and moved on to Abstract Expressionism. They bought enough Dubuffets to fill an entire room. At the same time, they collected furniture by Jean-Michel Frank and Pierre Chareau and, perhaps surprisingly given Magazzino’s focus, they have also put together an outstanding collection of Murano glass.
They first encountered Arte Povera in 1992 when the Roman dealer Sauro Bocchi suggested they visit the collection at the Castello di Rivoli museum in Turin. The experience was “fabulous,” Olnick recalls, and the couple became immediate enthusiasts. When they met the artist Domenico Bianchi shortly thereafter, they first became aware of Margherita Stein, Bianchi’s dealer, a key figure in the history of Arte Povera, and the focus of Magazzino’s first exhibition.
News that Magazzino was in the works has prompted a good deal of media intrigue. Bloomberg announced last September that “A Huge Art Museum Is Secretly About to Open in the Hudson Valley,” and shortly thereafter Artnet called Magazzino a “Mysterious New Private Art Space.” In truth, however, Olnick and Spanu have not exactly been operating in secret. Their Olnick Spanu Art Program began in 2003 and since then it has commissioned a remarkable series of site-specific works by contemporary Italian artists for the property around their home a few miles from Magazzino in Garrison, New York. In addition, they have worked closely with Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at New York University, most recently to present the New York debut of Milanese artists Valentina Ornaghi and Claudio Prestinari.
Similarly, Arte Povera is hardly unknown in New York. Marisa Merz’s retrospective “The Sky Is A Great Space” currently remains on view at the Met Breuer (through May 7), Sperone Westwater represents both Boetti and Mario Merz, and Kounellis’s Untitled (Twelve Horses) (1969) was the talk of the town when it was restaged at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise a couple of years ago.
But Olnick and Spanu see themselves fulfilling an obligation. “Margherita Stein: Rebel with a Cause” is their tribute to the woman whom they see as the godmother of Arte Povera. “Margherita Stein established her gallery Christian Stein in 1966,” Nancy Olnick explains. “She took her husband’s name in order to have more credibility in the Italian art world of that time. She set out on her own, and really she had never done anything like this before, but she was passionate and creative. For a time her gallery was in her home. She supported these unknown artists in a way that was really incredible.” Her contribution was considerable. “I would say 90 percent of the works that we’re showing now,” Olnick says, “have either been in her personal collection or have been through her gallery.” New Yorkers with long memories may recall SteinGladstone, the SoHo gallery that she established in partnership with Barbara Gladstone in the early 1990s. “Margherita’s dream was to bring this work to the United States,” Olnick explains. “Not many people are familiar with it or understand it, so it’s wonderful for us to have the opportunity to realize her dream here, so that America gets to know about this work.”
“We want to open up a discussion about the role of Italian art,” says Vittorio Calabrese, picking up the theme, “especially in the postwar and contemporary cultural landscape. We feel strongly that this is work that’s unfairly neglected, especially in the American institutional context. So we see Magazzino as responding to a genuine need, as an act of advocacy. The artists associated with Arte Povera challenge us to confront our relation to post-industrial society in its full complexity, in all its simultaneous attractions and repulsions. This is work that has something to say to us.”