Different Strokes

Artist Jeffrey Vallance interviews the master of surrealism—in the afterlife. Jonathan Wingfield listens in.

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Different Strokes
Mario Merz’s La frutta siamo noi, 1988.

Different Strokes

Artist Jeffrey Vallance interviews the master of surrealism—in the afterlife. Jonathan Wingfield listens in.

If someone were taken blindfolded from one contemporary art collection to another and then another, it’s very possible he would think he was still in the same place. Collectors have developed the tendency to buy the same art as their peers, and to use the same architects for their exhibition spaces. I don’t mean the same artists, but literally the same works of art produced in editions of three, four, five, or six, with a variable number of artists’ proofs. Some video artists have even come up with a genial concept called the linear version, meaning that a piece that is originally presented in a series of multiple, often complicated projections can be magically transferred into a single DVD to be viewed at home on a basic flat-screen. Uniformity seems to be the key to collecting today.

That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised when I arrived in Reggio Emilia, a town in one of the most prosperous areas in northern Italy, and discovered a hidden treasure: the Maramotti collection. It is housed in a 1957 industrial building that had served as a MaxMara factory and was converted in 2003 to host the art trove of Achille Maramotti, the company’s founder.

Strong collections express two things: first, the vision of the collector, and, second, their role as witnesses to a specific time in history. This mini museum meets these two criteria—which is not to say that all the art in it is good or that all the choices are the best. But seeing the selection was especially compelling for me, since many of the pieces are from the Seventies and Eighties—the time when, as a young artist, I landed in New York, while Italian compatriots like Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, and Sandro Chia (the famous three C’s of the art world) were at their peak. I felt like I was going back to an era when patrons used their gut feelings and their hearts rather than their brains to choose art.

A successful collection also allows the viewer to understand which artists were truly relevant during a particular time. In Maramotti’s case you can clearly trace what his impulses were, starting with the conventional acquisitions from the Fifties and Sixties—Burri to the Arte Povera—then moving into the feverish Seventies and Eighties. If current artists tend to create the same work over and over, in the Eighties artistic output was insanely varied. I remember the irresistible wave of paintings invading New York and Europe as if there were no tomorrow; but tomorrow did arrive—quite regularly, in fact—and ruthlessly wiped out many of the artists who at the time we thought would be around forever.

Acquiring art is not always a pleasant business; it is impossible to have successes without enduring failures. The Maramotti collection shows, without shame, both the works that have stood the test of time and those that haven’t. It expresses the human fallibility of a true enthusiast: his love affairs with some artists, his fidelity to others, and his painful retreat from many whose work did not develop as imagined. Maramotti seems to have taken pride in defending internationally obscure figures like local hero Claudio Parmiggiani, whose 1989 Caspar David Friedrich installation of a suspended black boat ferrying three black painted canvases across an imaginary river is given one of the most spectacular rooms.

Helped by Mario Diacono, an Italian dealer based in Boston who looked like a Beat poet, Maramotti followed the most interesting artists of the Eighties into the Nineties and even the beginning of the new century. But then collecting underwent a radical shift. In the Eighties art followed money; in the new millennium, money started chasing art. A man like Maramotti, who was very much aware that money isn’t in unlimited supply, did not find himself at ease in this new atmosphere. In the years prior to his death in 2005, he rejected the acquisitive frenzy of the new art scene and its exorbitant price tags.

At the time of its conception, the mid-Fifties, the Maramotti building was extremely innovative. Half a century before environmentalism became a concern, it was designed using natural light and ventilation. The collection inside it somehow mirrors the architecture that surrounds it, conveying an organic balance. The building and its contents work as a time capsule—a distinctly unique one, in an era of far too many “linear versions.”

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