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by Mark Kostabi
Everyone agrees that Arte Fiera Art First in Bologna is by far the most important modern and contemporary art fair in Italy. But its organizers want more. They want to be an international event on par with Art Basel, Art Basel Miami Beach, the Armory Show and Frieze.

In search of that goal, Arte Fiera has made significant changes in the past several years. Fair organizers have ejected many dealers who were considered "too blatantly commercial," they have switched to larger pavilions and they have invited more international dealers. Whatís more, participating galleries are now required to present specific proposals for their booths a long seven months in advance of the annual fair, which always takes place at the end of January.

These changes have prompted both praise and criticism. Most visitors say the fair looks better, but some also say itís less fun. Many veteran dealers claim that sales are down, thanks to the new rules that impede spontaneous curatorial decisions. For example, if they propose a show in June, and discover the "next Basquiat" in October, the best they could do at Arte Fiera would be to display a few small works hidden in the boothís storage room next to the coat rack.

One dealer complained that once works were approved for the fair, he had to put them away in storage for half a year and couldnít sell them in the meantime, making it all the harder to run his business. Another complained that the show proposals are approved by a committee of other powerful dealers at the fair, which he said was a "conflict of interest." A famous non-Italian dealer at the event, whose sales were poor last year and this year as well, said, "It better get better or Iím not coming back."

On the plus-side, most Italian dealers said they did quite well this time, like Erminia Colossi of Galleria Incontro in Lombardy, who sold numerous works by Alighiero Boetti, Christo, Mimmo Rotella, Salvo, and Mark Kostabi (thatís me, by the way).

Iíve been coming to "Arte Fiera di Bologna" since the early 1990s. (Everyone in Italy refers to it as either "Arte Fiera" or "Arte Fiera di Bologna" -- in actual conversation, Iíve never once heard the fair called by its official, awkwardly translated English name, "Art First." (If I were the organizer, I would change it to the name people actually use, "Arte Fiera di Bologna," and possibly subtitle it "The Bologna Art Fair" in English.)

At Arte Fiera, I always enjoy taking note of which artists are the most ubiquitously exhibited. In past years it has been Enzo Cucchi, Jannis Kounellis or Mario Schifano. One year it was me. Last year it was overwhelmingly the New York Neo-Expressionist Donald Baechler, whose work was prominently displayed at over 10 gallery booths at Arte Fiera 2009. This year it was a tie between Boetti and Carla Accardi, both of whom have received much praise recently from New York critics, Boetti for his shows at Gladstone and Gagosian galleries, and Accardi for her presentations at P.S.1 and Sperone Westwater.

Sandro Chia was also very prominent at the fair this year. He has just had a major museum show at the Triennale in Milan, and a second big show is scheduled for the Galleria Nazionale díArte Moderna in Rome. Chia was also the final artist to show at the now-closed Charles Cowles Gallery in New York.

Chiaís works from the 1990s and Ď00s have often been dismissed as not up to the level of his robust paintings from the Ď80s, but considering the success of younger painters like Dana Schutz, to my eye, Chiaís current production looks as fresh and inventive as anything in Chelsea by the latest Yale grad. In fact, it looks a lot better, because Chia really knows how to paint and does so with uncompromising confidence. (He could use some work on his titles though. I hear thereís a game show in New York where the best art critics name paintings for $20 each.)

At the booth of Galleria Michela Rizzo from Venice I saw what looked like one of those anamorphic face sculptures by the crowd-pleasing Evan Penny and thought, "Wow he really got better!" Not only did the work retain his hyper-realistic ooh-ahh-ism, it was also carved out of variegated marble, giving it a sense of suggestion -- not just dazzling depiction. But then I was told that the sculpture was by the New York artist Barry X. Ball, whose latest show of melodramatic marble-carved busts at Salon 94 in New York was recently raved about in the New York Times by Ken Johnson.

Suddenly I heard the English language and a smart looking 50-something white-haired man -- the artist himself -- said, "I know this guy," referring to me. We go way back to the 1980s East Village art scene but I hadnít seen him since. We sat at the catalogue-piled desk in the art-fair booth and caught up for about an hour.

He said that 90 percent of his production ends up sold in Italy. I told him the same was true for me.† He told me he had taken over Johnson Atelier in New Jersey and runs a big sculpture-fabrication workshop there that Jeff Koons is beginning to use. He told me that his team, along with his advanced marble-carving machines, are 10 percent better than the finest craftspeople in Pietra Santa or anywhere else, because theyíre willing to go "to that weird place" which boggles the minds of traditional sculpture fabricators.

We counted assistants: he said heís up to nine but will be at 20 within a year. I said Iím down to 16 but going up again since the recession is ending. He said Koons is up to 120 and Hirst is at 180. Yikes! He said, in addition to working with Michela Rizzo in Venice, he sells directly to lots of top Italian collectors like Count Giuseppe Panza.

Rizzo was also showing some classical, lusciously subtle works by Lawrence Carroll, another American who has found a very supportive audience in Italy. In the Ď80s Carroll was one of New Yorkís most coveted artists, showing at Stefan Stux Gallery in SoHo, which was then considered to be the slickest looking gallery in New York, at least until Larry Gagosian rented a ground floor space from Sandro Chia on West 23rd Street in Chelsea and opened an even more polished and elegant showplace (making Gagosian technically the first Chelsea gallery).

In Bologna, people were talking about Bill Viola, who had a performance in a deconsecrated church during Arte Fiera, collaborating with the celebrated Estonian composer Arvo Part. At the fair, James Cohan Gallery presented a smaller Bill Viola video installation, which of course had many fair visitors totally mesmerized. Cohan was the only New York gallery actually owned by an American at the fair.

The other New York galleries are owned by Italians, or partially, like Sperone Westwater, who showed three crowd-stopping Evan Penny works and three fake-diamond-encrusted urinals by Nicola Bolla, among other things. Sperone Westwater partner and gallery director David Leiber told me that the galleryís new eight-story facility on the Bowery, designed by Norman Foster, is slated to open in September 2010 with a show by Guillermo Kuitca.

Flash Art editor-at-large Gea Politi, who is the daughter of magazine founder Giancarlo Politi and his wife Helena Kontova, told me that one of her favorite booths was that of Pilar Corrias, a young Italian whose gallery is in London. I hopped over there and met the simpatica gallery owner, who explained to me that her gallery is new but already does several fairs a year and that she works very hard on every individual sale. Dubbed day-glo feeling, Her booth included an abstract cuckoo clock by Tobias Rehberger, in which a white "sphere of perfection" emerges every few minutes from the middle of day-glo painted concentric circles.

Crowds stopped at the booth of Byblos Art Gallery from Verona to marvel at Patricia Piccininiís The Stags, a sensuous sculpture of two surrealistic, biomorphic motorcycles engaged in a mating dance.

The always provocative yBa Mark Quinn surprised viewers with his new "love paintings," inspired by the graffiti in the Juliet House in Verona, works that extend the spirit of Armanís accumulations with a nod to Joseph Grigely.

Rodolpho Parigi locked my eyes from a distance with his illusionistic, brightly colored spiky geometric abstraction at AMT / Torri & Geminian from Milan. Parigi looks like he could easily have a hugely successful career with works like this, giving abstract painters like Torben Giehler a run for their money.

At PACK Galleria díArte was a preview of an artist whoís coming to Gagosian Galleryís branch in uptown New York this spring: Alberto Di Fabio, whose Ride the Comet from 2010 had a big red dot stuck on its wall label. Alberto, my neighbor in Piazza Vittorio in Rome, once told me that his close friend Cy Twombly is incredibly serious and intense about his work and that Larry Gagosian cares for and respects artists more than anyone he knows.

At MARCOROSSI artecontemporanea from Milan, the 33-year-old Nicolŗ Samori was showing one of his school-of-Odd-Nerdrum-but-better paintings, an Old Masterish portrait with sudden in-key paint smears sliding down the canvas.† In front of the canvas was a bizarre figurative sculpture, also by Samori, staring at the painting. Another three of his paintings were shown elsewhere in the fair. This is an artist who could easily have a huge international career. Itís only a matter of time before a gallery like 303 or Peter Blum or Mike Weiss snaps him up.

At Fabjbasaglia from Rimini, Mimmo Rotellaís 1999 decollage, Virtual, blew me away with its sexy image of a woman’s tongue elegantly morphing into one of his signature lacerations. I also loved the way another laceration near her nose simultaneously suggested a bird in flight while echoing her spidery eyelashes. I felt like I could write a book on just this one Rotella masterpiece. David Salle once had a whole show of paintings made on top of copies of Rotellaís decollages.

The artist Huma Bhabha, who is participating in next monthís Whitney Biennial, was a standout at Milan dealer Paolo Curtiís stand. Curti has an eye for latching on to superstar talent early on. Not that Iím a superstar or anything, but he was the first dealer to bring my paintings to Italy, after buying them from Larry Gagosian in 1985. Since then Iíve sold over 10,000 paintings in Italy. I should probably at least give him a box of chocolates.

On the more expensive side of things, Mazzoleni from Turin was showing a 1953 Alberto Burri masterpiece called R 1 and was asking Ä2,200,000 for it. The work was surrounded by other masterpieces by Giorgio de Chirico, Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni.† Last year I sold Mazzoleni ten of my small paintings during the fair. He sold them all pretty fast so I asked him if he wanted some more this year, but he said no. I said "You canít say no." Then he said, "Okay, send me some jpegs." This is really the way I sell art sometimes.

London dealer Ben Brown was offering a pair of brilliant 1967 Andy Warhol portraits of the late New York art dealer Sidney Janis for Ä75,000 each. One of them really impressed me with its transporting 1960s Mad Men esthetic, featuring also a young, stylish Carol Janis with a white shirt, tie but no jacket and a brilliant, scratchy good bad printing passage scarring its surface neatly, making it perfect. The painting made me feel like I was there.

For another example of pure quality, I couldnít avoid lingering on an exquisite Henri Matisse-like Pablo Picasso drawing of a reclining nude at Anna DíAscanio, an historically important, glamorous and charming Rome dealer who explained that while it was not in the Zervos catalogue, the quality plus Claude Picassoís authentification justified its Ä220,000 price.

And not that Iím into myself or anything, but many people thought the best booth in the entire fair was that of genius avant-garde Rome dealer Pio Monti, who presented a one-person show of photographer Elisabetta Catalano. The veritable survey of her portraits of important figures in recent Italian art -- Cucchi, Gino de Dominicis, Kounellis , Achille Bonita Oliva, Luigi Ontani, Emilio Prini, Michelangelo Pistoletto -- somehow included me, right next to de Dominicis, the artistic father of Maurizio Cattelan.

Arte Fiera di Bologna is doing well. Clearly, it will continue to dominate in Italy. It wants to be more international. Most people believe itís a great art fair made in Italy, by Italians for Italians. I personally donít think thereís a need for it to become more international. The rest of the world needs to become more Italian.

MARK KOSTABI is an artist based in New York and Rome. His television show, The Kostabi Show, can be viewed online.