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by Walter Robinson
The face of Artissima 13, the International Fair of Contemporary Art in Turin, Nov. 10-12, 2006, was a 13-year-old girl, very cute, done up rather raffishly, teenage-style -- that is, probably a little too grown-up for her age. With her heavy mascara and black tube dress, she stared out from the fair map and catalogue as well as from posters around town, urging everyone to "Feel Contemporary" -- the theme of this year’s show.

Artissima is positioning itself as the most contemporary of Italy’s three art fairs (the others are Arte Fiera in Bologna in January, soon to celebrate its 31st installment, and MiArt, now going on 12, which takes place at the end of March). "Rome is the political capital of Italy and Milan is the economic capital, but Turin is the capital of contemporary art in Italy," said Paola Rampini, who produces Artissima with her husband, Roberto Casiraghi. The fair is sponsored by local and regional goverments and Gruppo UniCredit bank. Illy provides free coffee for the VIPs, and Fiat supplies official transport.

Whether Turin outstrips Milan when it comes to contemporary galleries is a matter of opinion, but Turin can claim supremacy as far as contemporary art museums are concerned. The Castello di Rivoli, the 18th-century palazzo that was reclaimed from the brink of ruin and reopened in 1984 as the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea (headed by Ida Gianelli), currently houses both an overwhelming installation of drawings, maquettes and major sculptures by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen and a retrospective of photographs by the 20th-century Italian architect, designer, aviator and skiing instructor Carlo Mollino, as well as a floor of installations by important contemporary artists, ranging from Gianni Caravaggio and Gino De Dominicis to Anselm Kiefer and Sol LeWitt.

At Turin’s Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, known as GAM, is a second half of the Mollino show, featuring everything from furniture and architectural drawings to his aerodynamic automobile and airplane designs. Turin also has the Fondatione Merz, which opened in 2005, and the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, where the estimable Francesco Bonami is curator, most recently organizing a survey of new Chinese, Korean and Japanese art titled, rather surprisingly, "Alllooksame?"

As for Artissima, it is housed in Lingotto Fiere, the former Fiat factory converted by Renzo Piano into a convention and hotel complex (and containing as well the Pinacoteca Marella e Giovanni Agnelli, a gallery complete with helicopter pad). Of the more than 170 participating galleries in Artissima 13, 90 were Italian, with 13 from Germany, nine from both France and the Netherlands, seven from Great Britain and a dozen from the U.S., including Cherry and Martin (Los Angeles), Inman (Houston), Lora Reynolds (Austin) and Florence Lynch, Maccarone, Marvelli, Newman Popiashvili and Parker’s Box (all New York).

Several special booths featured artists selected by different curators, who included New Museum senior curator Dan Cameron and Katerina Gregos, artistic director of the Argos Centre for Art and Media in Brussels. The fair also featured a series of panels, overseen by Artists Pension Trust president David Ross and featuring speakers ranging from artists Eric van Lieshout and Steve Mumford to Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg and curator Massimiliano Gioni.

But Artissima’s most distinctive feature was, no doubt, the color-coded aisles. That is, each hallway was carpeted with broad runner of a different color, nine in all, making the fair one of the most navigable ever.

Much of the work to be found along those aisles is, naturally enough, by Italian artists. At Galleria Blu from Milan, a five-meter line by Piero Manzoni, made in 1959 and still in its signature canister, was €38,000. The gallery was founded 50 years ago in Milan by Penino Palazzoli, and is now run by his grandson, Luca Palazzoli. How did he like the fair? "I like wine and food," he said, "and then art."

He quickly became serious, in the presence of a journalist. "In Italy, Artissima is the best fair for contemporary art." In addition to several Manzoni "Achromes" and works by other Arte Povera artists, Blu was showing works by Davide Nido, a Milanese abstractionist who was born in 1966. One of his paintings -- allover abstractions done in enamel so that each patch of color is very fluid yet discrete -- recently sold at Christie’s London and got a good price, almost £15,000 (about $27,000). At the gallery, a work measuring one meter square is €10,000.

The Milan gallery Cardi, which was established in 1972, was featuring Arte Povera works in its booth. A large (200 x 180 cm) wall piece from 2000 by Jannis Kounellis, covered in lead, with three large burlap bags filled with coal hanging from three metal hooks, was marked sold for €170,000. In May, the gallery had done a show of new works by Pier Paolo Calzolari (b. 1943), all involving refrigeration units, one of his signature techniques. The show included several of his classic Arte Povera pieces as well. One of these was in the booth, an untitled 1975 wall piece covered with lead and holding a thin shelf, on which sit three burning candles. The flame blackens the surface of the top half, while the wax drips down onto the bottom part. The price was €75,000.

Though I hate art with mirrors in it, I do have a weakness for works by Michelangelo Pistoletto (b. 1933). At the booth of Oredaria Arte Contemporanee, which was opened in Rome in 2003 by Marina Covi Celli -- "oredaria" can be translated as "exercise yard," and the gallery has a courtyard that suggested the name -- was a single, small (50 x 50 cm) Pistoletto piece, a polished stainless steel square with a silk-screened image of a hand holding a key (a loaded sign, if that’s what you want). Pistoletto made a series of 50 such works in 2004, titled "50 Azioni," and exhibited them at Oredaria, dating them 1962-2004. This example is €30,000.

Also scattered throughout the fair are works by the five "Transavantguardia" artists, as critic Achile Bonita Oliva dubbed them back in the 1980s, notably Nicola De Maria. The 57-year-old artist lives in Turin and releases relatively few works to his dealers, according to Anna Biasutti of the Turin gallery Giampiero Biasutti. The two paintings on her walls, marked by a multicolored patchwork overlaid by insouciant white stars and flowers, are €80,000 and €120,000. One of De Maria’s works from the 1980s sold at Sotheby’s London in October for about $158,000, an auction record for the artist.

Another veteran of the Italian scene is Massimo Minini, who opened his gallery in Brescia in 1973. At Artissima, his booth included a bright "cell" painting by Peter Halley and a slab of glass by Anish Kapoor, as well as two large photographs by the Genoa-born artist Vanessa Beecroft. Her works were in many booths at the fair, but these were from a performance mounted in May at the National Gallery in London -- dinner for 90 art-world insiders at a large, x-shaped table, with 15 or so beautiful, brown-skinned models, clad only in bikinis made of real tropical flowers, posed in the center right on the tabletop.

The young women look chagrined or aggravated, the diners self-absorbed, adding up to a formidable comment on the bourgeois character of the avant-garde that conjures up the spirit of Luis Buñuel. Minini showed three larger ones at the Frieze Art Fair in London and sold them all for $45,000 each. These two photos, which are done in an edition of three and measure about 3 x 6 ft., are $25,000 apiece.

One of the newer galleries at the fair -- it opened in February of 2006 -- was opened in Milan by Francesca Minini, Massimo’s daughter. She works with about ten artists, most of them Italian -- including Paolo Chiasera, Deborah Ligorio, Gabriele Picco and Riccardo Previdi. "I’m a new Italian dealer and I want to promote Italian artists," she said. One popular work at the booth was a pair of large beanbag chairs, made -- from bags for fertilizer and plant food, for some reason -- by Francesco Simeti, a Sicilian artist who is currently living in New York. They’re €2,500 each.

The Dutch art dealer Manuela Klerkx opened her Galleria Klerkx in Milan one year ago, after working for Massimo di Carlo, Karsten Greve and others. One of the artists in her booth was Simone Tosca, who qualifies as a digital artist. Using a computer program of his own devising, he processes photos of flowers into what he calls "Shapes," wall-mounted monochromes that have a series of stripes across the bottom that serve as a "key" to match the source with the end result. "He’s working towards a new way of painting," Klerkx said. She admitted she had sold many of his works, which range in size and are priced at €2,600-€6,000.

Still another new gallery is Mary Mary, which opened in Glasgow as a commercial space in May (though it had been an artist-run gallery since 2004). The two Marys, explained gallery director Hannah Robinson, are the novelist Mary Shelley and her mother, the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. One wall of her booth was devoted to small, rough-hewn sculptures of painted terracotta by Nick Evans, who thinks of his curiously compelling if formless objects as "models for things," Robinson said. An untitled example from 2006, which has a bottom section of black paraffin, is a steal at £1,500.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine. He can be reached at Send Email