Radical Italian Art Goes Over the Top, Dazzlingly, in Houston

Capitello, designed 1971, made c. 1972–78, by Studio65, manufactured by Gufram©. Polyurethane foam and Guflac®. (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Dennis Freedman Collection, gift of Dennis Freedman. © 1971 Studio65, Brad Bridgers, photographer)
A chair crafted by woodworms, a buffet made of car doors, eye-popping color … serious whimsy for an Italy shattered by WWII.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE R adical: Italian Design, 1965–1985, from the Dennis Freedman Collection is the unusual, fascinating new show at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. The “Radical movement” — composed of young Italian artists, teachers, and architects — was a fleeting, disorganized one, with more than a few aesthetic bomb throwers. Prepare for an abundance of fun, even kinky chairs, tables, cabinets, and lamps. The Radicals were scrappy intellects, too, advancing entirely new ways to think about design.

I visited the great Houston museum last week. This is the first of two stories about the museum’s programs. Later this week, I’ll write about its show of the late work of Francis Bacon and its new Steven Holl wing, now under construction.

I often don’t like single-collector shows. Mostly, they have no content except for the love letter the museum sends to the collector — the museum covets the collector’s booty. In this case, Freedman is the go-to guy for Radical art. His collection is the best in the world. It’s a niche movement but an influential one and, to my surprise, unplowed territory. Freedman has already proven how generous he is to the museum. So I adore this show, even though I would have done it a bit differently.

Installation view of Radical: Italian Design 1965–1985, The Dennis Freedman Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (Will Michels)

How can you not love Cielo, Mare, Terra Buffet, from 1964? It’s the quirkiest piece of dining-room furniture I’ve seen and, yes, those are two car doors from the Fiat 600 Prima series. While some of the objects were mass-produced and -marketed, most are one-offs, and, besides, commercial success wasn’t the point. The artists wanted to change the world. They were utopians.

The exhibition is 70 objects presented in a dazzling setting: one sweeping gallery that evokes a high-end design showroom. It’s rare to see an installation that’s a work of art in itself. It’s an open-concept space inspired by the unrealized 1969 No Stop City project designed by Archizoom Associati, a Radical architects collaborative based in Florence.

The No Stop City project envisioned an endless city with no walls. Remember, these artists are utopians. Since the museum occupies a real world, the exhibition does indeed have boundaries. They’re attractive, reflective walls, like rippling mirrors, suggesting infinity but also making me queasy. Remember, these artists weren’t practical.

I’ll offer readers and visitors a caveat, and I think the exhibition should have made this point at the beginning. The Radicals were mostly theorists and mostly students and young professionals. There’s a touch of the beatnik and a touch of the hippie here. Very little of their work was produced in mass and sold. The group was loose. They didn’t have rules. It didn’t as much collapse in discord as quietly, gradually disperse. Utopians married, had bambini who cried when hungry and, those darn bambini, they needed new clothes every few months. Theory and experiment rarely pay the rent. The Radicals mostly moved to careers as mainstream commercial architects and designers.

The show professes to start in the late 1960s, a time of unrest propelled by young people, some of whom were dreamers, some misfits, some contrarians. It really starts in 1945. Young Italian artists and architects and university students were born in a country shattered during the Second World War, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Italy, brought to its knees, needed to be remade.

Italy’s post-war rebound was fanatically industrial. Italian design purged all suggestions of empire, aggression, and wealth — Mussolini’s themes — in favor of a sleek, trim, rational look. A modernizing glee was at the heart of the new order. The culture was consumerist as well as conformist. In the rush to modernize, young people in the best schools saw too much sameness, a severe, stern absolutism and obsession with function. Idiosyncratic feeling, whether in craftsmanship or creativity, was steamrolled. Material needs such as food, shelter, and jobs were satisfied. Interior needs weren’t. In that respect, the Radicals found an Italy that was still unfree.

Armchair, from the Diapositive series, c. 1970–74, by Urano Palma. Wood, possibly silk, and foam. (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Dennis Freedman Collection, Museum purchase funded by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund. Kent Pell, photographer)

It’s easy to dismiss Urano Palma’s Armchair, from the early 1970s, as silly, an excess of whimsy. It’s indebted to pop art, which came to Italy, as did most foreign influences, through the Venice Biennale. In 1964, the American pavilion was entirely pop art, and it invited Italians to be playful, kitschy, and expressive.

The armchair is serious, though. It perverts the religion of design practicality. It’s not harmonious, and it’s not functional. It’s not so much ironic, and irony is the essence of pop art, as fantastic. It has an old-time feel, suggestively baroque, but the gaudy pink fabric and its uselessness — you can’t comfortably sit on it — define it as a concept, or, more precisely, a totem for a new, freer, and more creative Italy.

It certainly can’t be mass-produced. It’s one of the weirdest one-of-a-kind objects in the show. The holes in the frame were made by woodworms. Before the era of Slow Food, this was slow craftsmanship, or craftsmanship not by men but by worms taking their own sweet time. It’s visual pushback against cookie-cutter culture.

Cielo, Mare, Terra Buffet, 1964, by Fabio De Sanctis and Ugo Sterpini, Officina Undici. Walnut, metal, and two Fiat doors of the 600 prima series. (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Dennis Freedman Collection, Museum purchase funded by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund. Kent Pell, photographer)

Radical artists played with plenty of old forms. Capitello, from 1971 takes the fractured column, ubiquitous in Italy, and makes it into seating. The Cielo, Mare, Terra Buffet, from 1969, is most indebted to pop art. Paramount Studio’s trademark — the mountain top — is capped by a “Singin’ in the Rain” umbrella, with apologies to MGM, to make something purely fun. This isn’t pop, though. Radical design is serious and critical. It’s more conceptual art than anything else.

Radical design is fluid and sensual, to be sure, but materials are usually synthetic.

Pratone®, designed 1971, made 1986, by Giorgio Ceretti, Pietro Derossi, and Riccardo Rosso, manufactured by Gufram©. Polyurethane foam and Guflac®. (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Dennis Freedman Collection, gift of Dennis Freedman. © Gufram, Kent Pell, photographer)

Polyurethane foam was the Radical material of choice. It was bleeding-edge and infinitely malleable, so it looked and felt hip. Pratone, designed by Giorgio Ceretti, Pietro Derossi, and Ricardo Rossi in 1971, means “meadow” in Italian. It’s a punning salute to nature. It’s for reclining. Tall stalks of foam bend and splay to the human form, so object and sitter, together, make a unique, changing sculpture. The Italian company Gufram produced it. Gufram invented a synthetic paint called Guflac. It makes polyurethane foam look like leather. It’s hand-painted, so this wacky thing keeps the artist’s touch. The paint surface doesn’t crack. And its shiny, intense green is not known to nature except in such exotic creatures as dragonflies and iridescent squid.

The movement was based in three cities, and in this geography made for ideology and style. Florence had a great, though conservative, school of architecture. It’s not an industrial hub. Its aesthetic is Renaissance but of a cool, spartan kind. The Renaissance in Florence revived classical geometry. For young students, this milieu led to abstract thinking, but it also fomented a spirit of challenge in keeping with the late 1960s.

Professors at the University of Florence were pickled in the Renaissance. They pedaled old bromides. They were boring, formulaic, anti-creative — they virtually invited their students to rebel. Turin was the headquarters of Fiat, so it was a design and manufacturing hub. The city crackled with union agitation for workers’ rights. Italy’s design Triennale was in Milan, giving the Radicals a setting for their work to be seen. Milan-based journals such as Domus and Casabella published many essays on their work.

“Paramount” Table Lamp, designed 1969, made c. 1972–73, by Lapo Binazzi, UFO. Ceramic, silk, metal, and bulbs. (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Dennis Freedman Collection, Museum purchase funded by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund. © 1969 Lapo Binazzi (UFO), Kent Pell, photographer)

The catalogue is a beautifully designed book as well as the definitive place for the movement’s history and philosophy. There’s a nice balance of scholarship and full-page illustrations of objects. The objects are allowed to breathe, even luxuriate, and it’s clear that much thought was given to paper and color quality. It’s a uniformly fine book, but I enjoyed the interviews with the artists the most. They’re mostly still alive, not young, but crisp, articulate, and passionate.

The open-concept design of the show is challenging. It’s one big space with no prescribed pathway. The visitor is left to wander. This is liberating, but it’s also confusing. The major wall panel on materials, for instance, is on the back wall so the visitor has seen a chunk of the show before learning about how central new, synthetic materials were.

There’s very little context in the show, which is a mistake. The Radicals are utopians and idealists, but they are also reactionaries. Specifically, they react to the odd blandness of post-war Italian design. Its clean lines are visually appealing. Post-war design is functional and efficient. It serves the consumer and the cause of mass production. It has all of these characteristics to the point of an oppressive puritanism. That’s what the Radicals don’t like. It’s a show of Italian art, and its Italian character gets lost.

Radicals had some impact in America. Italian design journals helped. A 1972 exhibition of post-war Italian design at MoMa included Radical work. Surprisingly, that was the last big Italian design exhibition in America until Houston’s. The architects Richard Meier and Peter Eisenman absorbed Radical style. Poltronova, Atelier International, Stendig, and C&B Italia sold some Radical designs. Ettore Sottsass’s Memphis collective was loosely related. Mostly, the rebel Radicals were theoretical checks on tired design, showing that clever, passionate young people are sometimes best equipped to notice that an old style has run out of gas.

I think the exhibition loses a bit of heart and soul by excluding the artists’ own words. They interpret the work and the context in the catalogue interviews and do it with simple eloquence. Goodness, it’s a show about Italian art and young rebels with high hopes. Filling the wall text with artist quotes would have given them the refreshing élan of the art itself.

I would like to meet Dennis Freedman and tell him he should do a TED talk on collecting. He was interviewed for the catalogue. He fell in love with Radical art in the late 1990s, when he saw Capitello in an auction catalogue. He was a young art designer, so he had a good eye and knew something about the movement. He loved the look and bought it, thus taking his first step on a passionate collecting journey.

Freedman was not rich when he started, and for all I know, he’s put whatever money he’s made into art buying. He’s discerning and focused, and after 20 years he’s assembled a collection that’s thorough, deep, and of the highest quality and condition. He taught himself to be a scholar and connoisseur of this slice of Italian design. This is something anyone with taste, discipline, and some pocket change can do. Freedman sounds like a romantic. He takes art seriously but is also emotionally engaged with the issues that made the late ’60s and early ’70s a time of change and heated feeling. It’s good to see a collector motivated by a layered passion.

He’s also a steward and wants the collection preserved and enjoyed in a museum setting. Museum directors are always on the make, but most of us love art and get the most pleasure working with collectors who love art, too. Some collectors accumulate and find success in the numbers of things they own. Some buy what their art advisers suggest. Some buy for prestige, some for investment. The best collectors, like Freedman, have passion that’s like a calling. He’s been very generous to the Houston museum, which now has the best collection of this field in the country.

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