Outside of Italy, the work of Guglielmo Achille Cavellini (1914-1990) has long been a well-kept secret—it’s missing from major museum surveys of Italian postwar art, never featured in big auctions or flashy collections and rarely if ever referred to by critics and art historians of the period. Cavellini’s low profile is especially poignant because he was an artist who made self-promotion not simply a priority but often the central content of his work. Long before Jeff Koons and Damian Hirst elided the distinctions between the making and the marketing of art, Cavellini was branding himself with unapologetic boldness. Yet his attention-seeking ploys simultaneously satirize the artworld and his own place in it with an ambiguity that anticipates Martin Kippenberger; he also shared Kippenberger’s notion of the “full-service” artist, who takes responsibility for all ancillary matter such as posters, catalogues and announcement cards. Cavellini’s relentless flouting of artworld decorum also suggests affinities with his compatriot Maurizio Cattelan. One of my favorite Cavellini provocations occurred in 1976, when he got hold of a letter inviting another artist to participate in the Venice Biennale. Substituting his own name for the official invitee, he returned the letter to the Biennale director saying that he, Cavellini, categorically refused to participate in the exhibition.
Cavellini was, in many respects, ahead of his time, especially in his concept of autostoricizzazione or “self-historicism.” Perhaps the purest example of self-historicism in Cavellini’s expansive oeuvre are the “Centenary Posters.” In 1971, he made a series of collages and paintings, each purporting to be a poster advertising an exhibition titled “Cavellini 1914-2014” at a well-known art museum. Employing different type fonts and design styles, Cavellini created plausible looking posters for centennial shows of his art at the Tate, the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney and other prominent museums around the world. Did Cavellini actually believe that he had a chance of being recognized by any of these museums? It’s hard to say. His voluminous writings are filled with self-praise and grandiose claims, but often taken to such ridiculous extremes that he seems to be laughing at himself. With the “Centenary Posters,” Cavellini may appear delusional, but at the same time he is simply reifying what every artist dreams about and hopes for, and by so nakedly displaying his career ambitions he draws our attention to the enormous gap between reality and fantasy, and between the individual artist and the (even then) global art system. As we approach the year when these exhibitions were supposed to happen, the dated style of the early ‘70s graphics renders these fictional shows all the more absurd, but in a period when so much contemporary art depends on sly art-historical references, Cavellini’s project seems thoroughly contemporary.
One of the few American supporters of Cavellini’s work in recent years has been New York art dealer Florence Lynch, who mounted a Cavellini show in Chelsea in 2008. For those who missed that exhibition, there is a concise, fascinating show on view now at LYNCH THAM, a gallery newly launched by Lynch and Bee Tham on New York’s Lower East Side. The show focuses on two series, “Crates with Destroyed Works” (1966-1970) and “From the Page of the Encyclopedia,” a text-based series Cavellini began in 1973. Thanks to their widely spaced slats, the Crates, which are generally displayed on the wall, offer excellent views of the “destroyed” works within: painted-wood, abstract reliefs that Cavellini was making in the early 1960s; each crate is carefully numbered and titled with black letters on the front slats. Destruction is not an unusual theme in art, and in the mid-1960s it was ubiquitous (think of Raphael Montañez Ortiz and the Destruction in Art Symposium), but Cavellini’s methodical approach has none of the violence and aggression that usually accompanies destructive art. Looking like jigsaw puzzles waiting to be assembled or archeological artifacts prepared for shipment, the Crates convey playfulness and preservation rather than iconoclasm. This is even the case when Cavellini turns his destructive impulse to the work of other artists—the “Dissected Works” of 1970 include carefully sliced-up and framed paintings by Klee and Morandi.
How, you might wonder, did Cavellini manage to acquire authentic works by Klee and Morandi? He was, in fact, a major and prescient collector, especially of postwar art. Collecting was at once the source of Cavellini’s artistic inspiration and what kept him from being taken seriously as an artist. His collecting began in 1947, when he discovered informel painting on a trip to Paris. “This was the moment,”” he later wrote, “in which I began to purchase those works of art that I myself would have liked to have made.” [All the quotes in this paragraph are from Cavellini’s statement in Contemporary Artists, an invaluable 1977 reference book edited by Colin Naylor and Genesis P-Orridge.] Giving up his own art practice, he transformed his Brescia home into a gallery and private museum. It was only some 15 years later that he began to make art again, though with some complications. “When I returned actively to painting in 1962, I was already saddled with the unfortunate label ‘the famous collector,’ and even though I have attempted in every way possible to eliminate this preconception it has been to little avail.” Eventually, he conceived of “self-historicism” as the only way out of this dilemma: “It was an absolute necessity that I manage to destroy the preconceived idea of ‘Cavellini the collector who paints,’ and thus I made the only decision possible – to do everything on my own.” Cavellini did ultimately find a sympathetic audience among the practitioners of Mail Art, a medium he enthusiastically embraced, engaging in voluminous correspondences with Ray Johnson and other U.S. mail artists. In parallel with his mail art activities, throughout the 1970s and 1980s he produced many works based on Italian postage stamps.
A key component of self-historicism was Cavellini’s ongoing narration of his own life and career. This began in 1973, when he wrote a long account of his life in the style of an encyclopedia. The entry starts off as a straightforward, strictly factual account, but Cavellini gradually introduces exaggerated claims that get wilder and wilder until he is being received by Mao Tse Tung, awarded the Nobel Prize, and making stupendous scientific discoveries well into the 21st Century. For the rest of his life, he inscribed extracts from and variations on this text onto all manner of supports, including underwear, neckties, skirts, shirts, the bodies of naked models and, most famously, a white suit that the artist often wore during his travels and public appearances. As he explained in his Contemporary Artists entry, “I wore a suit on which I had carefully and minutely written my life history, and I meant it to be an exasperated symbol of the megalomania and presumption that are awash in the art world.” The Lynch Tham show includes several elegant iterations of the Encyclopedia text. One on paper involves quasi-micrographic writing, another features red felt-tip pen on a bronze-colored sheet of metal, in a third the closely spaced lines of cursive letters are copied out onto a large canvas, with the artist’s name stenciled in colored letters along the top. Even if one reads Italian, Cavellini’s handwriting isn’t easy to decipher. Here and there you recognize a word or phrase before the looping script blends into dense pattern, becoming more textile than text. Despite his obsessive autobiography and relentless self-referencing, did Cavellini ultimately want his viewers to look beyond his individual identity? Was his art really as prophetic as it seems? Does he deserve a prominent place in the canon of postwar Italian art? Perhaps only a full retrospective will be able to resolve such questions. The year 2014 is almost upon us, but perhaps there’s still time for some enterprising museum to respond to Cavellini’s audacious challenge. I, for one, would be very happy to visit a show titled “Cavellini 1914-2014.”