To be affiliated with the cultural wave that was Futurism in Italy in the early 20th Century was to signify an unabashed optimism and join a call to arms to reshape, rethink, and rebrand everything that was contemporary life – photography, theater, music, art, politics, architecture, even toys. Championed by its tireless leader, Marinetti, from 1909 with the release of the Manifesto to his death in 1944, the centrifugal players in the movement wrestled with ideas and technologies that were previously alien. By maintaining that the status quo at this time was stagnant and retrospective, the Futurists, as they came to be known, sincerely advocated for a cultural jumping off point. This meant, sometimes quite literally, that the pieces associated with the movement represented a kind of vulnerability. To be sure, this vulnerability was based on the arrogance of human ingenuity and many pieces instill in the viewer simultaneous feelings of power and terror. This odd balance was certainly not lost on museum Director Richard Armstrong and Senior Curator Vivien Greene as they sought to fill the cavernous spiral of the Guggenheim with representative works.
The story of Italian Futurism is very much a story of chronology. While almost anything can be arranged on such a timeline, not everything can be represented so clearly: Futurism is the story of a relatively small thought explosion that blossomed into an almost four decade philosophical dance, with ramifications still to be seen today.
I mean to focus, however, not on the movement, but on the exhibit. The Guggenheim lends itself well to stories of chronology, with its strong central ramp over which one can, of course, peer out over the railing and visually retrace the movement up from the entrance. Somewhat unexpectedly, I found myself stopping periodically to look back (down) several years to rethink the buildup of a particular mode of representation or tangential idea. Not all movements can become so forcefully entangled with the everyday while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of so many wonderfully different art forms, and this exhibit certainly gains from advances in all of them.
Almost immediately, one encounters Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, a very masculine, flowing sculpture by Umberto Boccioni. What a powerful way to set the stage of the performance that is the exhibit! Aside from the Manifesto, it almost singlehandedly defines the arrogance of thought at this time. Often classified in the category of heroic futurism, it seethes with the turmoil of the era, boldly declaring that the domination by man and industry is in full swing, with nothing that cannot be overcome. Up next is Giacommo Balla’s Street Light, in which he depicted radiating particles and the physics of light diffusion. More than a mere statement on the extremely prolific advances in physics in the early 20th Century, Balla sends a very clear message that Mother Nature can and shall be conquered with ingenuity and the power of the human will.
While I cannot cover all of my favorite exhibition pieces, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the architectural advancements related to futurism. Lead by Antonio Sant’Elia, this was perhaps the first time that towers were discussed in the rhetoric of layers: layers of human culture, of street and vehicles, of the mechanics of power, and of the interplay with the Manifesto itself. Encountering these drawings along the journey to the top of the spiral allows the viewer to see just how pervasive these ideals had become. Sant’Elia’s drawings are not only beautiful in their creation, they arrogantly dare the viewer to challenge their footholds on the landscape of urbanization and the accompanying cultural advancements.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the ascent to the top unfolds onto Crali’s Before the Parachute Opens, by far my favorite piece. In it, the viewer is positioned just above the figure, outfitted in black, so that his face is obstructed. It makes anonymous both him and our decent into the fields below. Aptly titled, the piece almost suggests that man has overcome one of the most interesting of physical challenges: the weight of oppression by gravity itself. While we get the sense that the figure before us is in full control, it nonetheless makes one both uneasy and perfectly delighted to be allowed to join this moment of free-fall.
What was very surprising is that the exhibit continues! What could me more monumental than the Crali’s masterpiece? Armstrong and Greene have the last laugh, of course, when one rounds a corner and encounters the Syntheses of Communications by Benedetta Marinetti. These breathtaking, monumental creations open the mind to the possibilities of the technological communications of the age, and I could not help but feel as if I were floating through the clouds, there, at the top of the Guggenheim, after having just flown with Crali’s figure. Perhaps this is the boldest statement of the exhibition: it is as if Marinetti, Armstrong, and Greene were to all say, “See there, we did prevail.”