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Germano Celant, an influential curator, critic and art historian who brought postwar Italian art to international prominence, died on Wednesday in Milan. He was 79.
The cause was complications of the new coronavirus. His death, at San Raffaele Hospital, was confirmed by the Fondazione Prada, the Milan art foundation that Mr. Celant collaborated with for more than two decades.
In 1967, Mr. Celant (pronounced CHAY-lant) wrote a lasting page in art history when, as a 27-year-old curator in Genoa, he mounted an exhibition of five young Italian artists making provisional assemblages of humble materials, which he grouped under the term Arte Povera (“poor art”).
These artists, including Alghiero Boetti, Jannis Kounellis and Luciano Fabro, bridled against the conventions of the Italian academies (and American Pop art), and made a virtue of simple everyday objects: melted wax, rusting iron, fallen leaves, ground coffee, even horses munching hay.
Nourished by the anti-establishment sentiment that crested in the student protests of 1968, the young Italians embraced a newly pragmatic art that paid particular attention to the body and the environment. Mr. Celant was in their corner with exhibitions, magazine articles and an influential 1969 book, “Arte Povera,” which collected and analyzed the art of Mr. Boetti, Mr. Kounellis, Giuseppe Penone, Giovanni Anselmo and others who went on to international acclaim.
Each of these artists, Mr. Celant wrote in the introduction, “has chosen to live within direct experience” and “feels the necessity of leaving intact the value of the existence of things.”
Energetic and urbane, with a mane of silver hair in vivid contrast with his usual all-black wardrobe, Mr. Celant championed this generation of artists throughout his 50-year career, presenting large exhibitions of Arte Povera at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and at P.S. 1 in New York City.
He was also a key theorist of experimental design. In the 1970s, he advocated the “radical architecture” of Archizoom, Superstudio and other boundary-breaking firms in Florence. At the Venice Biennale of 1976, he assembled the groundbreaking presentation “Arte e Ambiente” (“Art and Space”), recreating environments by earlier artists like Wassily Kandinsky, and turning over entire rooms to living artists like Sol LeWitt.
Mr. Celant was the author or editor of more than 200 books, including catalogs raisonnés of Piero Manzoni, Mimmo Rotella and Carla Accardi. And from 1995 until his death, he steered the programming at Fondazione Prada, the art foundation created by the fashion designer Miuccia Prada and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, which has become one of Europe’s most important centers for contemporary art.
Yet for all his activity, Mr. Celant almost never worked in a full-time capacity in a single institution, holding on as well as he could to the freedom he celebrated with Arte Povera.
“This is a way of being,” he wrote in 1967, “that asks only for essential information, that refuses dialogue with both the social and the cultural systems, and that aspires to present itself as something sudden and unforeseen.”
Germano Celant was born on Sept. 11, 1940, in Genoa, where his father worked in that port city’s import-export industry. He studied art history at the University of Genoa under Eugenio Battisti, a scholar of Renaissance and Baroque painting who created the short-lived Museo Sperimentale, Genoa’s first significant contemporary art space.
Mr. Celant got his first taste of the art world there and at Marcatrè, a culture magazine founded by Mr. Battisti. Mr. Celant soon became the magazine’s editor, and he began traveling to Milan, Rome and especially Turin, the epicenter of new Italian art, where he befriended artists like Mr. Kounellis and Michelangelo Pistoletto, and dealers like Gian Enzo Sperone, the first Italian to show Andy Warhol and other Americans.
With his exhibitions and books, Mr. Celant gave form to a new Italian avant-garde, although, as he told the newspaper La Repubblica in 2017: “I didn’t invent anything. Arte Povera is an expression so broad that it means nothing. It doesn’t specify a pictorial language, but an attitude.”
In 1988 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York made him its curator of contemporary art. (“I have often been accused in Europe of being pro-American and in the United States of being pro-European,” he told The New York Times upon his appointment.) His most significant exhibition there was “The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943–1968,” an immense survey of high and popular art from the postwar republic to the swinging years of la dolce vita and Arte Povera. He remained with the Guggenheim until 2008.
More recently he lent his credibility to exhibitions by KAWS, a hugely popular street artist, in Qatar and Hong Kong. (Francesco Bonami, an Italian curator, acidly analogized it to the superstar Zinedine Zidane’s playing for a B-league soccer team.)
Despite his aversion to group shows, Mr. Celant completed one of the most important exhibitions of his career in 2018: “Post Zang Tumb Tuuum,” a sprawling, year-by-year study of the art of Fascist Italy that took over the entire Milan campus of the Fondazione Prada.
Tremendous in both size and ambition, this final major show intermingled the hushed still lifes of Giorgio Morandi with propaganda and garish marble supermen, revealing the surprising diversity of Italian art of the interwar years and the flexibility of Fascist ideology.
Mr. Celant is survived by his wife, Paris Murray Celant, and their son, Argento.
In 2017, speaking on a podcast with Charlotte Burns, Mr. Celant recalled his early encounters with Luciano Fabro and others of the new Italian avant-garde, and outlined the unstoppable curiosity that drove his curatorial and critical career:
“What I learn from an artist like Fabro, he said: ‘In order to judge an artist, you need 30 years to see if it is important or not.’ I’m not waiting 30 years. I don’t have this kind of time.”
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