Rag Rug series: One Thousand Deserts, 1996, oil on canvas, 80 x 80 inches
Pozzi: Italian in the Big Broth of America
After Harvard, I arrived in New York City in 1962.
Henry Kissinger, who twitched at the sole mention of the word Communism, had accepted my application and invited me to participate in his International Summer Seminar. It was mostly devoted to his meeting journalists, economists, political scholars, politicians of the world whom he could normally call to gather assessments on their respective countries’ situations. There was a sprinkling of humanities participants. I remember three men—a Swedish poet, a Turkish literary critic, and a French cinema critic—and a woman from India who specialized in literary research. As the 26-year old painter from Italy, I was the youngest. Kissinger wanted to have lunch with each of us. I tried to convince him of the political value of abstract painting.
Raised in the sheltered wealth of my Milanese family, this was the first time I found myself in contact with a highly diverse society. In Boston I was brought to dance halls where innumerable kinds of people sweated the rock-n-roll. The suburban waspish gentry I was the guest of at the weekend cocktail parties given by the program’s supporters never ceased to comment with a sad veil in their gaze that I am a Catholic like President Kennedy. Only many years later did I realize that the message was: Aren’t you lucky as an Italian to be our guest? I had dinner next to Lee Strasberg, visited the largest mental hospital, an interest of mine, and met future scholars involved in the same moderate reformist politics I had participated in in my home country.
Done with the Seminar, I took the train and descended to the mythical City. Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason had lent me their studio while they were staying in mine in Rome. To find a place, I walked Second Avenue from 125th Street to Chinatown and found a small loft on the corner of 4th Street and shared it with Mohamed Melehi, my future brother in law. We were half a block down from the last Yiddish theatre, and when not cooking at home we ate at Ratner’s. On First Avenue a tiny shop was selling fresh pani ca meusa, a traditional poor people food from Sicily. The only palatable bread was Italian, and we had to walk all the way to Bleeker Street or to Avenue A to find it. But we also liked the Jewish breads from Ratner’s. Hardly any Italian restaurant in Little Italy was still worth its name.
I started doing the rounds of the most interesting galleries with slides of my paintings. A gallery owner told me: “I can’t exhibit you but why don’t you go to such and such, he shows Italians there”. I went and the guy asked me for $1,000 to exhibit me. Sam Kootz was the only one who looked carefully at my images, asked relevant questions, and suggested I come back to him.
When I had left Italy I had no idea of the dramatic ethnic rivalries Italians and others lived through in New York. Even in Europe I deluded myself into a kind of fair share international utopia. (When Hitler’s foreign minister von Ribbentrop announced to Churchill that the Italians had sided with Germany, both knowing the war was coming, Churchill retorted: “Poor you! Last war we had them.”)
In Italy many still feel an inferiority complex towards the Anglo-Saxon culture, totally forgetting how not many centuries ago the balance of values was the opposite. The Italian language of art criticism, for instance, is now invaded by English words. Before the war, the same inferiority complex was exercised towards the Germans.
My coming to New York was caused by my attraction for the American Pragmatism I sensed in art. I felt its direct take in the making, an avoidance of the zillion explanations attached to French and Italian art. Alas, this disease of “explanationitis” has beaten pragmatism and is now affecting art talk globally, no longer as defense but as a mere marketing device. While fascinated, I already felt then the growing power of the consumer fundamentalism being invented in this city, and wanted to learn how to counter it in my practice, no matter what the cost.
One way the narrow-minded market is functioning is to focus in turns upon some grouping or other and push it as an ephemeral fashion. During the past few years, suddenly Italian artists of the fifties have seen their prices reach unimaginable heights in London. They were low, good investment fodder, thus make them big. I always refused to exhibit in group shows earmarked as Italians. Like shows of only Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Gender- or sexually defined clusters, I felt such labeling is vulnerable to exploitation and ephemeral consumption–it reduces rather than enhances. But then, if you get discriminated against because of one of those labels? I still answer that the individual is too precious to be generalized. One must fight with all legal means. Passive resistance is one way.
Having become a U.S. citizen at an adult age, my perspective has been slow to perceive the facets of being an Italian mixed into the big broth of America. I still believe in fostering a culture of international dialogue while I am now also wary of internationalism being vulnerable to manipulation by profiteering groups.
So: Italy, willingly or not, is a primal source of reference for my thoughts and art because I grew up there, but other sources are as important. I receive its influence as tempered by a respectful awareness of the global network of exchange it has led me to.
Rag Rug series, Peak, 2020, oil and acrylilc on canvas, app. 15 x 15 inches
Rag Rug series: The Lost Daffodil, 1988, oil on canvas, 28 x 24.5 inches