By IAN VOLNER
INTERNATIONAL CONTEMPORARY art curators are not known for their charm. For that select class of professional explainers and tastemakers, a certain hauteur seems to be the norm—a prerequisite, perhaps, given the hermetic complexity of so much contemporary art.
But Massimiliano Gioni is different.
Thirty-nine years old, the Italian-born director of special exhibitions at Manhattan's New Museum of Contemporary Art has the kind of ready smile that gives you the feeling you've met him before, possibly over drinks, and that one of you might still owe the other a round. When he speaks about art, he's engaged and informed, but just as likely to stray off topic and tell you, say, about his university days in Bologna, when he translated Harlequin romance novels for extra cash. "It was actually a decent salary, but it had terrible consequences for my psyche," he recalls. "Then again, I knew more synonyms for 'nipple.' "
Photos: The Artful World of Massimiliano Gioni
Standing on the Bowery on a cold December night, Gioni is preoccupied. He has reason to be: He and his wife, curator Cecilia Alemani, have just moved to bigger digs in their longtime East Village neighborhood, and he's got several shows for the museum currently in the works. But what really has Gioni distracted this evening is that for over a year now he's been the man responsible for conceiving, assembling and managing the 2013 Venice Biennale.
Since being tapped last January to direct what is arguably the most influential art fair on the planet, Gioni's fertile brain has been on overdrive. He's found himself pacing his new apartment, mentally mapping the exhibition halls of Venice's cavernous Arsenale compound on to the floors and walls of his St. Marks Place walk-up. "I install shows in my head at night," he says. "I think I could move this here, move that there." His mind does not stop when he leaves the house; even innocent dinner companions are not safe. "Many of my friends are in the same business," he says. "When we're out, I'm always annoying them with my ideas about the show, about Venice."
Gioni's native irreverence is key. "Lately," he says, "people just think that contemporary art is something there to pass the time of the wealthy, or because everybody else is doing it or because openings are cool and fashionable." Gioni, by contrast, sees art not as the exclusive domain of the hip and the well-to-do, but as a kind of mental playground for the masses. "We need to remind ourselves that contemporary art is first of all a form of conceptual gymnastics, in which we learn to coexist with what we don't understand," he says.
Gioni has spent the last several years confronting audiences with the surprising, the strange and the delightful, altering expectations of what contemporary art exhibitions can be in the 21st century. For a 2008 show at the New Museum, "After Nature," the curator included everyday found objects and curios and put them alongside valuable works of art by the likes of Nathalie Djurberg, Thomas Schütte and Dana Schultz. "Ostalgia," in 2011, mixed younger artists with older to render a compelling portrait of post-Soviet art from the edges of modern Europe. The marginal, the mainstream, the real and the fictional are all whisked together in Gioni's exhibitions, offering up a series of beguiling narratives to the viewer. "That's ultimately my interest," says Gioni, "to get the artwork to tell stories."
“"We need to remind ourselves that contemporary art is first of all a form of conceptual gymnastics, in which we learn to coexist with what we don't understand." ” —Massimiliano Gioni
That kind of inclusiveness is exactly what's brought Gioni to Venice. Paolo Baratta is the president of the Biennale, and it was he who first sought out Gioni to take on this year's show, developing the curator's concept for the exhibition and helping insure its approval by the Biennale board. For Baratta, choosing Gioni was part of an effort to broaden the appeal of the sometimes daunting new art at the heart of the fair. "Gioni is a turning point," he says. "We are no longer faced with the time when this art was just thrown in the face of the viewer to promote it. We want people to come and live within the world of contemporary art." Gioni knows how to make that kind of overture to the outside world, since he himself puts a premium on the experience of the newcomer. "Hopefully," he says, "every time you contemplate an artwork you should experience over and over again that sense of being a foreigner."
That this approach is especially hospitable to persons unfamiliar with contemporary art is a direct reflection of Gioni's own history as an outsider. "In Italian we say provinciale," says Gioni. Growing up in the town of Busto Arsizio, about 40 minutes' drive northwest of Milan, he first discovered modern art at 13, when he happened on a book, Pop Art, by critic Lucy Lippard and discovered the work of artists like Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist. It was the feeling of noncomprehension that most excited him. "The most difficult thing to understand about Pop Art was whether it was critical [of its subject matter] or not," he remembers. As a teenager, Gioni would make Saturday trips into the city to see new art in the galleries of Milan, but he was always conscious of a sense of un-belonging, of somehow being not quite as refined or sophisticated as he ought to have been. ("I didn't go to openings because it felt phony," he says.) At Bologna, he majored in literature and philosophy and specialized in art history. His burgeoning interest in contemporary art was met with mixed emotions by his conventional, devoutly Catholic family.
For someone with Gioni's background to take the helm of the Venice Biennale is improbable enough; for someone as young as he is to do it—the youngest Biennale director in more than a hundred years—is even more unlikely, and it's uncertain if Gioni will be able to translate his unique outlook to a stage the size of Venice. Biennale directors often come in for a bracing dose of opprobrium no matter what they do—Swiss curator Bice Curiger, the previous director, chalks it up to a certain laziness on the part of critics. "It sounds much more competent if you're bashing something than if you try to explain why it's good," she notes. It's a dynamic of which Gioni is only too aware. "When they ask you to do it, it's because it's your moment," he says. "But then your moment has passed, and you're a sacrificial goat."
IN 2000, GIONI'S ENTHUSIASM for art (and an early foray into online art criticism) led him to the staff of the respected international magazine Flash Art, which dispatched him to the States to serve as its U.S. editor. He was preceded to the U.S. by artist Maurizio Cattelan, already a close friend and artistic co-conspirator. Gioni met Cattelan, who is 13 years older, when he interviewed him for Flash Art. Some of the artist's inventive impudence seems to have rubbed off on the curator; reflecting on the friendship, Cattelan is characteristically elliptical: "I don't know who once said, 'Our heads are round so that our thoughts can fly in any direction,' " he says. "This fits very well the state of mind Massimiliano and I have been sharing." Cattelan in turn introduced Gioni to another young artistic free agent, writer and curator Ali Subotnick. "My first impression was that [Massimiliano] was really corny and goofy," says Subotnick, now a curator at L.A.'s Hammer Museum. Soon, she, Gioni and Cattelan had formed an all-purpose cultural troika, exchanging ideas and developing projects. "We all understood each other so well; we could finish each other's sentences," she recalls.
From that collaboration emerged the Wrong Gallery, a quasi-mock art space installed in the doorway of a building in Chelsea. Becoming, over the course of its three-year lifespan, something like the snickering conscience of the '00 art boom, the gallery was the vector by which Gioni the provinciale was able to insert himself into the art world while keeping his outsider perspective more or less intact. The objectivity that afforded him has served him well at the New Museum, says Lisa Phillips, the museum director who hired him in 2006. "He can see the need of an institution from so many different angles," she says, "from the position of the artist, of his colleagues, of donors and the general public." Gioni has been able to move with impunity all over the artistic map, staging ambitious shows at his home institution (like 2009's "Younger Than Jesus" survey of artists under 33) and heading up large-scale exhibitions in foreign cities (like the 2010 Gwangju Biennale in South Korea ).
The 55th Venice Biennale will open on June 1; by early spring, Gioni will have selected more than a hundred artists to participate in the International Exhibition, the flagship event of the fair. (The national pavilions representing the individual participating countries are just to the east in the Giardini della Biennale—artist Sarah Sze will be representing the U.S. this year.) Hundreds of works of art will be flown or shipped to the mainland and then—in an operation rumored to cost as much as shipping the art to Italy from abroad—ferried out to La Serenissima across the ancient Venetian Lagoon. All of this will have to be paid for, and since the Biennale is a nonprofit venture, Gioni is also responsible for courting dealers and other market players willing to cover the inevitable expenses. The dealers will pony up, of course, because the pull of the Biennale is nearly irresistible: Upwards of 370,000 attendees flocked to the last installment (as compared to a scant 50,000 for the much-ballyhooed Art Basel Miami Beach), and Venice holds tremendous sway over the value of the artworks that appear there. The gravitational field of the fair extends to gallerists, collectors, critics, curators—including, not least, the director, for whom the job can be the jewel in the crown of a successful career.
So how will Gioni bring it all together, magnifying his idiosyncratic approach to the scale of the global art world? How else but by sending up the premise of the Biennale itself. His International Exhibition, titled "The Encyclopedic Palace," takes its name from a project by 20th-century outsider artist Marino Auriti, an eccentric self-taught architect and philosopher manqué who devoted years of his life to the construction of a gigantic skyscraper-temple that would house the combined wisdom of the human race. "Maybe 1999 was the last time somebody could claim you could know all the art in the world," observes Gioni, whose show, centered on the image of a gigantic unbuildable archive, is a keen satire of the overstuffed biennales that have sprung up all over the world. The knowing, sardonic theme augurs very well indeed, especially for anyone who's ever stepped into a big-time art fair and felt instantly overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of today's globalized art market. But despite the pressure, Gioni remains buoyant. "It's a rite of passage," he says. "I just have to go through it."