There is very little about Little Italy in New York’s Lower East Side that is still Italian—except for a few wonderful food stores. But a few blocks northwest of Piemonte Ravioli and DiPaolo’s on Broome Street is a new cultural institution that promises to become a major center of Italian culture in the city. The Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA) opened last month with an inaugural exhibition on the work of Futurist Fortunato Depero, which coincides with Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe (Read AN's review of the exhibition here), the large survey currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum. The center, which is elegantly renovated and designed by Irina Verona Architecture, intends to focus—as its title suggests—on Italian modern art, which it thinks has been overlooked in comparison to the country’s contemporary fashion, design, and culinary arts. It will host a single exhibition per year, primarily from the collection of CIMA founder, the art historian and curator Laura Mattioli.
The current show was drawn from the Mattioli family collection of 50 rarely seen works (they also loaned work to the Guggenheim exhibit) and focuses on Depero’s “diverse roles as a Futurist artist, graphic designer, product designer, and theorist.” The work of the Futurists of course has long suffered from critical evaluation (like the Italian Rationalist architects) outside of Italy because many of its protagonists, Depero included, flirted with Mussolini’s Italian proto-Fascism. Thus he is a convenient subject to kickoff any discussion of the issues involved in evaluating 20th century Italian art and design.
The center hopes to serve as an “incubator for new discourse, scholarly debate, and appreciation of 20th century (Italian) art in all its variety and complexity,” according to its executive director, Heather Ewing. To this end the center will support a number of scholars each year in study fellowships tied to its core exhibition themes. It currently has two young researchers in residence focusing on Depero, and next year will support four new fellows.
Though the focus of the center is art and not architecture or design, one imagines that the strong interest in design that cuts across all artistic disciplines in Italy means that there may be many overlaps in coming exhibitions that could have an architectural theme. The one aspect of the Depero show where design is in evidence is the artist’s interest in graphic design. There is, for example, a graphically spectacular 1927 futurist “bolted” book, Depero Futurista (“Libro imbullonato”), that ostensibly documents the artist’s life and that of his friends. CIMA claims the volume “revolutionized the traditional concept of the book.” The exhibit has two copies and has unbolted one and mounted it on a wall. The manner in which the book’s contents are structured and spaced across the printed page is a manifesto of Futurist interpretations of “disegno,” or architecture and design concerns and ideas.