Germano Celant: In Absentia

The last time I saw my friend and longtime collaborator Germano Celant was in my SoHo studio in early March of 2020. For years we met fre­quently, sometimes once a week, sometimes once a season, wherever we happened to cross paths—Milan, Venice, Doha, Hong Kong, Paris, New York—to coax along a series of simultaneous and overlapping projects in various stages of development. Regardless of the interval, he would immediately immerse himself in the issues at hand and precisely locate the points that needed urgent attention. He had the juggler’s sense of knowing just when the wobbling plate needed a little nudge to keep it spinning. Then he would leave the scene for a few hours, or a few weeks, and let the work progress. Absence, he told me, is sometimes just as productive as presence. It was through this peripatetic global circuit of presences and absences—a method honed over decades—that Germano maintained his astounding creative output.

When we reunited here or there, our meetings followed a familiar formula: sitting elbow to elbow, surrounded by our crews, everyone talking, laughing, debating at once; the table littered with sketches, layouts, models, books, and espressos; presentations pinned to the walls or stacked up in a holding pattern, awaiting his expert eye. On that day of our last meeting, the assembly line was in high gear: reviewing dummies and proofs of two catalogues already in production; testing out names for a wildly ambitious series of exhibitions, symposia, and publications focused on the intersection of art and neuroscience; and conspiring on an equally far-­reaching project that would require reimagining and rebuilding dozens of historical gallery exhibitions. (While this may seem like a lot, it was only a fraction of his ­fre­netic workflow. There were myriad other partners in other cities waiting to review equally ambitious dockets.) The last item in our pile was the concept for the book you’re holding in your hands: crude sketches of a project that would stretch on for two years beyond his sudden death. While he was only physically present to establish the idea and structure, New York: 1962 –19 64 is quintessentially Germano, his influence felt on every page. To understand why this book is the way it is, I think it is essential to know a little about his way of working—at least as understood from my perspective on the front lines.

First, it’s all about people. The assembling of creative collaborators was one of his many compositional gifts. When asked how he was so prolific, Germano would respond, “You have to have your team,” and he compiled a loyal coterie of artists, curators, authors, academics, editors, researchers, critics, architects, designers, conservators, art handlers, and craftspeople always ready to sign on to his next crazy vision. He was an editor at heart, and he had the editorial touch of building arguments out of a parallax of complementary and contradictory perspectives. His later catalogues often feature an embarrassment of authorial riches. One of the last books we did together includes fifteen major essays—not counting his own—from artists and art historians, philosophers and political scientists. (New York: 1962 – 1964 keeps up the tradition by featuring scores of writers and photojournalists.) For a designer like me, that openness, collaborative spirit, and unflagging curiosity made him the consummate creative partner. Assertive? For sure. Willing to suffer fools? No way. But he was always receptive to contributions from anywhere; no one was confined by their official title. That generosity was infectious, and while he was, of course, lionized by the bigwigs, I think it is more telling that the receptionists, the interns, the waiters, the janitors, the drivers all adored him.

Next, it’s the composition. As we inevitably worked on exhibition and book concepts simultaneously, I was struck by the precise, hypervisual way he composed both his galleries and his pages. He described his approach to composition as a chess game: that delicately strategic process of organizing material in ways that tell stories and reveal connections. (In Germano-speak, the antithesis was the casino: a cacophony of superficial effects, jumbled together, signifying nothing.) While he was, perhaps, most in his element surrounded by physical objects, stalking a gallery cluttered with art and crates and ladders and workers, he applied the same high-stakes gamesmanship to an editorial layout. He would start the process with cryptic thumbnail sketches indicating the placement of texts and images for each page. As the design process progressed, we would pin up printouts of entire book sequences and he would attack the pages with an outsize pair of scissors, excising whole sections and rearranging pieces, happily narrating the process to himself as he dissected. He didn’t deal well with abstraction; for him, graphic composition was a decid­edly physical act held together with Scotch Tape.

Composition leads to flow. Of all his metaphors, island in the river was perhaps the most essential. It was his way of describing the manner in which visitors experienced exhibitions and readers experienced texts. The river conjures a seamless movement from object to object and object to document, text to text and text to image, to carry the viewer or reader along with the current—a continuous narrative journey of surprising juxtapositions and unexpected relationships. An island is a focal point where subjects can be explored in depth, framed by but distinct from the context that streams around it; a mini-exhibition in itself with its own distinct rules and logics. We spent hours shuffling pages, changing the order of things, moving objects, adding and subtracting titles, and punctuating texts to try to get the rhythm and pace of an experience to approximate the river that flowed in his mind.

The island/river metaphor implies context. A couple of years ago I collaborated with Germano, Miuccia Prada, and her inspired team at Fondazione Prada on the landmark exhibition Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918 – 1943. We worked on the show for almost three years, and it was a monster—more than six hundred artworks matched with eight hundred documents, filling six galleries replete with humongous projections and full-scale reconstructions of entire sections of historical displays. As with many of his later, ambitious projects undertaken with Mrs. Prada (When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969 / Venice 2013; Art or Sound; The Small Utopia: Ars Multiplicata) and the international blockbusters (Art & Foods: Rituals since 1851 at the Triennale Milano), the artwork was woven into the fabric of the political and social milieu, the goal being complete contextual immersion. While by comparison the subject of New York: 1962 – 1964 is extremely focused, his familiar obsession with context is clearly at work: the accidental juxtapositions instigated by rigorous chronology, the immersive re-creation of historical spaces, and the dynamic mixture of high and low, art and commerce, official documentation and the tangential detritus of popular culture.

Finally, there’s format. Exhibitions and books are both familiar typologies: when you design them, you are always either working with or against the expectation of the form. With each new project, we would always begin by examining the familiar, then calibrating our deviation from the norm. (The fall before our last meeting, for instance, we had worked together on a “white cube” exhibition wherein the walls had seemingly collapsed and the sculptures were displayed among the pristine rubble.) The exhibition-catalogue genre has deep-­rooted conventions—foreword, introduction, essay, plates, checklist, credits—but we knew from the start that the book that you’re reading would veer in a more esoteric direction. Building on our shared obsession with mass media—photography, graphic design, newspapers, film, television, the Internet—we devised it to follow the logic of a magazine, wherein the large images of the artworks from the exhibition would be situated within an editorial river of events coursing through the culture of that time. In terms of print, the so-called picture magazines that papered the newsstands in ’62—think Life and Look—turned out to be the perfect format for the island/river approach. Bits and pieces of text, captioned photos, letters, interviews, sidebars, etc. flow around splashy ad pages and the longer form, richly illustrated features that make up the editorial well. That familiar separation between stylistically homogenous editorial content and riotously diverse advertising lends a ready-made system to distinguish artworks from contextual texts and images.

And so New York: 1962 – 1964 may be the ultimate expres­sion of the Celant Method: comprising multiple authors representing diverse perspectives; energized by compositional juxtaposition; organized in a rigorously chronological flow wherein a river of short contextual elements surround longer-form narrative islands; exploring deeply contextual relationships with the artwork framed by the social, political, and cultural events of its period; and formatted in a way that deviates from the expectations of the art catalogue and links it to a recognizable popular form. He’s not here to adjudicate the results—tear off the shrink-wrap, weigh its heft, flip through the pages, smell the fresh ink—but I am pretty sure he would be pleased. I imagine he would laugh and throw an arm over our shoulders and make us all feel like we pulled off something new . . . for the umpteenth time. Germano was a deeply influential presence in the creative lives of so many of his collaborators, and certainly in my own. Writing this on the first anniversary of his death, his absence still doesn’t feel real. It’s just another longish interval before he strolls through the door—smiles and kind words, silver mane, leather vest, turquoise rings, and all—and gets back to work. Come to think of it, maybe it will always feel that way, because by instilling his methods, work ethic, and perspective in all of us, he’s never really absent but perpetually present in everything we continue to make as we try to carry on without him.

This essay is included in the exhibition catalogue of New York: 1962-1964 at The Jewish Museum in New York City.