Deianira Tolema interviews Bruce Helander

Bruce Helander with Jane Holzer and Tom Wolfe


An American Perspective on Italian Contemporary Art

American artist and art critic Bruce Helander is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post. His artwork is in the collections of the Guggenheim, the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museums. 

When asked, “Who are the most important artists in the world today?” Helander places one Italian name on his list.

DEIANIRA TOLEMA: Are you familiar with the Italian art world?

BRUCE HELANDER: To be honest, my only perspective on Italian contemporary art was from clever artists and dealers that were smart enough to send me images while I was the editor-in-chief of The Art Economist a couple years ago. I spend most of what little extra time I have looking for new talent in Manhattan and Los Angeles, and some art fairs in between like Art Basel Miami Beach. Occasionally, I’ll find an intriguing new artist as I jury a show in some obscure city. On the Italian scene, just like any geographical area, I’m interested in anything that moves me as a fellow artist and somehow feels uniquely “Italian,” but also has inherent strength from my critical point of view as an art writer. I’m looking for the shock of the new, and am delighted when I find something truly imaginative and that does not seem to connect to anything else. I like a healthy serving of wit that is cooked well done, as with the Italian artist, Gabriele Picco. I remember seeing an insect-like sculpture attached to a yellow apple, which was simply gorgeous with a handsome, worn surface. As I recall, the same artist also created some inventive paintings and a sculpture or two that showed a cartoon figure crying his eyes out with huge tear ducts like super-sized breasts falling to the floor that was quite singular. I admire ridiculous exaggeration, especially if it’s good looking. 

TOLEMA: And what about the context?

HELANDER: The advantage that young Italian artists have, perhaps unfairly to the rest of the world, of being completely surrounded almost everywhere, anywhere by spellbinding beauty. I’m truly surprised growing up in such a beautiful country with centuries of art traditions that there are not more well-known Italian contemporary artists. I love great painting but really don’t care much for performance art, though I like Luigi Presicce’s little stage sets with backyard lights. However, I’d rather look at it just once than own it. I’m an avid art collector as well, and when push comes to shove I go for works that persuade me that there’s a creative brain at work coupled with something that’s handsome even if it’s left-footed or purposely inelegant. Gianni Caravaggio can’t lose because of his name. But seriously, his sculpture has a deliberate edge that’s brewing with the same invention, tension and singularity that Cy Twombly created out of plaster after absorbing Rome for most of his life. Francesco Simeti twists and turns vintage imagery into novel compositions that are incredibly gorgeous. I admire Daniele Girardi’s Day-Glo compositions of insect-inspired shapes that seem to blend together to form an abstract expressionist platform skillfully composed and delightful to examine. My money is on him as a good bet. Please don’t consider the limitations of my choices, as there seems to be a bountiful garden of great talent in your country.

TOLEMA: What’s the opinion of Americans about Italy?

HELANDER: Americans regard ancient Italian and Greek art as the best on earth. Native Americans were still shooting arrows at each other while Italy was building cathedrals and commissioning da Vinci for paintings.

Helander with the Schnabels

TOLEMA: Is there a difference, in terms of aesthetic taste, between Italy and US?

HELANDER: Very little difference.

TOLEMA: You’re not only an artist, but also an estabilished art critic. Is it different to deal with art criticism in the States? Is the intellectual role of the art critic secondary to the opportunity of earning money?

HELANDER: I’m lucky; I started examining works of art early in my career while still a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design. Most criticism is basically positive and encouraging. I rarely write negative reviews. I was invited recently by the Guggenheim to tackle the huge Christopher Wool survey exhibition and wrote a very forceful but somewhat controversial review that apparently received over a million views.( It’s a basic responsibility to take an intellectual approach to art writing. The Huffington Post pays me peanuts, so it’s certainly not for the money. I enjoy the challenge of being a painter and trying to accurately describe someone else’s work with panache.

TOLEMA: In Your opinion, who are the most important artists and galleries in the world today?

HELANDER: Among my favorites are Tony Cragg, Brice Marden, Richard Prince, Maurizio Cattelan (who is Italian), Marlene Dumas, Mark Tansey, Anselm Kiefer, Jenny Saville, George Condo and Albert Oehlen, to name a few. The best gallery in the world is Gagosian. There is no second place in this category.

Bruce Helander, Croaked Double Elvis, 2012

TOLEMA: Has the Italian art market died along with the quality level of both demands and artistic production?

HELANDER: I don’t hear much about the so-called Italian art market. Taste in collecting has changed only with the infusion of the celebrity artist as a trophy, which is unsettling. There isn’t ambiguity between poetic works and commercial art. Commercial art stinks from its very conception and marketing. A sharp collector should be able to sense that. Commercial art sinks in value the minute it is unfortunately sold.

TOLEMA: Do you have advice for young artists, art critics, curators and gallerists?

HELANDER: My best advice for young artists is to get in touch with your intuitive creative spirit early in the game and never be concerned whether or not it sells. Robert Rauschenberg once told me years ago during a conversation in his Captiva Island studio that virtually nothing can replace hard work (he was a workaholic and night owl) in securing the course that you sustain for a lifetime. As far as art critics are concerned, I actually think it would be ideal if they were all artists first. Otherwise, I suspect they never completely get it. Henry Geldzahler got it, but he was rare. I’m always surprised at how badly critics dress. Often no style, no ingenuity, even though that’s what they write about. Go figure? I think a sportscaster for soccer should know what it’s like to kick the ball, slide on the grass and make a goal.  Same thing for gallerists, but very few artists want to have that occupation. The first gallery director to paint their walls white was Betty Parsons, an artist who knew the difference between art as decoration and art as an intellectual statement. She still maintains respect as one of the most influential art dealers ever.

TOLEMA: Do you see anything interesting beyond the American continent?

HELANDER: I am certain I could find new and interesting subjects to write about beyond the American continent. The truth of the matter is, very few have the time and money to take that journey. That’s why great galleries stick together in a neighborhood like Chelsea (New York). A concentrated hive full of honey bees that keeps buzzing with energy and gets regular attention from the press and serious collectors. If you want to be in the movies, you need to go to Hollywood. An artist deserves to increase his or her odds by positioning themselves in the best circumstance. You need natural talent, unwavering energy, burning ambition and a game plan. Stack the deck. Deal the cards.

Deianira Tolema

Deianira Tolema is an Italian writer based in Williamsport PA.

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