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Casa Iolas — Citofonare Vezzoli
Francesco Vezzoli curates Galleria Tommaso Calabro, Milan
In an elegant apartment-turned-gallery in the centre of Milan, just a stone’s throw from the Duomo Cathedral, a jewel of 20th century art history is currently on show at Galleria Tommaso Calabro. In an exhibition titled Casa Iolas — Citofonare Vezzoli that debuted earlier this year, homage is paid to a distinguished Greek gallerist, the late Alexander Iolas. Curated by Italian art star Francesco Vezzoli with scenography by his longtime collaborator Filippo Bisagni, it tells the story of success, fame and tragedy that followed Iolas through the work of several major artists who surrounded him up until his death. The exhibition is the second installation of Calabro’s ongoing series in dedication to great, forgotten gallerists of the 20th century – with the first honouring Italian gallerist Carlo Cardazzo in 2018. Much of Cardazzo’s work was responsible for the growth & development of Spatialism, while Alexander Iolas helped usher in the genre of Surrealism.
As one of the most influential art dealers of his time, Iolas created one of the first international networks of galleries: a platform which eventually helped introduce Surrealism to the United States and gave Andy Warhol his first solo show in 1952 — Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote. After years of growing affluence through his work and friendship with some of history’s most important artists like Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, and Max Ernst among others, Iolas closed all his European galleries in 1976, keeping a solemn promise to do so upon Ernst’s death. Later he returned to his native Greece to construct a mansion in Athens in which to stage his vast collection of art. Dubbed Villa Iolas, the house was a 1300 square meter villa in the suburbs of Athens entirely covered in white marble, with a collection of antiquities displayed with some of the most iconic paintings and sculptures of the era. In 1987 Iolas passed away at the hands of the AIDS epidemic. Following his death, and due to the lack of a will, Villa Iolas was eventually subject to vandalism and theft, and not long after his legacy was soon forgotten.
The new exhibition Casa Iolas — Citofonare Vezzoli is a condensed re-imagining of the Athenian mansion, with a curation of art that acts as a cultural road map of Iolas’ journey and his influences. Revealing the exhibition’s origins, gallerist Tommaso Calabro explained, “Francesco Vezzoli and I started to think about this show about three years ago, after we worked together on the exhibition Metafisica da Giardino at Nahmad Projects in London. Many of the [Giorgio] de Chiricos on display belonged to Alexander Iolas at some point. I became intrigued by this figure and started checking the provenance of all paintings I came across to see whether his name appeared. In these three years, I’ve worked with private collectors, archives and foundations to trace works that were once in Iolas’s hands.”
Each room of the exhibition is curated to recall the multiculturalism that Iolas’ work and life embodied, with influences from ancient European culture, classic surrealism, and a rich body of contemporary genres. Throughout the exhibit, viewers are treated to glimpses of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt through sculptures and antique furniture which appear alongside a visual medley of the works of the original artists that inspired Iolas, each carefully acquired or borrowed by Calabro in the past few years. “I was able to include works by artists such as Victor Brauner, Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Klee and Max Ernst, which were once exhibited at his galleries. I also put together a collection of almost one hundred original catalogues and posters produced by Iolas. The collaboration with the Studio Eliseo Mattiacci was key to include in my show. It is a spectacular installation from 1980-1981 made of aluminium ‘volutes’. Iolas had about twenty from this series in one of the rooms of his house in Athens,” explained Calabro. Not only dedicated to male European artists, the show branches out – following Iolas’ love of works from the likes of Leonor Fini, Niki De Saint Phalle and Dorothea Tanning to Edward and Nancy Kienholz or Ed Ruscha.
In honouring the Greek gallerist in Milan, Calabro depicts one of the many cultural crossroads of Iolas’ journey that included his love for Italian art as well as the city itself. “Italy was very important to Iolas. He had two galleries there, one in Rome and one in Milan,” recounts Calabro, who’s own space rejects the white cube in favour of a stately ‘house museum’ aesthetic. “The one in Milan was originally located in Via Rossini and later moved to Via Manzoni 12 – right where the Poldi Pezzoli museum is. Iolas did not rent an apartment, as he usually did in other cities, but used to live in the gallery, right in the back. Iolas felt at home in Milan. He loved the city because he adored going to the Teatro La Scala to enjoy the opera, one of his greatest passions. Milan was also the place where he organized his last exhibition in 1987: Andy Warhol’s Last Supper at the Palazzo delle Stelline, which is a five-minute walk from my gallery. I feel there would have been no better place to pay homage to Iolas if not in one of his favourite cities, where he exhibited some of the most relevant Italian masters of the twentieth century.”
Iolas’ work with these art stars not only guaranteed his success but assured him a complicated dance with fame that ultimately ended in betrayal. His death was followed not only by the loss of his collections but also to a certain extent the loss of his legacy. As one who has long studied the complexities of fame, curator Francesco Vezzoli explores what he describes as Iolas’ legacy in a befallen era of gallery culture that was based on friendship, trust, and mutual esteem, all of which are communicated throughout the exhibit that also features a few touches of Vezzoli’s own art practice, including some never-before-seen sculpture.
For a more detailed account on the process, scroll below for question time with Francesco Vezzoli interviewed by Jordan Anderson.
Jordan Anderson: At the beginning of the exhibition, we’re greeted with a piece of your work featuring a woman on a magazine cover with glitter tears running down her face. Please tell us more about your decision to start things off in this way. Is it in reference to the tragedy of fame ?
Francesco Vezzoli: I would call it, “The Tragedy of Fast Fame.” There’s nothing wrong with fame per se but very often celebrity lives are so volatile and suddenly losing all privileges and attention of an audience can be extremely painful. Strangely enough, these days, everyone badly wants a piece of the celebrity cake. Most people have no obligations whatsoever to show their private lives because objectively they are not public figures. Despite that they choose to expose themselves and their lives to small/medium audiences through social media. [In doing so] they don’t gain any objective advantage on the contrary, they just create a useless prison made of fallacious mirrors.
JA: A lot of your work analyses the power and impact of pop culture, and one might say Iolas was one of the key figures in the artistic society during his time – but what impact did the disregard of his accomplishments throughout history have on the work selected for the exhibit ? If there was any impact.
FV: The powerful players of the world of contemporary art today have a big complex towards figures like Iolas. He was able to merge harmoniously, culture, glamour, business and serious art. Today it’s mostly cheap glamour, pushiness and boring art. His impact in history is objective. He gave [Andy] Warhol his first show, he gave [Edward] Kienholz his first show and his cultural radar was infallible. On top of his instinct for new artists, he became the most important dealer for european surrealists and finally he invented the concept of the global gallery ages before Gagosian opened his first one. I’m embarrassed to say [despite all this] he is still paying a price for his eccentricity and his sexual orientation and they still don’t take him seriously enough.
JA: Your work often features a mixture of elements of the future as well as the past. In creating pieces specifically for this exhibit, was there any intention in shifting the perception of how Iolas was seen and how you hope for him to be seen?
FV: In his magnificent houses and exhibitions he successfully merged his culture, his roots and the most avant garde artists. He was a pioneer. In a moment like this we need to be aware of our political history, to avoid the mistakes of the past and we must be aware of our artistic history to avoid intellectual banality.
JA: The closing piece in the last room of the exhibition is a gold painted framed image of Alexander Iolas that features your glittered graffiti in the form of horns of his head. Can you tell us more about this? Was this a commentary on his character ?
FV: Absolutely yes. He may have been a manipulative character but all I care about is the glorious cultural productivity that he has left behind. He is the Diaghilev of all gallerists.
JA: There is a very early, small sculpture of yours on the mantelpiece from 1994. Can you explain this work?
FV: We must go back to my St Martin’s days in London. I used to do needlework inspired by the prostitute call cards that you could find then in public phone booths. It was my way of merging perversion and affection.
JA: God Is A Woman – a great title for your work, but also an Arianna Grande song. Tell us more about this and the other new sculptures in the show.
FV: All the new sculptures in the show are inspired by the fabulous interiors of Iolas’ mansions often photographed by Horst [P. Horst]. A true mixture of marble antiquities, gilded details, velvet sofa and slashed glittering Fontanas. In the private areas [there were] decadent bedrooms and closets full of intarsia fur coats and satin suits. I wish my art will one day be as daring as his life was.
The exhibition’s title Casa Iolas — Citofonare Vezzoli (transl. Iolas’ House — Buzz Vezzoli) is a play on words that implies Vezzoli’s repossession of Iolas’ house with a roster of key names in residence. The show is currently on view until January 16th, but temporarily closed due to coronavirus restrictions. A full 3D tour of the exhibition is available online at www.tommasocalabro.com
Words by Jordan Anderson
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