In 1967, Arte Povera artists in Italy, the radicals of their time, went to hang out in the Piper Club, a disco of, by and for the avant-garde in Turin. At a nighttime happening, young women danced in tunics made of polyurethane birch trunks and ponchos studded with foam stones to look like riverbeds. Like nature spirits, the dancers dabbled over ‘nature carpets’, carpets made of foam by the Turin artist Piero Gilardi. Guests sipped from their Camparis lying on simulated cabbage spots.
In the radical cheek of a disco decked out like a clearing in the woods, Gilardi delivered a serious message, embodying the ecological lesson of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”† Written a few years earlier: Chemicals poisoned the earth. Nature starts at home. Live with it, respect it, protect it.
Now some 55 years later, in the show “Gilardi: Tappeto-Natura” at the Magazzino Italian Art museum in Cold Spring, NY, two long-legged mannequins dressed in the same tunics observe more than half a century of Gilardi’s natural carpets, as if watching a farmers’ market with produce during a summer full of watermelons.
Magazzino carries the same environmental message to another institution further down Garrison, Manitoga/The Russel Wright Design Center, an architectural version of Gilardi’s natural tapestries. Magazzino introduced the Milanese design agency Formafantasma in what is essentially a modernist tree house, where the two principals, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin, have refreshed the wood structure with a subtle placement of his own organic product designs in the organic building.
In retrospect, given the current environmental crisis, Gilardi’s natural tapestries and Russell Wright’s wood texture, both dating from the 1960s, are historically prescient examples of art with an environmental message—although Gilardi and Wright sounded the same alarm through different artistic expression: iconoclastic, contemporary sass versus Walden Pond.
At Magazzino, Gilardi cut a rough-hewn Technicolor landscape of fruits and vegetables from the most synthetic industrial materials, polyurethane dyed with synthetic pigment. On thick molded foam beds, he glued sea urchins, pumpkins, corn on the cob, grapes, even the occasional passing armadillo. The “furniture” allowed families to live with the idea of the outdoors in their living rooms, reconnecting urban life with an increasingly vulnerable and defensive character. He introduced nature to the over-industrialized world that killed her.
Gilardi, now 79 and living in Turin, was intellectually itinerant, falling in and out of the art world, pursuing ideas from ecology to digital technology to community art. But over a career spanning 60 years, the backbone of his production remained natural carpets, a genre to which he returned almost every decade, always carrying an ecological message conveyed with puck-like delight: vibrantly colored, slightly cartoonish, sometimes over-the-top pieces that shun the controlling hand of a master. He was a Geppetto, an anti-Michelangelo who cut a cheap material incapable of the refinement of a masterpiece. He seemed to mock the object as he made it.
In 1966 Gilardi already dreamed of reuniting all the carpets in one room, an idea that curator Elena Re honored in Magazzino. The natural carpets form a small field, each tile in this artificial but cornucopia paradise charming in its own microcosmic way, some vibrant with fluorescent greenery, some covered with seagulls scraping across patches of ocean. One carpet is mounted on a spindle on the wall, as if to say that the carpets are not precious, but are sold by yard.
In Italy, the burgeoning environmental movement was one of several forces that broke the country’s long tradition of classical masterpieces that seemed to block art’s access to contemporary life. Across Western Europe and the United States, a new era began with a parent. Students revolted against consumerism. TV swallowed lives. A decade of social unrest proved particularly violent in Italy, with bloody demonstrations and weekly kidnappings.
Radicalized artists and designers turned from Italy’s storied artistic and architectural past to create a future that responded to the changing times. Gilardi wandered the art world, dodging success, fame and signature as he migrated through a succession of interests, reinventing himself and then disappearing. He traveled extensively outside of Italy, including to New York, to understand the rapidly changing panorama of art. To maintain his artistic autonomy early on in his career, Gilardi rejected the gallery system and cut ties with several galleries, including the Sonnabend in Paris. Back home in Turin, he collaborated with workers and activists in collaborative art projects aimed at involving communities. Democratic art had to be accessible and artists had to remain free.
Gilardi became an early member of the Arte Povera (“poor art”) group, anti-formalist artists who produced anti-masterpieces using everyday materials, often put together casually: the concept was more important than the beauty. American country artists left the gallery system to work in the landscape. Gilardi brought the landscape inside.
Open since 2017, Magazzino is a United States landing pad for Arte Povera and other post-war and contemporary Italian work. Gilardi’s tapestries are the culmination of a suite of Magazzino’s top-lit galleries of Arte Povera classics, all of which show more attitude than form. The galleries run around a courtyard in a former farm warehouse – magazzino means warehouse in Italian – repurposed as a museum in a white, minimalist style by Spanish architect Miguel Quismondo.
With luminous interiors, the pristine yet unpretentious building is a subtle container for his subversive and provocative art, and a geometric foil for the surrounding landscape, itself embodies the lessons suggested by Gilardi’s micro-ecosystems. Meadows bordered by native plants give way to an orchard and a protected wetland area beyond. Sculpture is incidentally embedded in the lawns. A corral of 16 donkeys just up the hill suggests the museum’s rural affinity. Occasionally, black bears watch the scene from the hillside. A new monumental wing, designed by noted Madrid minimalist Alberto Campo Baeza, in collaboration with Quismondo, is now under construction.
Magazzino has maintained relationships with other Hudson Valley institutions, including Manitoga/The Russell Wright Design Center, a home famously built into a ledge of rock overlooking a freshwater pool that was once a quarry. The Wright Center, in collaboration with Magazzino, invited Formafantasma’s Trimarchi and Farresin to comment on the house with their own contemporary product designs.
Like Gilardi’s carpets, Wright’s design, an implosion of nature built into a hillside from 1958 to 1961, was ecologically progressive, with its sod roof and interior columns made from logs cleared from the surrounding forests. In its relationship with nature, his design may even surpass Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (no relation), taking its place among the great Early Modernist houses, including the Farnsworth house outside Chicago, and the Eames, Stahl, and Schindler houses. houses, all in Los Angeles.
Wright worked his house to saturation with handcrafted details, such as butterflies floating in acrylic door panels, as if they were flying in amber. Wright was an industrial designer best known for the American Modern dinnerware series, but he spent years perfecting a home that, following Japanese inspiration, lives in nature rather than looking at it: the home disappears into the forests that engulf it. Yet he judiciously wove acrylic and fiberglass with natural materials. Like Vivaldi, Wright composed for the seasons, designing panels and fabrics to be replaced in the fall and spring. He tuned and played the house like an instrument.
In the current show, Formafantasma – the exhibition designer for the central pavilion and Arsenale at this year’s Venice Biennale – blended their contemporary pieces seamlessly into the interior. From lighting in the Delta collection, a discreet sconce of two moon-like disks, one reflecting and the other eclipsing, illuminates the entrance. Formafantasma recycled animal parts and designed glass carafes with stoppers made from cow vertebrae. A chandelier above the dining table, made of resin-coated cow bladders, flows through a double-height space next to a cliff of Cyclopean rocks.
Organic design does not date: the original interior and the new pieces merge.
The bedrooms above the living room have been converted into a gallery of Wright’s interior designs, specimens selected by veteran New York curator Donald Albrecht, and displayed in clean, curved blond wood display cases by New York architect Wendy Evans Joseph.
The main house opens onto a path that climbs to the nearby guest bedroom and studio, where Wright invented every detail. Windows around the studio fall out of sight in mid-height perimeter walls, turning the room into an open-air pavilion. The studio opens out to a moon terrace, which in turn leads to trails that lead through the surrounding wilderness, a 75-acre estate that is fully owned by nature.
Wright and his wife, Mary Small Einstein Wright, named the Manitoga estate after the Algonquin word meaning “place of great mind.” The house, inside and out, seems like a temporary pause in the landscape, a place to stop in the spirit of things, a tapestry of nature in nature.
Through January 9 at Magazzino Italian Art Museum, 2700 Route 9, Cold Spring, NY; 845-666 7202, magazzino.art. Advance booking is recommended.
Formafantasma at Manitoga’s Dragon Rock: Designing Nature
Manitoga/The Russell Wright Design Center, 584 Route 9D, Garrison, NY; 845-424-3812; visitmanitoga.org. Advance booking is required for access to the house, studio and inner quarry landscape.