As swansongs go, few could be sweeter than the final cycle of exhibitions curated by Luca Massimo Barbero at Macro. After just two years as director of Rome’s municipal museum of contemporary art, Barbero announced his resignation in May this year, then remained at the helm for another month to oversee the inauguration of the summer programme.
His departure was prompted by a funding crisis this spring that saw Rome’s city council fail to provide the resources necessary for all but the most basic services. Plans to transform Macro into a foundation that would have allowed for an influx of private finance foundered. Finding himself forced to cancel exhibitions, Barbero preferred to bow out with dignity. This final display is a tribute to the flair and ingenuity that have characterised his tenure.
Barbero’s most high-profile achievement was to steer Parisian architect Odile Decq through the last phase of the museum’s new wing. This moody, hangar-like space, with black and red contrasts, faceted surfaces and hanging walkways, was unveiled in December 2010 after nearly a decade under construction. When it was revealed, so enormous was the main gallery – 9m at its highest point – that its utility as a showcase was questionable. Yet a series of site-specific installations have exploited the theatre of the setting to thrilling effect.
For sheer drama, none compares with the current work from the Argentinian artist Tomas Saraceno. Although it bears the unwieldy title “Cloudy Dunes: When Friedman Meets Bucky on Air-port-City”, nothing could be more ethereal than this titanic tangle of piping – 18km in all – that careers through the space like an explosion of skeletal, white vapour.
For all its wild energy, the structure is scrupulously made from modules whose polygonal shape recalls human cells. The walls, meanwhile, are a backdrop for video projections of hermetic, undulating patterns that are photographs of the shifting sands of a desert landscape captured by a wind-powered camera. The work is inspired by the Utopian cityscapes of modernist architects Richard Buckminster Fuller and Yoni Friedman. Yet Saraceno has inflected their fantasies with the 21st-century dream of an eco-sustainable world. The result is challenging and courageous – a reminder that installation art can rival painting and sculpture for power and poetry.
Despite the imposing scale of the new wing, Barbero has always approached Macro as “a house of images” rather than a conventional museum. Lacking the budget to stage blockbuster exhibitions, he preferred to fill its various spaces with a panoply of small shows and individual works.
Hanging above the ticket desk, a zig-zag arrow in lime-green plastic by Gino Marotta breaks up the soaring black wall. On the roof terrace, a sculpture of Batman by Adrian Tranquilli mocks the earnest monumentality of statues of antique superheroes such as Caesar. In the elevator shaft, Carlo Bernardini uses stainless steel and optical fibres to sculpt neon-bright geometric shapes out of the darkness.
These unexpected apparitions give Macro the air of a private collector’s home. They are anchored, however, by more substantial displays in the former beer factory that is the museum’s original wing. Here, the highlight is a chance to engage with the oeuvre of Bice Lazzari, an enormously talented abstractionist neglected outside Italy.
Born in Venice in 1900, Lazzari studied music at the Conservatory before transferring to the Academy of Fine Arts. That early training imprinted her with a sense of rhythm and rigour that led her canvases to resemble musical scores. With a minimal repertoire of marks, yet a wide range of expression through subtle variations of line and tone, she is often compared with the American painter Agnes Martin.
Showcasing works from her youth through to the decade before her death in 1981, this show is an opportunity to see how Lazzari pursued her vision regardless of artistic fashion. Watercolours painted in the 1920s and 1930s juxtapose squares, lines and circles, whose frayed edges and speckled skins in no way conceal their essential geometry. Here, she found inspiration in avant-garde architects such as Giò Ponti and Carlo Scarpa yet little synergy with other artists, most of whom were responding to the fascist regime’s call for neo-classical realism. In the decades after the war, her style oscillated between the grids that would eventually triumph and more nebulous signs, yet her delicate sense of colour and symmetry rarely disappoints.
By the 1970s, Lazzari’s vocabulary had been pared down to rows and blocks of straight lines, sometimes set against floating squares of colour. The centrepiece here is a triptych of large monochrome paintings where lines of different tones and thickness, and tiny exclamations – a sudden scarlet rule, for example, among serried ranks of grey – express mute sounds and metaphysical vibrations. In comparison with Kandinsky, who also aimed to express “visual music”, Lazzari’s inner score is infinitely more orderly. The power of her late canvases lies, as with a Bach partita rather than a Beethoven symphony, in exquisite mathematical restraint.
Given the Udine-born artist’s debt to postwar abstraction, the show dedicated to Riccardo De Marchi is the perfect counterpart to Lazzari. Although he was born more than 60 years later than the Venetian, De Marchi’s lexicon is, if anything, even more understated. His only marks are small, rudimentary perforations that create tracks across canvases made of steel, aluminium and plexiglass. Inevitably one thinks of Lucio Fontana, but the Argentinian’s bold slashes, which paved the way to a universe beyond, have little in common with these tentative piercings. Instead, De Marchi’s holes are a calligraphy of damage; illegible, angry jabs that map a postmodern territory of memory and trace. The solemnity is leavened by a display of De Marchi’s favourite album covers – from The Doors to David Bowie – where his punctures suggest not existential angst but teenage mischief.
Such a stimulating blend of sobriety and lightness is emblematic of the art that has shone during Barbero’s brief reign. From this autumn, the museum will be guided by its new director Bartolomeo Pietromarchi, formerly curator of the Italian Contemporary Art Prize at Rome’s state contemporary art museum Maxxi.
Rome’s city council has said that the foundation will go ahead, although whether or not it does remains to be seen. What is certain is that it is to be castigated for failing to win the confidence of the man who is currently Italy’s most talented curator. Pietromarchi has a tough act to follow.
The Macro summer programme runs until September and October; dates vary according to separate exhibitions