Every art scene in the world has its own snobberies, rules, mafias, impenetrable market machinations. Every opening exists on a different level with a different clan of admirers and, if possible, regimented buyers. Of course it is only the dead and the very few who make the big money, those who march to the tune of the critic, the dealer, the new academy.
Free spirits are rare, momentary, delicate. Like new snow they disappear when the sun of discovery shines on them too strongly.
Once, a long time ago, in the 1950s, I saw Gandy Brody trace a red line with red chalk down the middle of 5th Avenue in New York, in front of Bonwit Teller, in the middle of moving cars, doing his thing like a kid in a sandbox. He would do things like that when the spirit moved him but also glowing paintings of flowers for walls, not in anyones style.
I have had the luck to know four people like that in Rome. Two of them have retired to another world, two of them still delight us with their fleeting songs.
Salvatore Meo came from Philadelphia via New York to Rome in the 1950s, an Italo-American who never learnt proper Italian. He was the avenger of the humble throw-away, finding the beauty in old blue type-setting buffers, bunches of rusty keys, shreds of thin-bleached sackcloth and tide-eaten toys, putting them together to make magic machinery.
Burri knew him, Rauschenberg knew him, they all showed in the Obelisco Gallery in Via Sistina. But Sal said he did it first, and he did. Without him, Burri might not have found his sackcloth, nor Rauschenberg his shred of collages and tars in bottles and hairy goatskins.
He had an underground following here and a few of us were allowed in his attic in Vicolo Scavolini near the Trevi fountain to see his fragile wonders. Then he hid out with his Bianca in Via Monserrato and we rarely saw him until he died, nearly forgotten, last March.
Another one-man art movement was Guelfo. One fine day, I came upon his tiny vetrina in Vicolo Sforza Cesarini 3: a tiny shoemakers shop window filled with his etchings of little fairy ladies, will-o-the-wisp figures; small works he had solicited from Arp, from De Chirico and from amateurs: strange shoe-lasts, sun dials; lace and real spider webs.
I thought a wizened little old man was behind this, but I found an art teacher from Fabriano, on a bicycle always in search of new girlfriends.
I treasure the book he made together with his admired De Chirico as a homage to him, a book which isnt really a book but a lovingly assembled collection of unique pages. I treasure his dry remarks about pretentious art and art openings merely declaring them chicheria, I treasure his sudden bursts of wit in the middle of the street. But his years of teaching at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Rome had run out and, too sad, he let himself be swept away by the Tiber. His little shop window is kept as it was by his sister, who sometimes opens the iron shutters so you can see his work and try to think his thoughts.
These sadnesses mustnt obscure the joy that two living men bestow on me. (Why are there no women like Meret Oppenheim and Louise Bourgeois?)
One is Fausto delle Chiaie. Any sunny day he stands near Augustuss tomb monument, behind the building mess of the Ara Pacis in his trench coat, next to a photograph of himself in a trench coat. Near him, on the stone railings of the big grave, are objects he finds and juxtaposes to make new sense on top of old sense. A reproduction of Leonardos Last Supper has a tag under it: For sale for 30 pieces of silver; there are blunt stones called Romulus and Remus, a tiny toy giraffe rides a toy tricycle, a giant drawing languishes and stretches over the cobblestones. One day delle Chiaie stowed all his accumulated papers, his press cuts, catalogues, reviews, letters and diaries into one cabinet and locked it up. And now his lifetime stands sealed in Giuseppe Casettis bookshop with its old books next to his photo gallery in Vicolo della Reginella.
Probably the freshest and most sinisterly happy of all these free spirits is Giancarlino Benedetti Corcos. He makes effervescent grungy events with his actor friends. He had a ski-lift for toys working over the alley of Vicolo della Reginella; a rollerskating actress performing at midnight in Pietrasanta, Tuscany, a little girl singing touchingly, a cappella, in his recent show in the Galleria Giulia in Via Giulia. He had dragged his beat-up canvases into the gallery from the little messy studio-shop he keeps in Via dei Capellari. What canvases! They arent even canvas, but pieces of cottonduck which is used for sailboats, raw beige and rough and stretched over pine two-by-fours. Still all crumpled up, they are touched by dabs of bleeding colour. A few strokes, a bloom, make inexplicable songs. They are awkward glittering beating letters, messages, announcements.
You know by nature Im really a very tidy person, says Giancarlino, but I have to make a big mess first in order to make order out of it.
Such work is rare. Ive been lucky to have seen de Kooning in the beginning, Basquiat in the beginning, Twombly in the 1960s. Born free, serious, shy and stubborn, they caught a heightened moment and held it up for the rest of us to see.