Cucchi vs. Guggenheim

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It is difficult to realize that the young Italian artist Enzo Cucchi was all but unknown in America as recently as four years ago. Fame, however, has certainly caught up with him since then, and it seems highly unlikely that it will desert him in the foreseeable future. Cucchi's career to date has been impressive. He has had several major museum shows in Europe; his work has been included in a number of important international group exhibitions; and he has displayed his paintings, drawings, and prints in numerous galleries both in the United States and abroad.

But, even more important, he has produced some of the most provocative and memorable images of the 1980s.

Which is not to say that what he's painted hasn't been flawed at times, nor that his work is altogether consistent. But then anyone spewing forth canvases and works on paper at his rate and on his scale (many of his pictures are mural-size) is bound to stumble now and again. And then there is his creative zeal, which causes him to tackle subjects and ideas that are almost impossible to paint in the first place.

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And yet, when he does succeed, it is with such authority and impact that one quickly forgets the failures.

No wonder, then, that the news of his impending exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum here sparked such interest. Those of us who had only seen his pictures in gallery or group shows looked forward to the opportunity of seeing his work in greater depth. And our anticipation was heightened even further by the news that Cucchi intended to create works specifically for the event.

Our sense of expectancy didn't flag, even when we learned that the show would not be a retrospective -- that it would be limited to recent things. Even that, we thought, would be interesting and rewarding, and would provide several hours of study and enjoyment.

Well, the exhibition has opened, and I'm afraid it's a disappointment. Not because it doesn't include paintings of quality and importance, but because there is so little in it, and so much space has been wasted on relatively insignificant sketches and drawings.

No matter how one looks at it, this show represents a terrible waste. Cucchi's first big opportunity to present himself to the American public at full strength has been blown, and I suspect a few years will pass before another major American museum will become available to him. In the meantime, those who want to see more will have to travel to Europe, to Paris, for instance, where the Mus'ee National d'Art Moderne is mounting a show of his work this summer.

Furthermore, the exhibition as it stands looks rather forlorn in the Guggenheim's huge space. Eight paintings, a two-part sculpture that resembles something left over from a science fiction movie, and clusters of tiny to small drawings of little intrinsic merit, are not enough to fill the museum's rotunda, lower gallery, and a portion of its ramp.

There are three excellent paintings, but Cucchi could easily have filled the space provided him with at least 10 times as many and could also have included dozens of studies and sketches. As it is, we are stuck with the latter and have only a taste of what he's really good at: the big knockdown, drag-out creative efforts on huge canvases in which he takes on both his ideas and the obstinacy of paint, and fights like a demon until he either emerges with something very special -- or ends up with something that doesn't work. Either way, it's always worth looking at, because Cucchi, quite simply, knows where the real action is.

What we have here, instead, is a one-round exhibition match. We see the young champion in person, see him flex his muscles and land a few good punches. But that's about it. That may be enough for those who assembled this show and even for the artist himself, but it's not enough for me, and it isn't enough for those I questioned about it. It doesn't matter who's at fault; someone in authority should have postponed this exhibition until more works were available, or until a full retrospective could be held.

At the Guggenheim Museum through July 6.

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