Two Different Paths in Postwar Art

Italy and Japan each experienced a creative boom after World War II

AS vital as new-growth forest that springs up after a wildfire, two exhibitions in New York reveal the rebirth of art in two countries shattered by war. For the most part, this rebirth is unfettered by the past - as if the scorched earth of military defeat freed artists to start afresh.

Parallel shows at the uptown and downtown branches of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum trace the development of art in Italy and Japan after World War II. Uptown, ``The Italian Metamorphosis: 1943-1968'' documents Italian design during the economic boom years.

In SoHo, ``Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky'' deals with nearly 50 years of avant-garde art. Both shows are evidence of humanity's resilience.

The Italian portion is a multidisciplinary extravaganza, presenting more than 1,000 objects in sculpture, architecture, painting, design, photography, fashion, and cinema.

During this period of reconstruction after fascism, cross-fertilization occurred among all the arts. Salvatore Ferragamo's high-heeled shoes of transparent nylon thread are as minimalist as paintings by Francesco Lo Savio. Emilio Pucci's vibrant fashions and harlequin patterns have the kaleidoscopic effect of Op-Art. The aerodynamic form of a Ferrari has its counterpart in Roberto Sambonet's sleek serving dish.

The entire exhibit represents a remarkable burgeoning of creativity in different mediums. The rotunda is devoted to paintings and sculpture by 30 artists.

In the first gallery, Giulio Turcato's evocative painting, ``Political Meeting'' (1949), implies the infinity of the masses. Turcato portrays row after row of heads, as if in a cavernous hall, separated by red spikes. While many leftist artists illustrated communist propaganda, Turcato transcended the party line by depicting both the latent power of workers and the obstacles separating them.

Alberto Burri's abstract collages of tar, pumice, and burlap, such as ``Composizione'' (1949), are examples of Arte Informel, the Italian equivalent of gestural Abstract Expressionism, which highlights texture and the flat picture plane.

Side galleries display developments in other arts. Film posters recall the glories of Italian cinema. The indelible image of Marcello Mastroianni broods in a poster for Fellini's ``La Dolce Vita.''

Glassware by Paolo Venini illustrates the simplicity and elegance that came to be associated with Italian design. Examples of industrial design are equally striking. A green Vespa motor scooter fuses form and function. From vacuum cleaner to Olivetti typewriter, the shapes are streamlined.

A gallery of photographs is a standout. In Mario De Biasi's near-abstract photo taken from atop the Duomo in Milan, pathways with partially cleared snow form asymmetric patterns on the pavement below. A shot of a bicyclist carrying a bundle of sticks by Fulvio Roiter has the startling purity at the core of Italian design.

Italy didn't invent bold modern design or pasta. (Marco Polo may have introduced noodles after his voyage to China.) But Italians have raised both pasta and design to such a pinnacle of verve and wit, it's no wonder they get the credit.

Switching to the exhibit of postwar Japanese art is like following saltimbocca, an Italian meat dish, with a chaser of astringent wasabi, or Japanese horseradish. The downtown show spans a longer period - from the end of the war to the present - but the effect is predominantly reactionary rather than renewing.

The emotional fallout from the atomic bomb is so pervasive and the art so extremist, the exhibit is practically radioactive.

The Gutai group did a version of ``action painting that exploited improvisation. Kanayama made paintings with a remote-control device in 1957; Shiraga painted by sliding across the canvas with his feet; and Murakami flung himself through paper screens.

If ever a violent process portrays violence, it's Shimamoto's ``Work'' (1961). Created by hurling bottles of paint against rocks placed on linen, the exploding paint looks uncannily like a fireball.

A more overt reference to the war is Inoue's ``Ah! Yokokawa National School'' (1978), representing a bomb attack the artist survived in 1945. Black calligraphic characters go wild, blotted with expressionistic smears.

The more recent works, assimilated with international art trends, lose this us-against-them fervor and become, frankly, boring. In one work, a wall-sized LED display of clicking green and red numbers by Miyajima is about as stimulating as watching a digital clock.

Although the latter part of the exhibit seems weak, the art from the early postwar years, when Japanese society was in ferment, is surprising and provocative.

* ``The Italian Metamorphosis'' remains at Fifth Avenue and 88th Street through Jan. 22, then travels to Milan , Italy, (February to May 1995) and Wolfsburg, Germany (May to September 1995). ``Japanese Art After 1945'' is at 575 Broadway through Jan. 8, then at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (May to August 1995).

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