Guglielmo Achille Cavellini
There is no artist in modern times, perhaps in all of time, who tried to insure (some would say purchase) his place in art history with the intensity of the Italian artist Guglielmo Achille Cavellini. His art of “self-historification” was based on the premise that no one knew the artist better than himself (or herself), and that he (or she), rather than critics and historians, was better able to guide the public towards an appreciation of the artist’s life and work.
Through a series of self-produced books, performances, festivals, portraits, novelty items, and voluminous correspondence, he sought to ingratiate himself with critics, curators, and artists the world over. In doing so, he laid the foundation for the future examination of his art based on a vocabulary of his own devising.
Marcia E. Vetrocq, who wrote an article on Cavellini, “Dispatches from the Jungle of Art,” in the April 1993 Art in America, stated “…’art history’ and all that accompanies it-biography, taste, market values, reputations, are malleable fictions and therefore suitable materials for the artist.”
Art critics, dealers, museum administrators, city officials, collectors, and others composing the official artworld mainstream, were a constant irritant to the megalomanic master, who felt they never understood his work or gave him the credit he deserved. Cavellini always insisted that his previous activities as a collector blinded others to his efforts at artistic creativity. In 1979 Cavellini wrote an open letter to his critics thanking them for their scorn.
“I’ve had to suffer being maligned by evil and jealous tongues, and to suffer through the flood tide of presumption and arrogant provincialism. The feeling it gave me was of constantly growing bile and disgust. And then it suddenly made sense to ‘do-it-yourself.’ From that moment on, it became clear that anything and everything was permitted me and my imagination immediately quickened and caught fire.”
“In 1971 I invented the manifestos for the shows that will be held in my honor on my hundredth birthday in 2014 in all the major museums of the world. Then came a series of seven honorary Cavellini Postage Stamps printed by the French Republic. Twenty-five of the most famous men of all of History then dedicated one of their books to me and I wrote each of them a letter to express my gratitude. As a still living artist I also prepared a photographic documentation of my life, from birth to the moment of my greatest fame, and published it in a catalog called Cimeli that was then sent out in thousands of copies all over the world with the idea that every copy was a one-man show for the person who received it and read it in his living-room.”
“It stands to reason, of course, that a show I held in this period in one of Milan’s thousands of art galleries went entirely unobserved. And that is why I decided that there was no longer any sense in following the rules of the art system. I’ve set up my centennial celebration in advance, established the facts of my biography without waiting
for the approval of generations to come, sent out thousands of ‘living-room exhibitions’ and set up other stimulating operations as well; and all of this immediately excited the interest of an extraordinary number of people throughout the world, and most particularly of many young artists.”
These thoughts did not come to Cavellini in a vacuum. He was acquainted with the Fluxus artist Ben Vautier, and tells the story in his book, In the Jungle of Art, 1946-1976, of the time Ben attended a group exhibition and came to understand that his colleagues were there to be looked at. So Ben took a canvas and wrote on it, “Look at Me,” which began a style that eliminated the work of art and replaced it with the underlying motivation.
Cavellini’s process of self-historification was not entirely the gesture of a megalomaniac but developed from an interest in exposing the vanity of artists. In investigating the motivation of artists, Cavellini found that, “their presumption is absolutely limitless and the exceptions are exceedingly rare by now the number of artists around is practically incalculable the confusion is incredible and in a jungle like that it’s difficult to manage to survive the reigning sentiments are ignorance vileness and envy and so I think my behavior natural and logical and when all of my work will one day be known it will be clear that I was neither impertinent nor capricious but simply stimulated by a chaotic general situation I feel myself a sort of seismograph of my time…”
In the mid-seventies, Cavellini made contact with the international mail art community. Many of the ideas held by Cavellini were also in general circulation within this network. Cavellini’s thoughts on “do-it-yourself” culture were gaining momentum in international artistic circles. Finding their work ignored and misunderstood by the mainstream, mail artists began staging their own exhibitions (no work rejected, no fees to enter, documentation to all), writing their own histories (in catalogs and books), and pioneering new accesible artistic mediums (artist’s books, rubber stamps, and artist postage stamps).
To this community of emerging, mostly young, artists, Cavellini became a leading exponent of what could be achieved without the support of the mainstream. He de-constructed the concept of the famous glamorous artist by his boundless ambition and his overt aspiration to fame. His presumption was so raw and riveting that his life became a parody of every meteoric art star. In the eighties Cavellini’s satiric stance was especially effective, as the art market flew out of control, making and breaking artists with frightening speed.
Like Julian Schnabel or Jeff Koons, Cavellini was shameless in his ambition to succeed. Nevertheless, mail artists were just as shameless in their adoration of him. Festivals in honor of Cavellini were held in Belgium, Hungary, Japan, the United States, and elsewhere. Works were done in homage to him, which were then carefully framed by Cavellini, and displayed in his Cavellini Museum. His famous stickers (Cavellini 1914-2014) were plastered throughout the world with messianic zeal, even causing him to appear in a Venetian courtroom in the early 80s to defend a charge of defacing the city with his adhesives.
Yet even among his admirers, there was a a touch of envy. Mail artists of modest means could only dream of producing the high-quality books, stickers, and postcards financed by the Cavellini fortune. Unlike the majority of them, Cavellini was raised in a family of privilege.
Cavellini’s Tuscan father emigrated to Brescia earlier in the century, and upon arrival, stood on several of the provincial town’s street corners, a watch in hand, counting the number of people who walked by, and finally deciding on the busiest corner by an early form of market research. His location found, he opened a dry goods store with everything selling for five cents.
From this humble beginning, Cavellini and his brother expanded the operation into a successful chain of grocery stores (called 333, which later figured in his artist postage stamp denominations). With the money derived from the family business, Cavellini decided to collect art.
It was on a 1946 trip to Paris with the artist Birolli, that Cavellini’s art education truly began. Faced with the masterpieces of Cézanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Gauguin in the newly opened Impressionist Museum at the Palais Jeu de Paume, Cavellini decided to abandon his plans to become a painter. “I found all of my problems already resolved in the works of these painters and I thought that my great passion could best be satisfied by buying paintings that I myself would like to have made that in this way every purchase would represent a creative act of my own.
Cavellini began to acquire paintings from new emerging cutting-edge artists, and in 1952 began to display them in his house. With these informal exhibitions, he began to find a measure of fame, resulting in a 1953 photograph featuring seven prominent post-war Italian artists taken in his studio. The photograph had a similar fate to the well-known photo of the Abstract Expressionist “Irascibles,” which defined an era. It was widely distributed throughout Italy and Europe, and secured Cavellini’s position as a noted collector of contemporary art.
By 1955 Cavellini had donated more than two dozen works to the first Documenta, and in 1957 he achieved major artworld confirmation when over 180 works from his collection were exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in Rome.
By 1962 Cavellini was in the possession of works by Rothko, Rauschenberg, Vasarely, San Francis, Toby, Dubuffet, Hartung, Burri, Fontana, and many others. He bought a great many of the English Pop Artists, including David Hockney.
Cavellini was the only person to purchase a work at Yves Klein’s 1959 exhibition of gold sponges, for which he paid $150. He was also an early supporter of Arman, who he added to his collection in 1964.
In fact, Cavellini bought from wave after wave of the post-war avant-garde, including the Nouveau Realists, Fluxus (he was particularly fond of Vautier, Vostell and Brecht), the Austrian body-artists (Nitsch, Brus, and Schwarzkogler), and Conceptualists (Kaprow, Kosuth, and Dibbets).
But as the collection grew, and as it took more and more time to coordinate the many loans made to museum exhibitions throughout the world, Cavellini began to sell off the collection to finance his own efforts at artistic creation.
The Art in America article traces his rejection of collecting and his return to creation. “Right after the war Cavellini tried his hand at drawing landscapes, self-portraits and other figurative subjects. The wealth of art that he saw in the museums and ateliers of Paris during his 1947 trip persuaded him to abandon his paltry efforts, but about 12 years later he felt compelled to make art once again. He returned briefly to painting and drawing, soon turned to making objects of a Neo-Dada or Nouveau Réaliste character, and in the course of the 1970s and ’80s ventured further into conceptual art, mail art, body art and performance.”
In an introduction to his 1980 book, Cavellini in California and in Budapest, Cavellini writes that, “Another Van Gogh or another Duchamp must surely exist somewhere in the world today, but our experts don’t seem to feel any duty to search them out or to understand them.”
In much of his writings, Cavellini dwells on his many meetings with artists, lovingly describing his personal moments with them. It becomes clear that in his life as a collector, Cavellini was searching for the new genius of his age. Gradually he began to understand that he was as capable of assuming his role as anyone else. Thus he returned to art making and developed the idea of self-historification.
Presaging his later involvement in mail art, in 1966 he began a series of paintings as a homage to works by Picasso, Léger, Morandi, Braque, Miró, de Chirico and Matisse, These took the form of gigantic postage stamps, each bearing the name of an issuing nation and value.
At the end of the 60s Cavellini was tearing up his earlier works, burning them, and enclosing them in crates. Soon he was altering the works of other artists, ostensibly cutting up works by Mondrian, Lichtenstein, and others. The pieces were numbered and arranged as if for reassembly. He was literally destroying the work of the past in the creation of the new.
These actions were not without controversy. Cavellini himself was vague on whether the works of art he had destroyed were originals or reproductions.
Cavellini’s vandalization of art history continued in a series of books. In 1974 he wrote a book, Twenty-Five Letters, in which he thanked the likes of Ovid, Dante, Leonardo, and Marx, for their dedication of works in Cavellini’s honor. In 1976, he followed with another book, Twenty-Five Paintings from the Cavellini Collection, insinuating close relationships with painters such as Picasso, Van Gogh, Modigliani, Renoir, and others.
These books and others, such as Destroyed Works (1970), Manifestos for the Cavellini Centennial (1971), Cavellini’s Self Portraits (1972), Twenty-Five Books for Cavellini (1972), Retrospective Catalog (1973), Cimeli (1974), Nemo Propheta in Patria (1978), In the Jungle of Art 1946-1976 (1976), The Diaries of G. A. Cavellini 1975, and Cavellini in California and in Budapest (1980), continue Cavellini’s examination of the self-historification method by rummaging in both the attic of cultural history and the backyard of the art of his time.
These books were sent free to thousands of artists, critics, museums, and galleries throughout the world. His friend Giancarlo Politi, the editor of Flash Art and Art Diary, supplied him with one of the most extensive mailing lists in the world of art. “Who is this Cavellini?,” became a global cry. Having the resources to scatter his name, he did so. In so doing, he adopted a strategy of the mail art community. The well-known phrase, “The Mailbox is a Museum,” which circulated in mail art, became Cavellini’s “Living-Room Exhibit.” Bypassing the cultural establishment of museums and galleries, Cavellini delivered his work directly to a hand-picked worldwide audience.
Mail Artists responded to this strategy. Not only was it in keeping with their own philosophies of do-it-yourself culture, direct distribution, and artistic demystification, but his books, artist postage stamps, rubber stamp cancellations, posters, stickers, and other employed mediums, were always of the highest quality, both artistically and in production.
Not only did mail artists receive these mass-produced works, but many of of his more active correspondents would receive a “Cavellini Round-Trip.” These were envelopes and packages sent to Cavellini, that he would then embellish with his stickers, postage stamps, and rubber stamps, transforming the work into a collaborative effort, and returning it to the originating artist.
Mail artist were also impressed by his entry into performance art. He was not young, but he was willing to take risks. Cavellini was well-known for writing his life history not only on his impeccably tailored clothing, but on the bodies of naked men and women, who volunteered for the honor. Japanese Gutai artist, Shozo Shimamoto, upon the occasion of a Cavellini visit to Japan for a Festival in his honor, shaved his head so that Cavellini could write on it.
His performance with E. F. Higgins III in New York, in which he allowed himself to be painted red and green, has become a classic image of contemporary body art, and has been reproduced on album covers both in the United States (Tripping Daisy) and Italy (Mauro Teho Teardo).
Cavellini’s influence could be felt throughout the international art community. Not only was he feted in Japan, but also Belgium, Hungary, the United States, and elsewhere, in massive programs, parades, exhibitions, and performance festivals. He held his 1980 trip to California (San Francisco, Ukiah, Los Angeles) in especially high regard, going so far as to publish a detailed diary of his trip (Cavellini in California and in Budapest, 1980).
In the introduction to this California diary, Cavellini says that, “Everything took place because these artists have already for some time now regaled me with proof of their esteem and because they think of self-historification as a new, different , and entirely revolutionary art operation. They think of me as a debunker of the present art system, and they agree that this system is now in crisis and destined to fall slowly but inexorably apart.”
But Cavellini was still aware that the mainstream artworld laughed at him. “They think of me as a presumptuous megalomaniac with his pockets full of money. I suffer the same fate of all of the artists who want to say something out of the ordinary and to speak out against the system. And so there’s no point in my hoping to be understood by the critics and historians of modern art…”
Cavellini died in November 1990. Until the end he was producing self-portraits incorporating artworks of the past, connecting himself to the great artists who preceded and influenced him. He wrote ten years earlier that, “I simply prefer to live my own adventure and to see it projected into its own future – which is a far better thing to do than to get bogged down in the jungle of art.”
He escaped involvement in the jungle of art by inventing his own cosmos. The artist postage stamps, the portraits commissioned from artists like Andy Warhol, stickers commemorating his centennial celebrations, and the rubber stamp impressions he produced to authorize his works and his life, all of these reveal a self-consciously constructed legacy.
John Held, Jr.