Art as a Cold War pawn

Artist Robert Rauschenberg, one of the most famous American cultural figures of the Sixties through the Eighties, became very rich and died on his own island, Captiva, in 2008 at the age of 82. The documentary Taking Venice was created to determine whether, as has long been rumored, in the 1964 Venice Biennale the Americans laid a "fix" in to insure that Rauschenberg would win the Golden Lion at the top 32nd Biennale and make America look culturally ascendant. Early on Rauschenberg is seen in a clip speculating that if he hadn't won this, his subsequent career might have been better. Is that true? What would the difference have been?

Director Amei Wallach has assembled the conventional roster of talking heads intercut with archival footage by way of illustration, and jazzes up the mix with a loud score. She is concerned to sensationalizes her topic, which forms a part of the history of the Cold War. It is a lively story.

One moment goes in another more humane direction: a passage describing the relationship of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Johns, by the way, is still living, so he has been working for many more years than Rauschenberg, and produced work, primarily prints, paintings, and encaustics whose subtlety and complexity has outlived Rauschenberg's big, exciting, flashy screenprint paintings incorporating images of baseball players and JFK, and his Combines, inspired by his junk collecting in the streets right around the studio, where he lived. Rauschenberg and Johns were both lovers and collaborators, and we hear their voices describing something of how this remarkable intimate creative partnership functioned at this key moment in American art.

Taking Venice largely however presents modern art history not as personal record but socio-political scandal. The film shows the Biennale Rauschenberg exhibition and talks about how striking and original it was. But the subtleties of what his work was like and where he stood in the work of the period that is so poorly described by calling it "Pop Art" is secondary to the politics and the manipulations.

However, there is one story that provides an alternative: Wallach necessarily describes other artists featured in the US pavillion at Venice. That pavilion was a Palladian villa designed in 1930, and, we learn, was built by "a consortium of New York galleries": in other words, alone among major countries at the art Biennale, America didn't provide the funding and it had to be private. Then, the US government functioned like a gangster, not an art patron, pulling strings crudely to see to it that the new augmented pavilion, with a large annex on the Canal Grande occupying the former US embassy building, made a big splash.

Yes, this is significant. The spotlighting of the US Pavilion of the Biennale in 1964 represents a belated recognition of the passing of the mantle of modern art from France to the U - though this had already happened in the actual art world with the New York abstract expressionists of the Fifties. The 1964 pavilion included John Chamberlain, Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Claes Oldenburg, Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella.

It's extraordinary to learn - details can be found in Wikipedia's article, American Pavilion - about how US gallries and museums struggled to manage and finance the pavilion , Grand Central Art Galleries in the Thirties, then in the Fifties with the exhibitions managed by MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Baltimore Museum of Art. MoMA withdrew in 1964 and the US Information Agency - the country's governmental cultural propaganda outlet - took over till the pavilion was sold to the Guggenheim Foundation. On the one hand, one doesn't want government running art. On the other hand one does want government to subsidize art, as some countries, such as Germany and Switzerland, have done generously, while among rich countries, the US has been unusually stingy toward the arts. "What's in it for us?" US pols seem to ask. In the case of Biennale 1964, they appear to have found something. Voices are heard here announcing that Venice, with its prize, was an "Olympics of art."

In any case, raising funds to put on shows at the Biennale is an essential and increasingly challenging aspect of putting on shows at the Biennale, and it has risen from the equivalent of $702,000 for Rauschenberg in 1964 to from $4 - $7 million for recent US Biennale exhibitions - for individual artists. It costs a lot to make a splash in the art world.nowadays.

How, or whether, the US "fixed" Rauschenberg's grand prize win at Venice 1964 is a bit vague. However, there's a story, "Have you heard it?" asks the friendly Christo, that Leo Castelli, whose ex-wife Ileana Sonnabend was a sort of European art outpost for American art, put in a word to get the influential, charming art figure Sam Hunter to be named as the first Yank on the seven-person jury. There is plenty of detail about the jury's squabbles. A big issue was simply that they thought they couldn't award Rauschenberg because his work was shown at the embassy annex and not at the "giardini," the traditional site of the Biennale's art exhibitions.

An interlude - this film's left turns are its most interesting parts - reviews Rauschenberg's education at Black Mountain College, where he met Merce Cunningham and John Cage, two other key players in the then gay mafia of burgeoning American art, and Rauschenberg, Cunningham and Cage collaborated later. In fact, Merce brought his company to 1964 Venice with a production designed by Rauschenberg put on at the historic La Fenice theater for a sweaty, cheering and booing overflow audience, right before the jury made its decision, and that impressed the jury.

They voted for Rauschenberg, but the objection of his work not being shown at the Biennale "giardini" grounds remained. So the Americans hired a barge and shipped a lot of Rauschenberg's work from the former embassy back over to an impromptu annex in front of the US rotunda. (The film "recreates" this barge move for us.) The gimmick worked: Rauschenberg got the grand prize, and was embraced and carried through Piazza San Marco, becoming another American Cold War pawn like Van Cliburn in the Fifties.

Main speakers in the film are a shades-wearing Alice Denney, head of the 1964 Biennale team, a Washington insider (her husband was a government cultural honcho and she was a longtime friend of the Kennedys), who worked with Alan Solomon, and the dealer Leo Castelli to maneuver Rauschenberg's win.

There is something very flashy and bold abut Rauschenberg and if you acknowledge, as this moment did, that New York had taken the banner from Paris, it seems right that he should have won this highly publicized honor among a group of outstanding American artists also included. But the manipulation still feels uncomfortable, and Rauschenberg's comment that it might have been better if he hadn't won confirms this somehow.

1964 was a banner year. Most people won't even have heard of most of the artists of the last two decades of Biennale US pavilions. The 1964 ones were household words, or were to become that. (This says something about the art world more than about the Biennale.) So even if this film has a bias that diminishes the value of its content on art and isn't even especially impressive at that, if you're interested in contemporary art history, especially during the Sixties, you'll want to take a look at it. (The filmmaker is a longtime chief art critic of Newsday and has previously made a film about Louise Bourgeois.)

Taking Venice, 98 mins., debuted at DOC NYC Nov. 10, 2023 and has shown at other festivals, at least at Sarasota Apr. 2024. Produced by Zeitgeist Films, it opens theatrically at New York's IFC Center May 17, 2024, and at Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles May 24.