Generally not known for its contemporary art scene, Rome has lately made some bold attempts to compete with Milan, Turin and Bologna in that arena. Two recently opened institutions for contemporary art, MAXXI and MACRO, demonstrate the serious commitment of private and public interests in the field. In addition, the Richard Meier-designed galleries of the Ara Pacis Museum, which opened five years ago to much controversy, now host engaging shows of modern and contemporary art. And the presence since late 2007 of a spacious and elegant Gagosian Gallery branch near the Spanish Steps has drawn international attention and helped bolster the hitherto undervalued contemporary art market in Rome.
Another recent bid for art-world attention is the inaugural International Biennale for Public Sculpture (La Biennale di Scultura di Roma 2011), timed to coincide with the Venice Biennale and intended to lure art pilgrims south. The ambitious project is the brainchild of Rome-based curators and dealers Gloria Porcella and Lamberto Petrecca, who organized the event with support from the European Commission and Roma Capitale, which oversees cultural projects in the historic city center.
Initial plans called for the installation of monumental works of modern and contemporary art in some of the city's most famous piazzas and historic sites. But last-minute bureaucratic snags and security issues caused the plans to be scaled back. The project was renamed Rassegna Internazionale di Scultura di Roma 2011—"rassegna" referring in a more general way to an "exhibition," in contrast to the grander "biennale." The outdoor sculpture show, on view through July 31, is confined to two separate locations in public parks: the Casina Valadier, in a gorgeous section of the Borghese Park that overlooks the city, and the park of the villa Torlonia in the lush landscape surrounding the massive Neo-Classical villa that Mussolini once called home.
Despite its reduced circumstances, the exhibition contains the work of 33 international artists and is not without considerable charm. On view are major examples by some well-known figures of the modern era, such as Henry Moore, Giorgio de Chirico and the renowned Italian figurative sculptor Giacomo Manzù. The latter's life-size crouching bronze nude, The Faun (1968), was perhaps the most striking piece in the entire exhibition.
Adding a playful note are younger artists such as: London-based Mauro Perruchetti, showing a large grouping of colorful translucent resin figures, and Camilla Ancilotto, with her four-sided, figurative paintings—painting/sculpture hybrids in cubes and other geometric shapes that are arranged in moveable stacks rather like a Rubik's Cube. Australian sculptor Andrew Rogers, better known for vast earthworks installed in remote parts of the world, is represented here by a tall totemlike bronze, Unfurling (2003), which, from certain angles recalls a female figure, and pop-inflected bronze flowers.
Hannu Palosuo, from Finland, presents an evocative installation featuring six large pieces of sheet metal cut in the shape of chandeliers incongruously stuck in the ground. Also included is the work of Lorenzo Quinn, whose gargantuan cast-resin hands (a la Oldenburg) appear to manipulate life-size objects, such as a motorcycle; similar work by Quinn is also on view at the Arsenale in this year's Venice Biennale.
Not quite as engaging for me were a number of "crowd-pleasers," as Porcella referred to them in an informal A.i.A. interview, including giant bronzes by Salvador Dalí and J. Seward Johnson. These works seemed to deflect the focus of the exhibition, which was ostensibly aimed toward exploring new possibilities for public sculpture. In any case, the exhibition's success or failure depends on the future. If there is going to be a sculpture biennale in Rome, it has to start somewhere. This could prove to be the beginning of something great-or simply a one-off enterprise.
Back indoors, MAXXI and MACRO offer some dazzling shows. A quick tram ride from the Piazza del Popolo, Zaha Hadid's labyrinthine architectural folly for MAXXI conveys a kind of funhouse giddiness that never really wears off, causing some controversy among artists and curators. Nevertheless, the brilliant Michelangelo Pistoletto survey, co-organized by MAXXI and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, looked resplendent in the space and managed to be at times sobering and profound. The show remains on view through Aug. 15.
The cavernous spaces of MACRO, meanwhile, hosted one of Ernesto Neto's huge installations of sheer, hanging bags of nylon stuffed with herbs, which actually looked rather demure in the room. A lively Antony Gormley survey of sculptures and drawings was on view, as well as a show of four large-scale installations by New York-based artist Sarah Braman, whose arrangements of painted found objects, like battered wooden doors and office furniture, are at once abject and seductive.