Exactly fifty years ago, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italy’s controversial writer-activist-filmmaker, made his first of two galvanizing visits to New York.
“ACTOR NEEDED TO PLAY Pier Paolo Pasolini.” Thus reads an untitled 1990 work by Mike Kelley: a mock flyer stamped on a large piece of felt, seeking a man of “squarish facial structure” and “medium height” for an unnamed production. As much as its specific criteria, or its appeal to nonprofessional actors, the piece’s very format—mixing the handwritten and the mechanically produced, the individual and the anonymous—evokes the legacy of the unseen subject, an artist who repeatedly addressed the encroachment of industrial modernity upon vernacular expression. Somewhere between a wanted poster and a casting call notice, the flyer obscures Pasolini’s likeness (substituting a censor’s black square) even as it describes him. Indeed, the scandal of his absence—he was murdered in 1975 at the age of fifty-three by a young hustler in murky, politically charged circumstances—has long rivaled the renown of his work in cinema and a host of other cultural fields.
Whether through the ferocity of his death or the abiding vitality of his aesthetics, Pasolini has inspired a staggering number of international artists—including Ming Wong, William Kentridge, Francesco Arena, Tracey Moffatt, Elisabetta Benassi, Cerith Wyn Evans, Nathaniel Mellors, Julian Schnabel, and Berlinde de Bruyckere—to produce works in a wide range of mediums and styles. As if in response to Kelley’s ersatz leaflet, the director Abel Ferrara cast the physically appropriate Willem Dafoe in his 2014 Pasolini biopic.
If Pasolini has left a profound mark on these shores, his own work—particularly following his visits to New York City in 1966 and 1969—reveals an intense engagement with American culture, from the period’s youth and antiwar movements to black culture to Ezra Pound’s poetry and Andy Warhol’s painting and film. Fifty years after his first visit to the United States, he remains known here mostly for his work as a director of films, among them the gritty Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962), both dealing with prostitution, as well as the more hermetic Teorema (Theorem), 1968, featuring a divine visitation, and the sexually brutal Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). His auteur status was reaffirmed by MoMA’s comprehensive (and jam-packed) film retrospective in 2012–13.
In Italy, however, Pasolini singlehandedly reinvented the notion of the Renaissance man in the postwar era—producing work as poet, novelist, painter, dramatist, screenwriter, journalist, essayist, and unrelenting polemicist. Having studied under the distinguished art historian Roberto Longhi at the University of Bologna, he imparted a fundamentally painterly sensibility to his films from the start: aiming as much to frame a new sense of the sacred as to assail form or upend convention. His work is most consistent, in fact, in its ideological incongruities, or what he referred to himself as a productive “contamination”—between loathing of the bourgeosie and animosity toward the hollow pieties of the Italian left; between a clamorous iconoclasm and a profound aesthetic conservatism; between atheism and what he called the “nostalgia for a belief.”
For a country lacking a Catholic dominance or a deep-seated Marxist tradition—the two phenomena out of which Pasolini’s worldview emerged—the United States has produced a wide spectrum of artists fascinated with his legacy. “I Killed My Father, I Ate Human Flesh, I Quiver with Joy: An Obsession with Pier Paolo Pasolini,” a 2013 group exhibition on the lower East Side that summed up this penchant with contributions by thirty-seven artists, was just one manifestation of an enduring aesthetic fixation. 1 A degree of irony lurks in this cultlike veneration by many contemporary artists. For all his irreverence, Pasolini maintained a contentious relationship—both verbal and visual—with the avant-garde of his time, viewing their insistence upon innovation as an insidious extension of neo-capitalist development. By the late 1960s, he had given up on avant-garde efforts to resist consumerism or conformity.
Whatever praise he withheld from the New Left and its fellow travelers in Europe, however, Pasolini heaped upon American bohemian rebels, hailing Allen Ginsberg’s Beat experiments—and the “new revolutionary language” to which they contributed—as indispensable to the revitalization of postwar culture. “In Europe,” Pasolini said just after his first visit to New York, “everything is finished; in America one has the impression that everything is about to begin.” 2
He first encountered these proverbial beginnings in the early fall of 1966. By way of Montreal, he arrived for the screening of his latest movie, Uccellacci e Uccellini (The Hawks and the Sparrows), at the New York Film Festival. The journalist Oriana Fallaci accompanied him on behalf of the magazine L’Europeo, penning a wry chronicle of his activities and impressions. Titled “A Marxist in New York,” her article basks in the irony of Italy’s most rabidly anticapitalist intellectual let loose on the streets of Manhattan. Her travel companion declared the city “sublime,” deemed it “the navel of the world.” Its architecture appeared to him “as Jerusalem appeared to the Crusader,” but also as “a multi-layered cake” appears to a wide-eyed child. 3 He was partial, Fallaci reports, to Coca-Cola. The photographer Duilio Pallottelli, in images accompanying a Pasolini essay published posthumously in the Corriere della Sera, duly evoked these ironies, capturing Pasolini reveling in Times Square and supping at diners, posing in front of Broadway marquees and shopwindows. 4
His stay entailed far more than superficial pleasures. He visited leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and trade unionists, Black Panther party officials, and pacifist protestors. He met with Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac (whom he had attempted to cast as Jesus in his 1964 film The Gospel According to St. Matthew) and attended a performance of Frankenstein by the Living Theatre. The company’s director, Julien Beck, would later star in Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex (1967), as well as influence his burgeoning efforts in the theater over the next several years, extending the visitor’s debt to the American avant-garde in new directions. Pasolini hoped, in fact, to stage his first completed play in New York City, “so as to avoid hearing it savaged by the petit-bourgeois voices of our atrocious actors.” 5
ONE PALLOTELLI SHOT documents yet another New York City rendezvous: Pasolini’s visit with Richard Avedon for a series of portraits. Though detailed by Fallaci as well, the studio encounter has long been assumed to have borne no fruit. Destined for Vogue but never published, the images—recently rediscovered in the Avedon Foundation holdings—reveal a relaxed and jovial Pasolini, plainly basking in the relative anonymity of his American visit, worlds away from the scandals which plagued him back home. Fallaci recounts:
He departs [from New York] today and has much to do: most importantly, to pose for a certain individual who really insisted on it, and who he thinks is named Avalon.
“Yes, something like that.”
“You don’t know who Dick Avedon is?”
“No, who is he?”
“Perhaps the greatest photographer alive in America, without a doubt one of the greatest in the world.”
Avedon asked him to arrive at the studio around eleven, but he got there late because he met a vagabond on the stairs, drunk since dawn, and a vagabond drunk since dawn is worth more than a hundred photographs by Avedon.
He listened to the drifter with maternal patience, tenderness, before handing him goodness knows how many dollars, and now he turns, with somewhat less interest, to contemplate the immense photograph which covers an entire wall of Avedon’s studio.[pq]Whatever praise he withheld from the New Left in Europe, Pasolini heaped upon American bohemian rebels.[/pq]Charlie Chaplin depicted like a devil, his index fingers held up to the sides of his head like horns or a pitchfork. “I took it on his last day in the United States,” Avedon explains, “a few hours before he took the boat straight to Europe. Come look . . .”
But Pasolini is more interested in the story behind other photographs on the walls: this black boy, for example, who was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan. Or this mulatto elected twice to Parliament [sic] but who was never sworn in because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam. Or this one of Allen Ginsberg posed nude, covered only by his beard and his body hair, which moves him to another declaration of love.
Avedon’s images of Pasolini bear the same distinctive format the photographer had begun honing in portraits of countercultural leaders. Avedon’s portrait of Ginsberg had recently appeared in Nothing Personal, a book on which Avedon collaborated with James Baldwin, set opposite an image of George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party. Tried for obscenity over his 1955 poem Howl, Ginsberg loomed—in his dissident politics and heretical eroticism alike—as a kindred spirit to Pasolini. That they struck up a friendship (“brother poets,” in Pasolini’s words) is no great surprise. As one of Ginsberg’s translators put it to the Italian public in 1965: “The bitter laugh of a Jewish homosexual poet—in the face of a puritanical and racist [American] society, in which Communism is illegal and the poet explicitly persona non grata—resounds to the walls of the seediest parts of town.” 6
It was precisely these parts—redolent of the social, sexual, and racial margins so alive in his own work—to which Pasolini felt drawn in New York. Excusing himself whenever possible from professional engagements, he ventured to rougher neighborhoods in Harlem and Brooklyn, seeking out—as Fallaci put it—“that dirty, unhappy, violent America which suited his own tastes.” Following a second trip to New York in 1969, he would come to coauthor the dialogue for the Italian version of Andy Warhol’s Trash (1970), a film bound up with a different, but not unrelated, aesthetics of sexual abjection. By the late ’60s, Warhol’s glib “Commonism” diverged about as much as possible from Pasolini’s political commitment. Each artist, however, lent voice and dignity to individuals—and the larger social realities to which they were attached—excluded from polite society.
“Tolerance,” Pasolini writes in his Lutheran Letters, published just before his murder, “is a more refined form of condemnation.” 7 The politics of his own desire remained a matter deeply fraught. Pasolini never agitated for gay rights per se, fearing that the enshrinement of sexual identity would lead inexorably to its conformity. His relentless defiance of bourgeois propriety, however—whether aesthetically or existentially—has inspired countless gay artists. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1995 exhibition “Untitled (Vultures),” installed in New York’s Andrea Rosen Gallery shortly before the artist’s death from AIDS, is a case in point. Featuring framed, black-and-white photographs of circling birds of prey, the show was promoted in a press release that notably included lines from Pasolini’s 1964 poem “I Work All Day . . .” (translated by the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti):
With the calm courage of a scientist,
I watch myself being massacred.
I seem to feel hate and yet I write
verses full of painstaking love.
[. . .]
Passive as a bird that sees all, in flight,
and carries in its heart,
rising in the sky,
an unforgiving conscience.” 8
What worthier balm for the tribulations of AIDS (and of government inaction) than Pasolini’s lyricism, its mix of avenging anger and a humanist resistance to what he called “the violence of reason”? .’]9
Assailing Reagan-era ignorance with a barrage of visual activism, David Wojnarowicz turned to the same literary work. His poetry invokes Pasolini as early as 1979, though it is his later, AIDS-related interventions that allude most poignantly to the Italian’s precedent. Anticipating his own imminent demise, Wojnarowicz staged the 1990 photograph Untitled (Face in Dirt), depicting his face nearly covered by soil—an allusion to Pasolini’s Teorema, in which a working-class maid entombs herself in the gravel of a new construction site, emblematic of the soulless neo-capitalism against which the film, and Pasolini’s work at large, protests. That Wojnarowicz’s imagery became the target of censorship at the Smithsonian’s 2010 exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” only further confirms its affinities with the work of Pasolini, who underwent more than thirty trials during his lifetime on charges for everything from blasphemy to creating “scenes offensive to the public.”
Transgender artists, too, have paid attention to Pasolini’s depictions of sexual outsiders. Fashioned from makeup, nail polish, and African-American hair products, the “terrorist drag” portraits of the queer/trans artist Vaginal Davis delight in a reflexive perversity indebted—however obliquely—to Pasolini’s aesthetics, and exhibited under the aegis of his influence. For the Italian debut of Warhol’s 1975 “Ladies and Gentlemen” exhibition in Ferrara, Italy—comprising Pop portraits of anonymous black and Latin drag queens—Pasolini notably wrote the introductory text. Rather than simply extol Warhol’s representations as courageous, however, he challenged their evacuation of history, both personal and social. 10 The assimilation of sexual otherness to neo-capitalist culture—exemplified here by Warhol’s serial, “celebratory” images—strips its corporeal reality of any dissenting energy.
PASOLINI’S WORK LONG skirted the pitfalls and pigeonholes of identity politics, however. It is thus fitting that his legacy has appealed to such a wide swath of individuals. Resident in New York for several decades, Alfredo Jaar has turned repeatedly to Pasolini as muse, occasionally by way of Antonio Gramsci (the Communist theorist integral to the Pasolini’s vision), but also on his own terms, as in the 2009 film The Ashes of Pasolini, with its montage of disparate documentary footage. Created the same year, Paul Chan’s six-hour-long animated projection Sade for Sade’s Sake conjures up Pasolini’s Salò, his controversial last film and one of the most consequential in terms of artistic charisma—even, or especially, in its brutality. Bodies converge on Chan’s screen in a silhouetted frenzy of either sexual activity or torture. The piece’s conflation of eroticism and violence recalls not simply de Sade’s writing, but its terrifying interpretation in Salò—further evoked in Chan’s essay “A Harlot’s Progress” (2012), which he had an actress read at MoMA’s Pasolini retrospective.
The New York–based artist Leigha Mason references the same film in her Spit Banquet (2013), a videotaped performance of bodily excretion and communion—guests sitting at a dinner table and continually spitting—which also recalls the work of Paul McCarthy. The latter’s films and performances exchange Pasolini’s almost ritualistic sacrality for a numbing bathos. Yet McCarthy stylized violence owes a debt to the director, to whom he recently paid homage with a seething, blood-red image of his murdered body. Made into a series of unnumbered posters, the images were pasted on walls of Pasolini’s hometown of Casarsa della Delizia in northern Italy. If many artists have drawn upon the sensational embodiments of Pasolini’s work (and death), Richard Serra’s eponymous sculpture (1985) appears instead enigmatic in its earthy mass of wrought iron.
Pasolini’s hostile relationship with the avant-garde of his own era casts these tributes in a problematic, or at least curious, light. Various international fashion designers such as Fausto Puglisi and Gosha Rubchinskiy have even recently declared themselves directly inspired by Pasolini’s oeuvre. Perhaps the logic of late capitalism renders such perverse affinities entirely conceivable, even inevitable—which is, after all, consonant with Pasolini’s admonishments. For all their potential fashionableness, however, aesthetics may also wield the weapons of irony and reflexivity. To wit, Carlton DeWoody’s 2013 Pasolini High School, a varsity “PPP” jacket emblazoned with personal insignia, can be seen as sartorially commodifying Pasolini’s homoerotic rough trade.
At Thomas Hirschhorn’s 2013 Gramsci Monument—a makeshift pavilion erected in the midst of a Bronx housing project, facilitating various talks, readings, and social gatherings inspired by Gramsci’s work—one of the plastic windows bore a photocopied image of Pasolini standing in front of Gramsci’s grave in Rome. The relevance of Pasolini’s dedication to Rome’s poor, peripheral neighborhoods, and the (doomed) efforts to preserve them from the depradations of commodity culture, never seemed more relevant in an American context.
“Your new forms,” Pasolini told the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas regarding the American avant-garde in 1967, “are new contents of opposition to American society.” 11 It is opposition—in all of its ideological ramifications—that Pasolini has come to embody for successive generations of artists like no other figure in postwar Europe. Less soothing, by contrast, is the inexorable pessimism of his last works and their various forewarnings—portents from which not even the New World is spared. For he warned Ginsberg that America might potentially witness “a second Hitler who may accomplish that which did not succeed the first time: the suicide of the world. . . . It will be far worse the second time.” 12 Recently, Donald Trump’s campaign revived the specter of fascism, if not of outright apocalypse, through its hostility to ethnic, sexual, ideological, and spiritual difference. Invoked for decades as having foretold Silvio Berlusconi’s disastrous governance, Pasolini’s body of work perhaps offers up glimmers of a different future in its defiant past, new models of resistance against the refined condemnation he saw in mere tolerance.
Ara H Merjian is associate professor of Italian Studies at New York University.