Gaetano Pesce: The Agony and the Ecstasy

Friedman Benda
Oct 23, 2019 7:58PM

Courtesy of Friedman Benda and Gaetano Pesce. Photography by Timothy Doyon.

The influence of Gaetano Pesce on current design is pervasive, in a way that is impossible to miss yet difficult to track. Grasping for an image to describe his importance, I think of a river spreading into a great delta. Names can be put to the various tributaries: figurative, speculative, and narrative design; experimental auto-production; liquid modernism; critical deconstruction; organic architecture; postmodernism. But for all that his ideas saturate the creative landscape, Pesce himself, mighty source that he is, remains elusive.

This is itself by design. A true avant gardiste, Pesce has always played hard to get. It’s a mode of operation virtually unknown among younger practitioners, who are generally highly attuned to the reception of their work. They want their story told, and they want to be a part of that process. Pesce, to put it bluntly, doesn’t give a damn. He is rightly proud of his achievements: his involvement in the landmark exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, at the Museum of Modern Art (1972); presentations at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris (1975), and later, a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou (1996); groundbreaking interiors like that of the Casa Carenza (1972) and the offices of the advertising agency Chiat/Day (1994). But he has very little interest in being digested into a neat package. That aversion comes partly from personality, partly from principles. The only continuity, in his view, is change; he is deeply antipathetic to what Jean-François Lyotard called the grand récit (“grand narrative”) of history.

Gaetano Pesce [Italian, b. 1939], Felt Sofa from Marc-André Hubin’s Apartment, Paris, 1985-1986, Felt, 113 x 33.25 x 40 inches. Courtesy of Friedman Benda and Gaetano Pesce. Photography by Daniel Kukla.

To do justice to Pesce’s work from the two most important decades of his career—which is the intention of the present exhibition and catalogue—is not necessarily to say what it all means. For him, the whole point is to generate objects and images that insinuate themselves into daily life, while still remaining open to interpretation. His works resist closure, and welcome new association. So there is no point trying to chop his oeuvre up into discrete sections. You’d have better luck taking a cleaver to an ocean wave. Like anything liquid, Pesce’s work can best be understood in terms of flow, without origin nor destination: just raw energy, newly configured in each moment. One might even want to distinguish between his “work,” which is theoretical and methodological, and his “works,” which are manifestations or documents of that thinking.

All of this may sound obscure. And in a certain way, it is; Pesce’s oeuvre has a cavernous profundity which rewards deep exploration. But paradoxically, his objects also declare themselves on their surfaces, in ways that even a child (perhaps especially a child) can read. When Pesce wants to speak to the human condition, he draws a face. When he wants to evoke rapid transformation, let’s say in a table or chair, he uses fluid pouring techniques. To express sorrow, war, redemption, he depicts streams of blood. This begins to account for his work’s sheer eclecticism, so different from the codified and coherent oeuvres of so many other major designers.

Gaetano Pesce [Italian, b. 1939] for B&B, Italy, Up5 armchair with Up6 pouff from Casa Carenza, Padua, 1969, Polyurethane foam structure and elastic fabric upholstery, 42.5 x 42.25 x 51.25 inches. Courtesy of Friedman Benda and Gaetano Pesce. Photography by Daniel Kukla.

Though Pesce’s outlook is entirely secular, his works have the urgency of religious iconography—and here we feel the powerful undercurrent of his Italian cultural inheritance. They shudder and moan. They slump under their own weight. They part their lips in bliss. Above all, they move, in rhythms that travel both within each work, and across the entire expansive range of his output. An initially puzzling thing about Pesce is that he claims to have no interest in repetition, yet routinely alludes to and borrows from other artists’ work, and returns repeatedly, even obsessively, to certain of his own projects. The Seaweed furniture he made beginning in 1991 recalls the Rag Chair he made twenty years earlier; he has adopted his 1969 Up5 and Up6 chairs as a personal emblem, rendering these in multiple scales and idioms. This seems contradictory, but it is so only if we bring to his work an expectation of orderly progression, and Pesce has never embraced order in anything. His work is a continuous assault against the artificiality of linear constructs and closed systems. Instead, his ideas whirl in constant circulation, periodically bubbling up to the surface and then submerging again, as he continues, unpredictably, onward.

A clear sign of this restlessness is the multidisciplinarity of Pesce’s practice. Trained originally as an architect, he has made buildings and urbanist plans, as well as furniture, objects, jewelry, resin drawings, and more, oscillating continually between one-off speculations and serial mass production. He covers the waterfront. While this multiplicity is clearly a matter of disposition—put simply, he bores easily—it is also an­ implicit critique of circumscribed professionalism. Like the modernists of the 1920s and ‘30s, he sincerely believes in design’s responsibility to reshape the world. But he has departed radically in his methods: instead of rationalism, he offers wild disruptive energy, provocation. He posits wholly new ways of living just to see what that might look like.

The flip side of this contempt for narrow definitions is the wide embrace that Pesce gives to the world. Like Robert Rauschenberg—one of a few artists who can legitimately be described as a direct influence on him—he has maintained an insatiable creative appetite over the course of a whole career. He is a lover of things, a sensualist. This quality bridges such seemingly disparate statements as his Brobdingnagian Moloch lamps and vacuum-packed Up furniture, and his later “skin” drawings and Felt furniture. In each case, Pesce’s primary objective was simply to put something into the world that was palpably, undeniably new.

Courtesy of Friedman Benda and Gaetano Pesce. Photography by Timothy Doyon.

It’s possible to think through these works conceptually—as I have tried to do in the entries that compose the rest of this catalogue. Moloch dislodges the domestic environment from its customary scale. The Up5 and Up6 chairs are a blow-up manifesto, advancing Pesce’s version of a feminist politics. The “skins” comment on the distortion that necessarily occurs in any act of documentation. The Felt pieces continue Pesce’s longstanding exploration of the dialectic between the handmade and the industrial. But every one of these works is also assertively physical. They are meant to be experienced first with the perceiving body, the encounter with the mind deferred, at least for a little while.

So Pesce is always trying to escape normative consciousness. To put this in psychoanalytic terms, his work charts a path to the superego—the most abstract dimension of the psyche—but always via the id, that dark domain of fear and desire, the deep-seated world of the Jungian archetype. If you truly open yourself to Pesce’s vision, you will find that he challenges you at every level, intellectually, physically, ethically, even sexually. He shows you the violence that logic can do to an instinctive human being. He exposes the greatest of falsehoods, that it is rationality that organizes our thoughts. Come to him wanting a flower vase, and he will give you suffering and pain and the joy of broken bondage. He will give you agony, which is derived from the Greek again, “to celebrate”—as in a ritual contest of athleticism, a struggle of the body big ideas, too big for history as the ancients knew, which is why they also invented comedy and tragedy. These modes are Pesce’s, too. His work and works are full of life, in all its messy, confusing, provisional, flawed, maddening, gloriously overflowing reality. And it’s a funny thing, life. Whether from sorrow or joy, or a little of each, it usually ends in tears.

- Glenn Adamson

Friedman Benda