Enrico Pedrini: The Pharmacist from Genoa (A Letter)2 May 2012
This morning I received from Daniel Rothbart, a mutual friend of mine and your father’s, a very moving email informing me of his passing. I was devastated and profoundly saddened by the news. And I am sorry for your loss. As I told Daniel in my email back to him, I was utterly heartbroken. I always felt affection for Enrico, and was filled with admiration for what he had accomplished in his life. He was a very special, a very unique person – the pharmacist / philosopher / art critic / curator / collector from Genoa. (I know that the pharmacy portion of his life was actually led in Florence, but I always associated him with Genoa, that besotted and ‘dark’ – as in perilous – port city, which is where he lived and where he usually came from when he visited me, and a place I love.) I was very proud of the book Edgewise published with him, a very difficult book that nevertheless did very well here. I’m sure you have a copy, Irreversibility and the Avant-Garde: An Essay on Physics and Modern Culture. It was the first book of his to be translated from Italian to English. I am the very proud publisher of this extraordinary document written by this very extraordinary man.
I should begin by explaining that I knew your father, Enrico Pedrini, since the 1980s, although I cannot remember precisely when or how we met. I knew his work as a prodigious curator of exhibitions supporting the art and artists he loved so much and wrote about, and collected, namely the classical Conceptual Art of the 1960s and ‘70s. I was not a big proponent of this kind of art, but having been a supporter of my own generation and circle of artists whom I considered to be ‘conceptual’ in the 1980s – artists like Ross Bleckner, James Welling, Richard Prince, Peter Nagy, Sarah Charlesworth, Allan McCollum, Peter Halley, Jonathan Lasker, Haim Steinbach, Jeff Koons, Philip Taaffe, Robert Gober, Abraham David Christian, Not Vital, Saint Clair Cemin, Annette Lemieux, Sal Scarpitta, Meg Webster, Lawrence Carroll, and Vik Muniz –, I had a special respect for your father’s contribution. And like me, Enrico’s definition of what was ‘conceptual’ had a wider rather than a narrower, and narrowing, meaning. In addition to his love of Dada, which was something else we shared, what he meant by ‘conceptual’ included Fluxus, Minimal Art, Arte Povera and Vienna Aktionismus. And he had a special place in his heart for Graffiti Art. And by this he did not mean Jean-Michel Basquiat, who I do not think factored at all in his thinking. In this regard, your father was a renegade. He never went along with the mainstream, something else we also had in common.
He published a lot of books on these matters: John Cage, Happenings, and Fluxus (1986) and The Quantic Machine and the Second Avant-Garde (1991) come readily to mind. But it was not these books, which discussed such formidable ideas as the relation between quantum theory and the art movements of the 1960s, that I am thinking of here, it is the innumerable exchanges we had about these ideas and this art that were so precious to me and so impressive. It is rare to find someone who is so conversant and so facile in handing such complex and difficult ideas, especially in relation to art. I know your father was involved in science, in that he was for a very long time a practicing pharmacist in Genoa before he retired. But, nevertheless, he was quite brilliant, and had a thirst, a passion, an openness for ideas that is rare not only among ‘scientists’, but especially among curators, critics and historians of art, not to mention artists. And these are traits one almost never finds among collectors. Enrico was a rare bird, indeed.
Another thing I loved about your dad is that he wore so many hats, boldly but in a most natural manner. This was another area we had in common. The pharmacist from Genoa was a critic, a scientist, a curator, a collector, and most of all, a philosopher, who, like Socrates, loved the streets and drawing rooms of the agora. Whether he found them in Venice, Taiwan, Nice, Turin, Vienna, London, Milan, or New York. Where there was an exchange of ideas, that is where Enrico could be found. Whether it was in Daniel’s loft or in my living room right here in New York City, or Café Dante in old Greenwich Village, with its classic photographic murals of Florence on the walls, taken by the Alinari brothers in the nineteenth century, or in the cafes of old Europe. His books, his magazine and newspaper articles, in French, Italian and English, the exhibitions he curated and the collection he amassed, were subtle and sophisticated excuses – indeed, sublime forms of ‘sophistry’ – to precipitate a conversation, an exchange of ideas, a vision. As a scientist and an independent scholar, as a creative thinker, Enrico was always interested in experimenting, and there is no greater ‘experiment’ than language, than a charged exchange of words and symbols, than a conversation. It is what makes us peculiarly human; it is the ‘chemistry’ of individuals in relation to, in conversation with, each other that creates art and love, and often recreates the world. And it is the absence of language, in the form of diplomacy, which all too often leads to misunderstanding, hardship and war.
Where some considered the many hats I wore, and continue to wear, as a source of conflict of interest, Enrico saw it all as an inspired source of complexity, as a visionary form of activity, with which he intensely identified. I visualized him, here, as a specter, as a ‘Socrates’, strolling the streets and sitting in the old cafes of Europe and New York. But there was nothing ‘old’ or ancient about him. In fact, I could not believe he was born in 1940, and that he was only 72 years old when he died. Your father believed that everything was ‘theoretically’ possible. The book I published, Irreversibility and the Avant-Garde, beautifully translated by Daniel, analyzed, in fact, the “theoretical relationship between discoveries affecting our perception of the natural world, technological innovation, and the ongoing discourse of the avant-garde.” The book explored particularly the impact of Werner Heisenberg’s theory of indeterminacy on culture and the manner in which “unstable systems give rise to progressive developments.” I think in the curated exhibition both Enrico Pedrini and Collins & Milazzo found a simple and proactive form to encourage ‘unstable systems’. I think they used them (their group or collective shows) to destabilize the ‘system’, in general. Whether, in either case, they (these cultural gestures) generated “progressive developments” is for posterity to ascertain. This is what Daniel wrote in your father’s book fourteen years ago, words that capture him so well, even from this distance: “Enrico Pedrini recognizes patterns, structures, and substance in the arts in a very precocious way. As a result, he has often found himself at the center of controversy in his native Italy. Throughout his curatorial projects and writings, he has followed a singular vision of what is valid and compelling in the visual arts. But in order to do this he has often had to position himself with ‘daggers drawn’ against the critical establishment. Pedrini has consistently championed difficult art, illuminating the merits and timeliness of Fluxus, Conceptual Art, Sound Art, and Environmental Art, and ushering these movements through the back door of European cultural institutions with surprising efficacy.”
If past is, indeed, prologue, then this is what we do know: that the ideas in Enrico’s book, Irreversibility and the Avant-Garde, originally published in Naples in 1992, reflected those embodied in a show he had curated that same year, entitled “Beyond the Artist,” which consisted entirely of books dealing with scientific discoveries exhibited like sculpture on pedestals! Clearly the consummate form of art lay just beyond the reach of the artist – as any artist worth his salt would attest. Perhaps it can even lie, strangely enough, in the lowly experimenting hands of a pharmacist from Genoa. While Enrico was clearly interested in “entropy and irreversibility,” “entropy and change,” “innovation in science and transgression in art,” instability, non-Euclidean geometry, and indeterminacy, which he had been exploring and writing about for years, he had, of late, become interested in “studying the interaction of dissipating systems,” chaos theory, and, as always, “new potential in art.” Of the many people I have known in the arts, Enrico’s mind was among the most agile and restless. He was endlessly curious, and this is, in part, why I cannot believe he is no longer with us.
Although I had not seen him for a while, I know that he had so much more to do. Perhaps he abandoned the experiment of existence only because he had stumbled upon the equally interesting experiment of inexistence, and he was too impatient to wait any longer to explore this realm that exists paradoxically ‘beyond the artist’, beyond life as we know it, beyond the people we love so dearly. For me, Enrico shall always embody this new potential in art, which always lies beyond art.
Portrait Photo Credit: Filippo Falaguasta
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