Italian polymath Gianfranco Baruchello—who mapped the mind in a prolific and restless six-decade career spanning painting, sculpture, film, literature, happenings, psychoanalysis, agriculture, and radical politics—has died at age ninety-eight. Through complex, self-reflexive work that often flouted the traditional mechanisms of the art world and borrowed from mass communication, Baruchello grappled with postmodernism and relational aesthetics avant la lettre. An active participant in the art scenes of Milan, Paris, New York, and Rome, where he was long based, he collaborated with such leading postwar intellectuals as John Cage, Italo Calvino, Jean-François Lyotard, and Nanni Balestrini. Beginning in the early 1960s, he became a mentee and close friend of Marcel Duchamp, who considered him to be his one true heir. Nevertheless, Baruchello remained relatively unknown outside of Italy until recently, when a spate of exhibitions in Europe brought his name to wider attention.
Gianfranco Baruchello was born in Livorno in 1924 to a schoolteacher mother and a father who managed the General Fascist Confederation for Italian Industry. In 1934, the family moved to Rome, where they lived directly across from Benito Mussolini’s residence. “From our windows, we could see him addressing his speeches to the nation from his balcony,” Baruchello recalled in a 2017 interview. “He was short and stout and gave me an unpleasant feeling every time I saw him. I was only ten at the time, and it didn’t take long before I broke free from my father’s rigid beliefs.”
He turned fully to art in 1959, after first studying law and chemical biology. Uniting everyday objects and Surrealism in canvases that remained largely empty, he became allied with the emergent “nouveau réalisme” school coined by critic Pierre Restany, and in 1962, at the urging of Ileana Sonnabend, Baruchello was one of few Europeans represented in New York gallerist Sidney Janis’s landmark “New Realists” survey, famous for defining Pop art and related movements. Around this time, Baruchello began a body of work crucial to his oeuvre: miniature, decentered “universes” of culturally loaded symbols, letters, and drawings on white surfaces; the artist likened these text-heavy works to the process of thought and dreams, as well as the fragmented narratives of history. Duchamp noted that these works demand the participation of the viewer, suggesting that they be looked at “up close and over the course of an hour.”
Refusing to be associated with a single aesthetic, Baruchello reimagined his “universes” using aluminum, wood panels, and stacked Plexiglas. In 1964, he created what is perhaps his best-known work: the groundbreaking found footage film Verifica incerta, for which he and Alberto Grifi rescued 450,000 feet of cast-off 1950s-Hollywood celluloid, splicing it into a chaotic montage that upends the precepts of cinematic storytelling. For Happenings at a Distance (1966), Baruchello bypassed the gallery system, mailing artworks directly from his studio to the homes of buyers. And in 1968 he founded Artiflex, a fictitious company whose tagline was to “commodify everything”; that year he traveled to Paris to participate in the student revolts of May ’68 with Félix Guattari, Alain Jouffroy, and Jean Jacques Lebel. From 1973 to 1981, Baruchello ran a farm he called Agricola Cornelia, a countercultural Gesamtkunstwerk in the Roman countryside through which Baruchello sought to merge life, earth, and art.
Baruchello continued making work into his final years, when retrospectives in Rome, London, France, and Germany exposed his art to a larger audience. In addition to residing in the collections of numerous museums around the world, his work was featured in Documenta twice (1977, 2012) and the Venice Biennale five times (most recently in 2013). In 1998, he and Carla Subrizi transformed the site of Agricola Cornelia into the Baruchello Foundation, a kind of think tank and living archive for the artist’s work and ideas. “What one needs to deal with, to face up to, day after day, is possibility,” the artist said in a 2019 interview. “Art continues to be an essential instrument when it originates from the desire to understand.”