Why Enzo Mari Is Not Your Capitalist Art Market Stooge

Looking at objects and vintage photos in isolation, it blows my mind that Enzo Mari is somehow not a famous, formative artist, but only [sic] a designer. How did that happen? Did he make all his work in secret? Did he never try to show it? Did he just never sell it? Or enter an art dialogue? Did he get muscled out by Fontana and Manzoni for the parochial art world’s Seminal Sixties Italian Artist slot?
But you know what, he was a famous artist, or at least he showed his art for a long time in a series of prominent places, in exhibitions that were considered important and are now considered historic, even. And yet even as some of those events are being revived, revisited, and reemphasized, Mari’s involvement in them is not.
I was going to solve this mystery, and find the answer, using the two dozen or so browser tabs I’ve accumulated in the last 24 hours. But you know what, I think I’m just going to cut ‘n paste my links and let the info sort itself out.
Thing is, there probably ARE people who know exactly how or why Mari the Artist’s career or influence is the way it is; and it’ll be easier to try and track them down rather than engage in armchair speculation. Or I’ll just pigeonhole Hans Ulrich in Miami, either way.
So here’s what I’ve got:

Relevant sections from biographies for galleries and Wikipedia entries that probably originate with Mari and his studio [emphasis added on the art parts, which may have some revisionist aspects to them, which I’m trying to map back to the contemporary situation]:

[via Aras Gallery]: ENZO MARl was born in Novara (Italy) in 1932. Mari, in his unceasing quest for exactitude, is certainly one of the most meditative and problematical of the Italian designers and artists. He studied at the Brera Academy in Milan but not for long. Towards 1950 his main interests were the psychology of vision and design methodology. The success of his first works as an artist did not prevent him from taking part, with a strong and also political sense of commitment, in the controversy, lively in those years, between neo-realism and nonfiguration. Even then, the specific object of his research was the study of the visual space in search of the necessary co-relationship between object and unitary space. In Mari’s work of pure plastic research the aesthetic result derives from the didactic premise that motivates his work of design. Also important in the consideration of the symbolic, as well as the functional, aspect of the object. This leads logically to the relationship between design and language, language and communication: hence the search for simple forms, easy to construct, but conforming to essential rules of order and proportion. In 1963 Mari took part in the “Nouvelle tendance” exhibition at Zagreb and Milan, in 1964 in the Venice Biennial. From 1963 to 1965 he taught Methodology of Design at the Humanitarian school in Milan, in 1970 at the Experimental Center of Cinematography in Rome, and in 1981-82 at the School of Fine Arts of Carrara. In 1965 he took part in “The Responsive Eye” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In this period his work tended increasingly towards industrial design, the social and pedagogic aspects of which he considers no less essential than the technological. He designed furniture, useful objects, urban furniture, toys, etc. In 1968 he decided not to take part in group exhibitions, signing -together with Castellani, Massironi and Boriani -a declaration condemning the commercialization of exhibitions of art. He took up a political position in this regard in the question of the Milan Triennial.

So first the “Nouvelle Tendance,” or Nove Tendencije, or Nuovo Tendenza. Which, also:

Nel 1963 diventa coordinatore del Gruppo Nuova Tendenza e organizza l’esposizione del gruppo alla Biennale di Zagabria del 1965.

And the rather remarkable text for the 2008 GAM Torino exhibition, written, presumably by the Maestro’s studio, is probably the definitive [or most up-to-date] version of Mari’s own version of his practice:

Enzo Mari, eminent Italian designer with an intense artistic career since the 1950s, when he stood out as a prominent figure of Programmed and Kinetic Art. In 1963, Mari coordinated the Italian movement called Nuova Tendenza, and in 1965 he organised its participation in the Zagreb Biennial Exhibition. In parallel with his artistic career he worked as a designer, engaged at first in individual formal investigation and subsequently in collaboration projects with various enterprises involved in the fields of graphic design, manufacturing and exhibition design.
Organised in its entirety by the Enzo Mari Studio as “global project” (curatorship, arrangement and catalogue), the exhibition evolves in a chronological order that deliberately makes no distinction between Mari’s artistic production and the objects he designed for industry. With 250 works on show, the exhibition path does however take into account two fundamental prerequisites that have directed the Maestro’s creative choices in over 50 years of activity: works produced “upon implicit request”, in other words in reaction to a personal and inner call that Mari responded to with works that were to become part of Contemporary Art history, as opposed to works produced “upon explicit request”, or moreover, upon requests from enterprises, manufacturing companies or institutions who contracted Mari to design objects that introduced a radical approach to Design.

So a distinction of motive and motivator, not process or product. Also, maintenance of control of the context.
In Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance, Salter and Sellars described the principles of the Nove Tendencije, at least in its early 1961 Zagreb incarnation:

“continuous research emphasized open, collective working conditions, anonymity, indeterminacy, and activation of the spectator.

GRAV in France and Gruppo N in Padova and Gruppo T in Milan produced some of the earliest examples of “interactive art.” In their telling, Gruppo T, in particular, sounds like a remarkable precursor to the experimental and perceptual works of Olafur Eliasson.
But Mari is not mentioned as being formally associated with Gruppo T. For their discussion of Nuovo Tendenza, he’s not mentioned at all in Sellars’ and Salter’s book. And though Gruppo T and Gruppo N are both listed in MoMA press materials, I also can’t find Mari mentioned in historical documents of “The Responsive Eye.” I guess I’ll wait for my catalogue to arrive.
MoMA does have some very nice, early Mari objects, editions published by Danese. Is it significant that they are held within the Architecture & Design collection, not Prints, or Painting & Sculpture? They acquired them quite early, too. 1960-62 in the case of these phenolic resin cube objects.
Who is this, Janson or someone? Art of the 20th Century:

Arte programmata [It.: ‘programmed art’].
Term given to the work of various Italian artists active during the early 1960s who were primarily interested in KINETIC ART and OP ART. The phrase was used by Umberto Eco in 1962 for an exhibition that he presented at the Olivetti Showroom in Milan. This show included works by BRUNO MUNARI, Enzo Mari and members of GRUPPO N and GRUPPO T (both founded 1959). The artists produced objects by a procedure analogous to the methods of technological research, creating a prototype that was then developed through a series of closely related artefacts. This practice was exemplified by Munari, whose mass-produced ‘multiples’ took the form either of hand-operated objects or simple machines (e.g. X Hour, 1963). The ‘multiples’ required the participation of members of the public in order to function and were intended to explore optical and physical phenomena, concerns that also dominated the work of other Arte programmata artists. Giovanni Anceschi (b 1939) created remarkable dynamic images with coloured liquids, while Gianni Colombo (b 1937) made reliefs constructed out of blocks that moved mechanically. Arte programmata gained an international reputation and in 1964 was the subject of exhibitions at the Royal College of Art, London, and at various venues in the USA. In the late 1960s, however, the artists became less closely associated, even though most continued to pursue their interests in kinetic and optical effects.

All very nice. MoMA also has the poster Mari designed for the show he was in. In A&D’s poster collection, as an example of graphic design:
Anselmo Villata does mention Mari in the exhibition catalogue for the 2008 Prague Triennial, which argued for Arte Programmata, kinetic art, and Nove Tendencije et al and Zagreb at the center of the complex, new, depolarized version of east/west European postwar art history.
Which is a step up from 2004, when Mari wasn’t mentioned in Impossible Histories, the first attempt to revisit the history of Zagreb and the Yugoslavian-related avant-garde groups and movements of the 60s.
But he did get included in the 2004 exhibit in Siena which traced the history of ZERO and kinetic art in Germany and Italy. So high five to curators Marco Meneguzzo and Stephan von Wiese!
2007 was a good time for early 60s Zagrebian kineticists. ZKM did a show about Bit, an influential, early journal that tracked the transitions from kinetism to computer-related artmaking.
In the catalogue for that show, which I gather originated at the Neue Museum Graz in 2007, Jesa Denegri quoted Mari the 1965 Nuovo Tendenza curator [in text that was reproduced at prehysteries, a new media art class blog, which is the new coursepack, I guess]:

The New Tendencies in 1965 tried to counter this tendency by focusing on the research character of the works, but even the curator, the designer Enzo Mari, was dissatisfied with the result, admitting that a large part of the exhibited work ‘was actually not research but rather the simulation of research or even its commercialisation.’

So there’s a bit of anti-commericalist bias, which can have a negative impact on one’s career in a way that straight-up communism might not.
Mari also doesn’t get namechecked by folks like Getulio Alviani, who shares a tight Milanese circle and has a nearly identical exhibition history for the 1960s.
Oh, here’s an interesting one, from Italian curator Federico Sardella’s text for Haunch of Venison’s 2009 show of Enrico Castellani. No running from commercialism here:

In 1968 Castellani was also among the leaders of protests at the Milan Triennale and the Venice Biennale. With Enzo Mari, Castellani co-wrote ‘Un rifiuto possibile’ (‘a refusal that is possible’, published in 1969 in Almanacco Letterario Bompiani, Milan), an opinion piece in which the authors advocate vigorously for the autonomy of art and artists from commercial interests. Castellani and Mari refused to take part in group shows which in their view represented ‘a justification for shunning responsibility’, and they instead favored ‘solo shows in which we will take full responsibility, since we are committed to speaking out every time against the kinds of compromises and the boundaries that stand between research and production.’

So refusing to take part in group shows, rejecting commercial interests, and favoring only “solo shows in which we will take full responsibility”? That’s a stance that’ll throw some sand in the gears of the art world machine. Other signatories included David Boriani and Manfredo Massironi.
I can’t find the text of “Un rifiuto possibile” yet, but I did find this Google-garbled mention [pdf] of the manifesto, plus another statement Mari made with Gruppos N and T at the “Verrucchio Conference” in 1963:

In the sixties, a hypothesis of a radical transformation of visual search and its channels of distribution is carried out by Gestalt art and Arte Programmata, operational opposition which formalized in the work group, to the denial, in some cases,of authorship. Within the international group Nuove Tendenze had taken place, in addition, the debate of multiples, identified as central to the move, appointed the fetish is unique and unrepeatable work of art to aesthetics-. about widespread and democratic
On the occasion of the Conference Verrucchio 1963, Enzo Mari, il Gruppo N , il Gruppo T ,presented the joint statement, “Arts and freedom – ideological commitments with contemporary artistic currents” [“Arte e libertà – Impegno ideologico nelle correnti artistiche contemporanee”], which is a real assumption of responsibilities, social responsibility in the proposed methodology, aimed at denial of the idea of culture as escapism, or subjected to logical power because they exploited.
The petitioners argue the need to find alternative channels for the dissemination of knowledge and heir research, which involves problems of its own reality: “(…) part of any creative activity which is subject to immediate aims of certain groups of power, becoming exaltation, disclosure, advertising device, became instruments of powers, and in this case is missing its main tasks. Activation of consciousness, criticism from within and cannot become innovative action, or better contribution to the action revolutionary.”
Such projects not only invest the research-aesthetic but extends to all social life, questioning the role of the artist, who calls himself rather than “beauty operator.”

I guess I could clean that up, but it’s a pdf, and it’s a mess. Besides, I like the idea of artist as “beauty operator” too much to risk losing it in translation.
There’s a couple of citations for Arte e liberta here, but none in English. Ah, I think this is it, or at least part of it, more of it, and A Google translation:

1963 Statement at the conference Verrucchio,
“Il Verri, 12, pp. 133-136
You can not think, in all sectors, with a change in guidelines, separated from the knowledge of what has been done before and elsewhere, and especially to what you are doing. Even in mainstream art, the need for information and documentation work the other has become increasingly urgent, get to determine, in some individuals, the need to work together to develop a joint work program. […]
In the currents of thought, both philosophical and scientific, which have come together to determine the reality of today, has become increasingly evident in the state investigation, experience, training, the prevalence of the dynamic. This also means recognizing the flexibility of thought patterns, the mobility of the points of view, it means seeing things as processes and not as a hierarchy, ultimately means to deepen and therefore affirm the concept of freedom. […]
The research, which manifested itself through all the possibilities of visual communication (articles, films, graphic works, etc..) Must be made through specific means (visual perception) used with the utmost economy (rules gestalt-psychological) to establish a contact with the viewer , which is entrusted to the least possible ambiguity individual (culture, humor, geographical contingencies, taste).
For the same need for precision should also find ways to spread that does not alter its meaning. Furthermore, the channels that belong to a company offer, in our case, the capitalist, which passed at least an idea of culture.
Overcome because it replaces the original objective by limiting it to be an instrument of escape, entertainment, decoration.
On the other hand any creative activity which is subject to immediate aims of certain groups of power, becoming exaltation, disclosure, advertising device, it becomes an instrument of power, and in this case is missing its main tasks to activate the conscience, by critics’ internal, and can not be innovative action, or better contribution to revolutionary action.
A manipulation of visual research is done when you work in the media the results of the techniques of visual communication and psychology, divorced from their methodology. They are thus made up of those means of persuasion and blunting of the collective consciousness that we all know more or less.

Finally, I broke down. I thought I’d cheat by going to the Teacher’s Manual, Hans Ulrich Obrist’s collected interviews with Mari. Nothing doing. Though I find it entertaining to consume and full of surprises or interesting insights, Hans Ulrich’s super laid back, open-ended interviewing style is sort of the opposite of investigating, excavating or interrogating. Mari mentioned his own art work several times, and exhibitions he’d done, but invariably, there was no probing or follow-up, and the conversation would move on. In the earliest of the three interviews, though, from the Utopia Station project dated 2002, Mari seems to reveal a remarkably traditional view of art that might end up excluding his own practice. As if he were ahead of his own time:

HUO: Can you tell me about the early visits to museums?
Mari: I spent time in the galleries, looking at all the masters of Italian modernism: Carra, De Chirico, Sironi. I spent time looking at them closely, and they became my points of reference.
I finished my first paintings: walls with regular open windows. The interiors were always the same, but with varying illumination. I was impressed by how the light and the shadow–the white, the black, the gray–conditioned and declared the ambiguity of ambient perception I began to realize how sight, feeling, movement, and time interacted.
The problem of numeration emerged, and with certain systematizing I created models that could be characterized ona scientific plane. At the Academy, they were not highly valued by the young artists, and i realized I should study psychology or something else.
I was working on these pieces that were nothing more than a sequence of environmental models. I used these paintings because they were points of reference for the most simple form of perception. I had always excluded other ways of seeing, because they were not perceptible. Nowadays artists speak of alternative universes created by computer, or argue that with scientific instruments we can extend the horizons of art. But art cannot but engage our perceptive organs–everything that departs from direct perception fails to produce emotions. The scientific figures are illuminating, but they leave you cold. From an expressive point of view, they remain stupidly decorative.

So after all that, Mari’s a failed expressionist? You’ve got to be kidding.