You can’t fault Taking Venice for its timing. Its theatrical release comes just weeks after the opening of the 2024 edition of the Venice Biennale, at a time when the U.S. is on a run of critical successes and public acclaim for its national pavilion curations (Mark Bradford in 2017, Martin Puryear ’19, Simone Leigh ’22, Jeffrey Gibson now). It’s also the 60th anniversary of the tongue-wagging events investigated in director Amei Wallach’s newest art world documentary.

Going into this film you learn, for the first time, perhaps, that rumors have persisted since 1964 alleging that the U.S. government, specifically its military and spy agencies, had meddled in the prize-giving in Venice — and, in a broader sense, had weaponized the excitement around contemporary American art for use in Cold War cultural propaganda. To this end, all sorts of wealthy and well-connected players had, allegedly, bullied and colluded to ensure that the American artist Robert Rauschenberg would win that year’s top painting prize. Which he did.

Ultimately, the film, with its earnest protestations and well-informed contextualization of the events surrounding 1964 — many in the form of confident first-person narratives by people who were there when it all went down — presents plausible cases for various interpretations of events. For example, the idea that Alan Solomon, who brought Robert Rauschenberg to wide acclaim by curating his solo exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, in 1963, and who worked closely with Rauschenberg’s dealer, the Italian-born mega-gallerist Leo Castelli, would energetically champion a win for the artist on the art world’s biggest stage — that makes total sense. The optics of the work arriving in Italy on a U.S. Army transport plane … less so.

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Jeffery Gibson’s work outside the U.S. Pavilion this year; the sign admonishes viewers not to “climb on high pedestals.” (SHANA NYS DAMBROT)

That happened because Alice Denney, the Washington insider and friend of the Kennedys who had recommended both Solomon and Castelli, was married to a high-ranking intelligence official within the U.S. Information Agency who oversaw the Biennale entry through its fine arts division — which, by the way, is a thing that existed. Denney was invested, not only as a supportive and adventurous art collector but as a matter of international cultural diplomacy. So when funds fell short for transporting Rauschenberg’s large-scale works overseas, she simply borrowed a plane from the Army. Nothing to see here!

Extensive details on the contentious meetings of the Biennale’s jury in the lead-up to the eventual vote provide many of the most entertaining passages of the film, with richly recollected parties, lobbying sessions at Cafe Florian, in Piazza San Marco, rather gauche advertising campaigns, and operatic threats between and among the prize committee jurors. At one point, the entire Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s world tour is diverted to Venice — with Rauschenberg acting as its costume designer — for a sold-out performance at the historic Teatro La Fenice, which, by all accounts, moved the ball in the artist’s favor in the final hours before the Biennale opened. That kind of thing — both completely fabulous and totally suspect — just kept happening.

And that’s where the juiciest bit of purported “skullduggery” comes in, recounting the 11th-hour quasi-heist of the works — which were, for reasons of available wall space in the surprisingly cramped architecture of the pavilion, installed (thank you Mrs. Denney) at the recently vacated American consulate building, in the Dorsoduro neighborhood, adjacent to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and on another island entirely from the Giardini, where the national pavilions were all located. There was a technicality to the final award — the works needed to be physically displayed in the dedicated building, on Giardini grounds, to be eligible for the prize. The official U.S. pavilion did have artwork on-site, by Frank Stella (RIP), Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, plus a few small pieces by Rauschenberg and several works by Jim Dine — who, by a lovely twist of fate, is currently showing monumental sculpture and painting in a palazzo on Dorsoduro as part of the 2024 Collateral exhibitions. But the Rauschenbergs at the site were not, on their own, impressive enough to justify the win. So what was to be done?


Charm offensive: Robert Rauschenberg in front of his silkscreen painting “Express,” at the Venice Biennale, in 1964. (UGO MULAS © UGO MULAS HEIRS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

Alice Denney to the rescue again — organizing a proper canal barge when the army boat she first commandeered proved too small for the job of moving all of Rauschenberg’s most important (and enormous) works to the Giardini, literally overnight. Not to mention sorting out where to put them when they arrived — there was a reason they’d wanted to show them somewhere “better” in the first place. So the paintings duly arrived by barge, at the last possible minute, and were installed in a hastily built outdoor portico, on the spot where Jeffrey Gibson’s bright-red scuffed pedestals currently stand. Anyway, that adventure checked the box and the prize went ahead, though many cried foul. The Americans cried victory.

Director Wallach recalls growing up during the Cold War, “when the world seemed as dangerous as it does today. But it also seemed to be filled with possibility, with the actions of people who dreamed big and took big chances.” This could be a broader thought applicable to Rauschenberg as an artist. His “Combines,” for example, forever complexified the boundary between painting and sculpture, sparked a conversation about the visual and narrative potential of found objects and everyday surrealism, broke apart the constraints of art history, and came to embody a sense of pure freedom — American style. That’s why U.S. cultural warriors wanted him in Venice in 1964 — it was felt he was as “American” as it was possible to be, or at least, his art was, and that aligned with the propaganda-inflected cultural diplomacy the government was running all over the world.

Much is made of the charm offensive waged in Venice by Leo Castelli, who took a table twice a day at the iconic Cafe Florian, at noon and 5 p.m. His ex-wife, and fellow gallerist, Ileana Sonnabend’s zeal for promoting Rauschenberg was an unheard-of media strategy in Venice, though now it’s as commonplace as gondolas. The former consulate’s opening night party seems to have invented the now de rigueur Biennale glam riot party genre as well — a legacy wholeheartedly kept up by such fetes as this year’s Berggruen Arts & Culture Institute’s overbooked disco party for the renovated Palazzo Diedo, completed in (barely) enough time to welcome what felt like thousands to opening night. The first half of the movie is about the zeitgeist of 1963; by way of comparison, it’s about how much of the world as we know it was invented that year. JFK is killed midway through the planning, but somehow things press ahead. In 1966 the USIA disbanded their art program, following the firestorm of controversy about Rauschenberg’s win. 

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A twist of fate brought Jim Dine’s work to the Biennale this year, 60 years after his initial foray into the Venice scene. (SHANA NYS DAMBROT)

Artist Mark Bradford tells the filmmakers that when it was his turn to create the American pavilion, in 2017, on the one hand he wanted to erase, explode, or overwhelm the neoclassical facade, to overwhelm the erasure of colonialism with an undeniable physical presence. When he thinks about Rauschenberg, Bradford says, he admires what he describes as his work to “combine” art history and social history — something that’s important to Bradford as well. In 2022, Simone Leigh, discussing her monumental fusion of pre- and post-colonial media, materials, and paradigms of beauty and feminine power, expressed a desire to “do away with nationalism” but also a passion to share her life’s authentic “American experience.” Now, in 2024, Jeffrey Gibson, the first Native American artist to represent the U.S. among the Biennale pavilions with a solo exhibition, also blurs boundaries — between art and craft, painting and sculpture, performance and video, ritual and reconstruction, past and present, First Nations history and national pride, progress and trauma. His work fits perfectly with the redemptive, celebratory, indigenous, decolonial zeitgeist of the past few years. It’s bright and searing and joyful, its technique is manifestly of the highest caliber, its message of reevaluating and enlivening ancestral traditions for the visual culture and social fabric of today is more than on point. His work was never going to win, though. In the context of the current global geopolitical moment, while Gibson’s work was superlative, perhaps more than any year since 1964, resistance to American victory must have been strong in the jury room. And in any case, it’s not a perfect corollary, as the categories have long since changed. There is no longer a “painting prize,” and what Rauschenberg won was not the best national pavilion. This year, the national award went to Australia (for the first time) for an operatic “family tree” installation by Archie Moore that traced his lineage back 65,000 years and intersected with histories of colonization in a poignant way, understated despite its scale and scope. The Golden Lion for best participant in the main exhibition went to the impressive, site-specific, architecturally engaged weaving installation by Mataaho Collective — a New Zealand–based group of four Maori women.

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Robert Rauschenberg’s “Buffalo II” (1964); Rauschenberg at the ’64 Venice Biennale. (L: ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION; R: SHUNK-KENDER © J. PAUL GETTY TRUST. GETTY RESEARCH INSTITUTE)

A lot has changed in the 60 years since Rauschenberg was put forward to advance American ideals of freedom. Despite being basically in the closet, the film addresses how his relationship with Jasper Johns was sort of an open secret in the art world (in New York, at least). All of this was long before Rauschenberg lived to see every such social and cultural paradigm questioned and upended, including patriotism. The film touches on this as part of its look at the broader cultural context of the 1960s — a time when the Civil Rights movement demanded the expansion of liberties and the Vietnam War sparked a proper reckoning about American exceptionalism more broadly. 

One thing that has not changed is the popularity, in some circles, of believing that the 1964 result was corrupted by geopolitics. It’s the kind of thing we regularly see nowadays. Ultimately, Taking Venice is about how art can and sometimes does change society, for better and maybe sometimes for less better. But while the movie will remind you that art can and should be important on a global stage, it probably still won’t convince you one way or the other as to what really happened in 1964. It will only make you more suspicious of what’s happening today. 

Opens May 17 at IFC Center; May 23 at the Hammer Museum, in Los Angeles; May 24 in L.A., at Laemmle Royal.




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