“Taking Venice” Review

The exception that proves the rule

As George Orwell wrote in 1940, “All art is propaganda…On the other hand, not all propaganda is art.”

This is the unspoken aphorism at the core of art critic Amei Wallach’s documentary Taking Venice, in which she turns her lens on the 1964 Venice Biennale and the controversy surrounding the awarding of the Grand Prize to artist Robert Rauschenberg.

Vital in efforts to promote Rauschenberg are curators Alice Denney, a Kennedy intimate whose husband George Denney Jr. worked for the State Department, and Alan Solomon of the Jewish Museum in New York. They are assisted by the incisive dealer Leo Castelli.

Taking Venice’s trailer suggests the revelation of a sinister conspiracy. Despite the ersatz spy-jazz and naff thriller-funk soundtrack that unnecessarily propels the film in that groovy direction, the conspiracy theory is a sleight of hand. What emerges instead is a moving portrait of both Rauschenberg as a necessary—if initially unwitting—culture hero, and Alan Solomon as a neglected figure in US cultural affairs, even if it does so with some elision of history.

Wallach positions the Rauschenberg affair as the Cold War moment when the gravity of modern art shifted definitively from Paris to New York. But the account excludes the importance of Jackson Pollock’s LIFE Magazine spread 15 years earlier, and the role abstract expressionism had already played in establishing American fine art as serious political power. In Venice, this time, America was late to the game where propaganda was the rule.

Taking Venice’s third act focuses on the aesthetic and existential consequences of winning the Grand Prize for Rauschenberg. This is what makes the film. Here is a great American artist continuing to risk alienation and ridicule. He struggles against repetition, haunted by the violence of the ‘60s. He wants to see nationalism dissolved. One roots for Rauschenberg. Despite misdirection and missing context, this is an important story of the best of our culture.


+ Rauschenberg’s genius

- Muzak

Taking Venice

Directed by Wallach

Center for Contemporary Arts, NR, 98 mins

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