Did the US Rig the 1964 Venice Biennale?

A new documentary delves into the scandals that plagued the 1964 Venice Biennale, where Robert Rauschenberg became the first American to earn the Golden Lion grand prize amid allegations of a rigged jury. Critic and director Amei Wallach’s film Taking Venice (2023) delves into the sensationalized victory, illuminating the United States government’s obsession with its international image; the mid-century art world that launched the careers of artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol; and the ultimate triumph of Pop art at the eurocentric Venice Biennale. The film will screen for the public at New York’s IFC Center on May 17 and at Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles on May 24.

As Taking Venice recounts it, Rauschenberg’s win solidified the US as the center of the art market, and Europeans were not happy. Newspaper headlines flash throughout the film, bearing declarations that the Americans were “colonizing Europe,” among other claims. The film includes interviews with six people who were present at the exhibition — three artists, two writers, and curator and Washington insider Alice Denney, the former vice commissioner of the US pavilion whose husband served as deputy director for the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. 

“She was this diva wearing a red dress and black sunglasses,” Wallach told Hyperallergic of meeting Denney for the first time in 2017, when she began capturing footage for her documentary. Denney died last year at the age of 101.

In the film, Denney dismisses Italian and French tabloid allegations of a packed jury and offers anecdotes that bring the 60-year-old history to life. In describing a crowded party she attended at the site of the former US consulate in Venice, she stated, “Since I knew what the truth was [about the jury], I didn’t really pay any attention to it. We were popular.”

John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated, and the United States was in the midst of the Cold War. The government was eager to disseminate anti-Communist messaging through any means possible, and for the first and last time, the country’s contribution to the Biennale was spearheaded by the United States Information Agency (USIA), a group established 10 years prior to proliferate pro-American propaganda. The agency tapped Denney, who in turn selected Jewish Museum Director Alan Solomon and art dealers Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend to curate the 1964 exhibition. They chose to present the work of Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella, Jim Dine, and John Chamberlain.

Once in Venice, the United States engaged in what Europeans were eager to characterize as rule-bending. Only one of Rauschenberg’s paintings, for example, was exhibited in the US pavilion on the official Giardini grounds; the rest were shown in the old consulate building, disqualifying Rauschenberg from consideration for the Golden Lion.

Shortly before the prize was slated to be announced, the curators transported the artist’s work to the pavilion on a boat (a “heist,” in Wallach’s words), drawing an inordinate amount of media attention. The night before the jury was to decide the Golden Lion winner, the Merce Cunningham troupe delivered a sold-out modern dance performance to the jurors and exhibition attendees. Rauschenberg had designed the set.

While Taking Venice homes in on the dramatic details of the 1964 Biennale, it also zooms out to present the apparent foolishness of the entire ordeal.

“I found that 1964 was the year everything changed in America — that’s when the ’60s began,” Wallach said. A few months after Rauschenberg won the prize, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, marches broke out across the Eastern United States, and the country invaded Vietnam.

“The documentary was a way of talking about America’s sense of itself when it thought it was so important to win the Cold War that it turned to art as well as guns in order to win it,” Wallach continued. “Then it transitions to an America split in half and doubting itself.”

Rauschenburg’s own art mirrors these larger cultural changes. His work took an overtly political tone as he captured the cultural moment of the second half of the 1960s. Paintings such as “Signs” (1970) feature imagery including JFK, Janis Joplin, the Vietnam War, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In later interviews, Rauschenberg remained humble about his 1964 achievement, even dismissive of it.

“I did not know the depth of his humanity,” Wallach said. “I came to really respect him in a way I never had before in making this film.”

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