Review: Taking Venice


In 1964, the United States government, through the United States Information Agency (USIA) supported an entry by several American artists in the Venice Biennale, one of the most prestigious art competitions in the world. “Taking Venice” is a documentary about the campaign – the “engineering” if you will – of American artist Robert Rauschenberg’s selection as the winner of that competition, and the scandal that surrounded it.

While the film is ostensibly about the preparation for, the mounting of, the intrigue involving, and the aftermath of the US entries, it also spends a lot of its runtime describing Rauschenberg and his career, including well beyond 1964.

The Kennedy years were a lush time for American arts. Young artists, including painter Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Gage, writer Truman Capote and many many others were coming into their own and being recognized nationally and internationally. At this time, USIA decided that it was time for America to enter the “arts Olympics,” the competition between nations which was as much political and propagandistic as it was artistic. Up to this time, the US government hadn’t offered any support to any American artists choosing to enter the Venice Biennale – just the opposite of what other nations’ governments were doing, including the Soviet Union.

A group of influential Americans, including art aficionado Alice Denny, whose husband was an official at the State Department; Alan Solomon, curator of New York’s Jewish Museum; and Leo Castelli, an international art dealer, were asked to mount an aggressive promotion at the 1964 Biennale. A year later, Kennedy was dead, but they pursued that project, selecting Rauschenberg as the principal artist they would push for winner.

Writer/director Amei Wallach (“Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here”) has woven interviews, archival video, stills, newspaper accounts, and much more into a fascinating, intriguing story. Many of the people involved have passed on, or are very elderly (Alice is 100, for example), but a lot of material exists. Rauschenberg died in 2008, but his interviews and his incredible artwork are very much with us.

Along the way, there are more cliffhangers than a silent film serial. Can’t afford commercial flights to get the giant canvases from the US to Venice? Get the Pentagon to lend you a huge transport plane. The US pavilion is too small? Take over the unused American consulate. Unsure of the body of seven judges? Get an American (Sam Hunter) placed on it. Want some extra hoopla? Have an American modern dance troupe (Merce Cunningham) add Venice to its international tour and appear just before the art judging. The giant canvases need to be moved at the last minute? Get a Navy launch and then, when that’s too small, a barge. This is re-enacted with music suitable to a James Bond film.

Unfortunately, all of this maneuvering, while it did get Rauschenberg – and the USA – the Biennale prize, also created the suspicion that the Americans, with their brash, spend whatever it takes to win attitude had “engineered” the victory. Whether they did or not, like art itself, is in the eye of the beholder. Alan Solomon, in his writing afterward uses the term “engineered,” but also speculates that they would have won even without all the manipulation.

Wherever the truth lies, lo these sixty decades later, this documentary presents its material with style, ingenuity, and aplomb. You will enjoy it.


Director/Writer: Amei Wallach
Producers: Vanessa Bergonzoli, Tal Mandil, Andrea Miller, Amei Wallach
Cinematographer: Mead Hunt, Maura Morales Bergmann
Editor: Rob Tinworth
Music: Chee Wei Tay

Runtime: One hour, 38 minutes
Availability: May 17 in NYC; May 24 in LA

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