New documentary uncovers what really happened at the 1964 Venice Biennale
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New documentary uncovers what really happened at the 1964 Venice Biennale
Robert Rauschenberg exhibition, Venice Biennale, 1964 June 21. Photograph: Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute.

NEW YORK, NY.- A new documentary film, Taking Venice, uncovers the true story behind rumors that the 1964 Venice Biennale was rigged – by the U.S. Government and a team of highly placed insiders – so that their chosen artist, Robert Rauschenberg, could win the grand prize. Directed by Amei Wallach, Taking Venice, a Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber, begins its national release on May 17, 2024, at IFC Center in New York City and on May 24, 2024, at Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles.

With the pacing of a caper, the film weaves a tale of suspense, intrigue, down and dirty politics, and conspiracy theories against the backdrop of glamorous parties, passionate debates about art, and, of course, the art itself. American Pop art was about to explode on the international scene with a dynamic exhibition that was bound to be questioned.

Taking Venice unfolds at the height of the Cold War when the U.S. government was determined to fight Communism with culture. The Venice Biennale, the world’s most influential art exhibition, became a proving ground. Alice Denney, a Washington insider and a friend of the Kennedys, recommended Alan Solomon, an ambitious curator making waves with trailblazing art, to organize the U.S. entry. Together with Leo Castelli, the powerful New York art dealer, they embarked on a daring plan to make Robert Rauschenberg the winner of the Grand Prize. Although he had the potential to dazzle, Robert Rauschenberg was yet to be taken seriously by the art establishment in the early 1960s. His groundbreaking work known as “combines” merged painting and sculpture with found objects and pop culture images in new ways that had not been seen before. Deftly pulling off maneuvers that could have been written by Hollywood, the American team left the international press crying foul and Rauschenberg questioning the politics of the nationalism that sent him there.

Taking Venice received critical acclaim in 2023 at the Rome International Film Festival, Sao Paulo International Film Festival, DOC NYC, and Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. Venues in 2024 include the Sun and Stars International Film Festival in West Palm Beach, Boulder International Film Festival, and Sonoma International Film Festival.

Taking Venice explores the impact in Europe of a tumultuous cultural shift that fixed the art world’s gaze on contemporary American art with New York as its epicenter. On screen, The New Yorker writer and author Calvin Tomkins, who covered the 1964 Biennale, Alice Denney, who helped engineer the U.S. shenanigans, and the artist Christo recall the audacious events. And, in a rare and intimate interview, Jasper Johns recounts his relationship with Robert Rauschenberg in art and life. Through a rich trove of archival footage and interviews with leading artists, curators, and critics filmed in New York, London, and at the Venice Biennale, Wallach embeds the art in world events.

“This film tells the story of the 1964 Venice Biennale at a time when State Department officials and a team of unlikely co-conspirators were joined in their conviction that American democracy was worth the fight. They were determined to harness the audacity of American art to promote what was best about democracy,” said Amei Wallach, Taking Venice’s director. “There are moments in the film that sting with what we have lost and moments that encapsulate what we have gained. The stakes are even higher now than they were at the scandal-drenched Biennale, as artists everywhere try to create a way forward. My goal is to make films about art that leap out of the art world and into a reckoning with what’s relevant in our lives though the stories that they tell.”

Wallach met Rauschenberg on a number of occasions in New York and at his studio in Captiva, Florida, beginning in the late 1970s, through her work as a journalist for Newsday, Smithsonian magazine, and The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

Taking Venice illustrates how Rauschenberg’s seminal art developed, explores the art scene that produced it, chronicles its enduring influence on artists today, and looks at art by other legendary American artists who showed in Venice that year: among them James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, and John Chamberlain.

Featured interviews with artists include Mark Bradford, who represented the U.S. in Venice in 2017; the leading Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto; Carolee Schneeman, who received a lifetime achievement award in Venice; and Shirin Neshat. Christine Macel, the director of the 2017 Venice Biennale; Robert Storr, director of the 2007 Biennale; Pulitzer Prize winning cultural historian Louis Menand; and the art historian Irving Sandler also offer perspectives on the history of the Biennale as well as related world events. The film ends in 2022, the year that artist Simone Leigh, the first Black woman to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale, transformed the American Pavilion to critical acclaim.

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