Different Strokes In A Pond Of Paper, Artist Lucio Pozzi's Tribute To Marcel Duchamp Went Swimmingly

Posted: October 29, 1987

Lucio Pozzi hurriedly slipped into his black leotard, the one he'd bought at Capezio in New York and customized with a hood, blinders and a zipper in man's most critical spot.

Like many an office worker, the bald and slightly paunchy man was running late. So he grabbed his lunch - four apples, four organic hard-boiled eggs (the kind you buy at health-food stores), a loaf of bread and a gallon of water - and an empty grapefruit-juice bottle in case he had to use his zipper and cheerfully said, "See you tonight."

Then he slid off into the deep.

In Pozzi's case, the deep was a gallery at Temple University's Tyler School of Art filled with 2,000 pounds of crinkled newsprint. - enough to stretch wall to wall and reach the ceiling. It had taken three hours just to unroll it.

For eight hours yesterday, from 9 to 5, this New York artist of international acclaim "crawled around like a gerbil," as he put it, occasionally "springing forth like Venus from the sea."

This was performance art, Pozzi's own creation, a work to celebrate the irreverent art of Marcel Duchamp and his birth 100 years ago. The event at the Elkins Park gallery was only one of many such celebrations being held around Philadelphia this month; it was the only one that involved a man swimming in a room full of newsprint.

Pozzi, a native of Milan, Italy, had lost 10 pounds so he'd look snazzy in his skintight tights. He had consulted with his yoga teacher and a nutritionist. He had done abdominal and stretching exercises for a month - not to mention for an hour before he got started. At 51, he's getting a bit old to crawl around under a crush of crinkled paper, surfacing every few minutes with a black felt-tip marker to scrawl some mysterious symbol on the blank, pinkish paper.

But this is art, and Pozzi is committed. He even has a name for it: Paper- swim.

"All of my art comes from an organic conception of life," Pozzi explained beforehand. "I'm like Goethe, da Vinci, Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright. The artist is not only one thing, and neither is the art. It's an organism.

"Everything is part of my art," he added. "Even eating breakfast."

As he disappeared into the darkness, sliding on his back like a mechanic sliding under a Chevy, he created a muffled sound, almost like waves crashing - or like a house guest unable to get comfortable on your lumpy couch.

All day long, without a break, he slithered around, hidden from view by paper. As he moved, the mountain of paper moved with him. Suddenly, he would rise forth, his great movement bringing great sounds. A black arm would appear, a bare hand, a black marker! He would scrawl a symbol that looked like a creature from Pac-Man. Then he would submerge back into the abyss.

"Does he appear?" asked Mary Amar, an art school employee and one of the first to wander by the gallery in the morning. "Yes, yes," she said excitedly, a few moments later, pointing across the room. "It's like waiting for the Loch Ness monster to appear."

Pozzi's primary purpose was to show the blindness and isolation of the conventional painter. "It's like non-art," said Eudokia Kalliarekos, an art student who waited all afternoon to toss Pozzi a dead rose. "It's really wonderful."

Pozzi wanted to break the rules. Rather than a moving audience staring at a stationary canvas, he had a moving work of art and an audience that stood still. Rather than an artist heaping paint onto a canvas, the artist emerged

from his medium like a serpent from the deep. The uniform is a commentary on the "spiritual camouflage" used by painters.

"I leave it to the viewer as much as possible to form an interpretation," he said before beginning Paperswim. "My works are never obvious."

No doubt about that. Just ask some of the scores of art students who came yesterday to watch.

"I feel like diving right in," said a jubilant Marilyn Tarr, who works for the art school.

"Quite honestly, when I first heard about it, I thought this is a bunch of you-know-what. But it's really transcendent."

Reactions weren't always so positive.

"You got to be kidding," said Wendy Burke, an art student. "For eight hours? No way."

Two janitors also wandered in during the afternoon, watched for a moment and then walked out, giggling uncontrollably. A campus police officer, obviously confused, tried to be polite. "It's different, isn't it?" he said.

For the most part, the art students loved it. They appreciated the originality, the defiance. Most laughed and joked. Some took notes.

Matthew Wittgenstein even skipped class. "We're supposed to be in art history," he said, "but this is the chance of a lifetime."

Scott Decker, wearing huge black boots and a studded Army jacket, looked at the sea of paper, and his first reaction was to raise an imaginary machine gun and become Rambo. "Fire at random," he said.

Karoline Wileczek watched for a long time. When asked for her impressions, she initially answered like an art student, but then lapsed into basic questions that any curious person would ask.

"I like what the paper does to this space," she said. "It makes it smaller. . . . He's making a comment about art and its surfaces. . . . I just want to know when he goes to the bathroom."

Many other observers asked that same question. For the first urge, Pozzi had his empty juice bottle, stashed in a corner. For the second, more serious urge, he explained his solution before embarking on Paperswim: "With breathing, yoga teachings and knowledge of yourself, it becomes not a problem."

Pozzi, a painter and scholar who has taught at Princeton University and Cooper Union, performed Paperswim once before, in Milan in 1971. Paolo Colombo, the art school's director of exhibits, was in Milan at the time and remembered the work. He tracked Pozzi down in New York and urged him to come to Temple for a repeat performance. Pozzi was surprised, but delighted.

"What better way to celebrate Duchamp's anniversary," said Colombo. ''It's truly a beautiful performance. The paper seems like it's breathing. The noise is incredible."

At precisely 5 p.m., after one last thrust from the deep, the lights were turned off and the gallery was cleared. Elisabeth Thanner, the artist's wife, waited in the hallway with a few remaining diehards to greet her husband. She held two foil-wrapped chocolate balls bearing Mozart's portrait to give her husband. "He loves chocolate. He is dying to eat chocolate," she said.

After changing in the dark into his jeans and sneakers, Pozzi emerged. "So that's it," he said. "What a swim."

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