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Friday, January 03, 2003


Arte Povera: Poor Art and the Poverty of Contemporary Art

From Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, October 24, 2002-January 20, 2003. Artists include Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Luciano Fabro, Piero Gilardi, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Emilio Prini, and Gilberto Zorio.

In a powerful, evocative exhibition of more than 140 works by 14 artists, the Hirshhorn Museum has mounted a show of the first decade of Arte Povera, or “poor art.” A major movement in contemporary art, Arte Povera turned away from the not-so-implicit hierarchies of the burgeoning art market of the 1960s and 1970s, embracing instead a nearly hermetic poetic language that focused on materials and abstractly lyrical concepts. Roughly coeval with minimalism and conceptualism in America, Arte Povera was both less and more than those formally and cerebrally articulated, highly celebrated movements. If it is fair to say that American art of the period (including pop art) displaced the heroic egoism of abstract expressionism, it is also accurate to note the symbolic resistances of the decidedly visionary, often formally tenuous and thus stylistically experimental, reach of Arte Povera, whose language was intended, among other things, to sweep to the side the cheerful, shallow certainties of the art market.

The movement
Arte Povera was an art of open experiment, capable of containing contradictions; despite the movement’s name, for example, artists belonging to it worked with expensive materials such as marble and bronze. As the artists’ response to (and alignment with) Italy’s student strikes of spring 1968 and the large worker actions of the following year, Arte Povera determined, as so many avant-garde movements had in the twentieth century, to do away with the barriers between art and life. This was a bold but, in consequence, vague step; given its members’ extreme experimentation, Arte Povera defies easy characterization.

What the movement usually communicates is an invisible sense of force, driven and directed by poetic concepts that seek to escape the pressures of a society increasingly obsessed with the superficial pleasures of consumerism. The movement received its name in 1967 from the curator and critic Germano Celant, who included it in the title of an exhibition he organized at the Galleria La Bertesca in Genoa. The exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum, however, begins in 1962, when a number of major Arte Povera figures were already making pieces that addressed the need for work that would resist the materialism of the period, and it ends in 1972, when eight of the artists in the movement took part in Documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany.

It is instructive to compare the intentions of Arte Povera with those of minimalism and conceptualism, the far less lyrical and intuitive American movements of the time. Minimalism is essentially a formalist movement, in that it means to determine just how much an artwork can be stripped of cultural attributes and still remain “interesting” – Donald Judd’s term – as art. Conceptualism aims at reducing even further the physical manifestation of the object, so that the idea of the object takes precedence over its existence in reality. Neither movement, however, is characterized by radical politics or disregard for or hostility to materialism; despite the antiwar militancy of a number of minimalist and conceptual artists during the Vietnam war, it would be wrong to categorize their art as politicized or antagonistic toward the consumerism of American culture. Instead, these artists were concerned with essentially formal issues – the definition of art and its elaboration as intellectual statement – and not with a way of thinking intended to neutralize unattractive cultural tendencies, which was a stance that was probably best expressed by the performance art of the period.

It should be noted that pop art, active and readily evident during the years covered by From Zero to Infinity, openly embraced the language of advertising and everyday objects, rejecting the high-minded, if also egotistical, angst and gesture of the abstract expressionists. By contrast, Arte Povera implicitly attacked the easy acceptance of things, attempting to establish an environment that would include the viewer in its world of contingencies and lyrical philosophy. Apart from a nearly mystical sense of the communicative intensity of materials, perhaps an inversion of the values associated with 1960s pleasure-seeking, Arte Povera is notoriously hard to define. But it is just this difficulty in defining it that proves the movement visionary: its sense of power came not so much from a worship of things as from a dedication to forms that would allow art to take up its ancient purpose as art, namely, the mediation between seen and unseen energies.

  In this sense, Arte Povera’s dedication to mostly humble materials can be seen as a way of circumnavigating, rather than directly confronting, the materialist wasteland that has threatened creative expression and understanding for more than two generations now. The alternatives offered by the movement have guided more than directed or coerced its sympathizers, who see in its improvised philosophy a series of momentary stoppages deflecting an overt materialism from suffocatingly hedonist intentions.

To what extent can Arte Povera be characterized as an art of resistance? There were few directly political statements made by the movement’s artists; however, there was the unspoken sense that such art implies value in withstanding a Zeitgeist, that there is a way of doing things that is deeply antagonistic to traditional image-making. I do not think that the artists of Arte Povera set out to upend materialism, but I do see them as offering an example of not-so-passive opposition, in which the ability to reject the market and certain social choices – conventions, really – becomes the basis of some of their most outstanding work.

The artists
In describing a marvelous untitled work by Giovanni Anselmo from 1968, in which lettuce is stuck between two pieces of polished granite bound together by wire, the accompanying brochure points out that the lettuce “is lodged between [the pieces of granite], creating sufficient tension to hold the smaller stone in place.” As a result, should the lettuce be “allowed to wilt, the tension will be inadequate, and the smaller stone will fall.” There is a tension, then, between animate and inanimate nature in the piece, to be measured and to an extent determined by people, who decide when to replace the lettuce. The sculpture is also, by implication, a rejection of American art of the time; its relations with nature and human activity, in contrast to American art’s associations with industry and objects, serve as a warning that the embrace of things is not only spiritually empty, but also ethically problematic.

  Mario Merz, a chief member of Arte Povera and a master of improvisational meaningfulness, is represented by Igloo with Tree (1969) and Iguana (1971), among other works. Igloo with Tree consists of a plate-glass hut with a tree rising up from the ground through the construction’s middle and branching out, without leaves, into the space immediately above. As with Anselmo, the animate work of nature gives meaning to and also perhaps destabilizes Merz’s house of glass, which is intended to work out a sense of belonging and transparency, qualities not easily found in contemporary life. It is also true that the tree is a symbol of the infinite in nature, a commentary on the inevitably finite efforts of human beings.

Iguana begins with a stuffed iguana attached high up on a wall, with a numerical sequence, rendered in neon, trailing downward from the creature’s tail. Beginning with 1, the numbers illustrate the Fibonacci sequence, in which each number is the sum of the two preceding it (1,1,2,3,5,8, etc.). The viewer sees here, as so often in Arte Povera, a mix of natural materials and intellectual recognition of what those materials might mean. In the case of Iguana, we notice how the reptile quite literally trails a numerical sequence behind it, as if to engender manmade significance from the stuffed shape of its death. While the contrasts are not exactly accurate – the Fibonacci sequence is abstract, but, as Merz says in an interview, the numbers “become concrete when they are used to count objects” – the message can be heeded: there is a correspondence between modes of being in nature and culture, between the given and the recognized.

  One of the show’s outstanding pieces is the portal of stones, an untitled work of 1969/2002, by Greek-born Jannis Kounellis, another major figure of Arte Povera who has spent most of his adult life in Italy. Kounellis’s understanding of the meaningfulness of materials is wonderfully sensitive; his doorway of stones, fitted together by a local artisan, alludes to many meanings without being beholden to any one in particular. The placing of the stones, while anonymous, nonetheless references the skill of the hand. The stones themselves may be seen as a form of resistance, a way of impeding entrance that, at the same time, also delivers a view from beyond the obstruction. In another untitled work, also originating in 1969, Kounellis has stacked eight balances with a conical pile of coffee, an image of regularity despite his use of an organic material. The burlap sacks and beans used in other works by Kounellis signify a profound awareness of the implications of basic living procedures and not-so-elementary trading exchanges.

Kounellis is a remarkable, even great, artist who alludes to the possibility of cultivation in the midst of dispiriting circumstances: his untitled work from 1967, in which cacti are planted in rows of soil supported by iron supports, presents a garden limited by steel, a human construct. This is rather literal in its implications, but it is a different kind of literalism from that of Andy Warhol, with his exact imitations of Brillo boxes and Campbell’s soup cans; it is a literalism of what is imagined rather than of what is seen or known. In this case, the identity of the imagined garden is equivalent to that of the actual garden, as gardens fade from view, replaced by strip malls and other extremes of architecture.

  Made from aluminum, the outsized organic shapes of the 1966 work by Marisa Merz, Untitled (Living Sculpture), are hung from the ceiling, in response to the specific dimensions of its site in the Hirshhorn. Merz – who has said, “I cannot escape the reality I see” – offers a remarkable installation that provides the viewer with an unfolding experience rather than a self-contained object. As the audience moves beneath the undulating forms and looks up, the elements of the work change and modulate into fragments of complexity. That the work expresses its beauty over time might well be the expression of an artist deeply out of synchronic sympathy with the realities of her time; the beauty of Living Sculpture is a kind of antidote to the debilitating effects of postmodernity.

Piero Gilardi’s various hyperreal renditions of leaves and stones, which are actually composed of synthetic materials, leave little to the imagination. But that is exactly the point: we are given our small dose of reality via artifice because we can no longer imagine the possibility of rocks and foliage by ourselves. Once again, the literalism is neither an example of poor imagination nor a product of irony; it is an attempt to shore up some transcendent sense of the actual in the face of an absurdly ridiculous materialism masquerading as something more genuine than it actually is. Gilberto Zorio’s remarkable Phosphorescent Fist (1971), which is composed of phosphorescent wax illuminated by lamps, has a dimension of time in regard to the viewer’s experience: the lamps turn on for 20 seconds, sufficient time to activate the phosphorescent wax, after which the fist glows for six seconds before the cycle begins again.

  The warmth of Zorio’s Lights (1968), comprising two rows of lamps on either side of a hallway in the museum, is experienced by viewers as they pass through the gauntlet of illumination. Many Arte Povera artists were installation artists ahead of their time, probably because they were interested in getting around the problem of making objects for sale. Giuseppe Penone’s Tree Five Meters Long (1970) is to all appearances an actual tree – the object is wooden, with branches emanating from differing places on its length, etc. – but it has in fact been cut from milled wood: another example of Arte Povera’s transcendent literalism, in which a real object is supplied in order to point out the deficiencies of the way we experience reality today.

Some of the most extraordinary works in the exhibit are by Giovanni Anselmo, including the striking photograph, Entering the Work (1971), for which he set a timed shutter-exposure to record him running into a featureless expanse of dirt and stones. His back is toward the viewer, and he is caught in midstride: a small figure either running away from or toward the seamless experience of nature. Anselmo also has a remarkable sculptural work, in which an open steel container is filled with cotton wool. This is a sculpture made by oppositions, the contrast between heavy and light, manmade and natural materials, being its intent.

  One of the show’s most telling pieces, Invisible (1971), is by Anselmo, too. In this work, the word, “visible,” has been printed on a slide and placed into a projector; however, in order to be seen, it has to be experienced as an image physically placed on some part of the spectator, who is necessarily about six or seven feet away, the distance at which the projection can be seen in focus. In a wonderful bit of legerdemain, the label, “visible,” turns attention toward whatever bit of clothing or part of the body it is focused upon. Here again is an inspired piece of literalized imagination: we know what we see because what we see has been given its actual name. Again and again, the artists of Arte Povera present us with the truly actual, so that we the audience might truly actualize the image within (or on) us. I cannot think of a more inspired piece of realism than this work, which, like many in the show, is didactic, exhorting us to recognize categories of awareness and being.

In July 1967, one of the best known Arte Povera artists, Alighiero Boetti, wrote: “in the individual action the ciphered message is no longer of interest; what is of interest, rather, is the energy of control in the pure state.” As an announcement of idealism, Boetti’s statement sounds at once limited (“the energy of control”) and transcendent (“in a pure state”). But what truly interests Boetti, whose 1969 Political Map of the World shows a world map in which nations are represented by parts of their national flag following geographical boundaries, is the notion of independence, what Boetti calls “this autonomy and…its essential nature in respect of the formative and organizational processes we have now mentally acquired and overcome.” The point of his art – for example, his Yearly Lamp (1966), which comes on only randomly for a few seconds each year – is that imagination is in crisis because, although it is inherently independent, it has been forced into ever-tighter corners of being, hemmed in by the distanced manner in which we experience ourselves and the world. Indeed, Yearly Lamp causes anxiety because control is impossible in the face of what happens – in art, in life, in both.

As truncated as imagination has become, however, it is possible for an artist to communicate, even if primarily – or only – through moments of literalization. Because Arte Povera’s power is essentially, even inherently, antiauthoritarian, it manages to speak through brief insurrections, in which human control gives way to something larger, more spontaneous and consequently more truly genuine. The authenticity sought by Arte Povera does not presuppose a community so much as a diverse group of instances in which contrasts between dualities are subsumed within a language of art telling in its essential humanity: we exist not to consume so much as to recognize the much-pawed-upon boundaries of the world.

We do this is by finding those moments of interaction between zero and infinity, the true limits of our lives, which are inherently fragmentary but which also give us the transcendent imagination needed to live fully. Arte Povera’s idiom may well be grounds for finitude; that is not so much a failure of the transcendent, however, as it is a fault of the political: our understanding of ourselves as reasoning individuals cannot always live up to what we would necessarily like to imagine. The gap, then, between emptiness and fullness looks to the condition, human but not always cultivated, of being simply ourselves. That it is so hard to do so gracefully, and with feeling, is what lies behind Arte Povera’s sometimes confusingly diverse and contradictory use of materials and objects, which suddenly and startlingly become all the more real, and moving, for their incandescent unity and uniqueness.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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