Arte Povera

Claudio Abate
Pino Pascali (Colomba della pace)
(Pino Pascali [Dove of Peace]), 1965
Black and white photography
3 parts, each: 40.3 x 30.4 cm / 15 7/8 x 12 in
© Claudio Abate / Studio Abate
Courtesy Kunstmuseum Basel and Sammlung Goetz, München
Image courtesy Hauser & Wirth

"In living things, he also discovers himself, he abolishes his role of being an artist, an intellectual, painter or writer and learns again to perceive, to feel, to breathe, to walk, to understand..."  -- Germano Celant, 1969*

On Sept. 12th, Hauser & Wirth in Chelsea, New York opened "Arte Povera" as an exhibition of a comprehensive overview of works from this movement.  Curated by a former gallerist and now a prominent collector, Ingvild Goetz, this exhibition showcases some of the most significant works of the post-war Italian movement.

In 1967, Germano Celant, art curator and critic coined the term "arte povera" when he staged an exhibition including artists such as, Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Emilio Prini and Gilberto in Genoa as a distinct new art movement.  In a text called "Arte Povera" that he wrote in 1969 in Milan, which was translated in English as "Art Povera.  Conceptual, Actual or Impossible Art?" in a London publication,  Celant attempted to define "Arte Povera" and the ideas it presented.  

Since then, other more contemporary critics and art historians still debate the actual meaning of "arte povera." While some agrees with the immanence of material and "dematerialization," and others find its meaning nebulous and ambiguous, at times, inadequate.   

Alighiero Boetti  
Mappa (Map), 1988
Embroidery on linen on stretcher
121 x 221 x 3 cm / 47 5/8 x 87 x 1 1/8 in
© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome 
Courtesy Kunstmuseum Basel and Sammlung Goetz, München
Photo: Wilfried Petzi, Munich
Image courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Alighiero Boetti
Wood, varnish, glass, light bulbs, timer Total dimensions variable
2 parts, each: 52.1 x 52.1 x 19.4 cm / 20 1/2 x 20 1/2 x 7 5/8 in
Image courtesy Hauser & Wirth

At the time when Goetz began paying attention to these artists and collecting their works, only very few understood their cultural value. The current exhibition unlike the other shows Hauser & Wirth had presented in the past, its layout feels like a museum exhibition. In the way, that it traces the history of how these works came into being in light of the social political transition at the time period in Italy.

The name "Arte Povera" may be inadequate, in terms of describing all the works by these vibrant Italian artists. For instance, the works are not all made of "poor" materials, as some use industrial materials (light bulbs or glass) that point to the technological development, such as Guiseppe Penone's "Unghia e foglie di alloro," 1989, and Alighiero Boetti's "Ping Pong," 1996. Meanwhile, other artists included mediums such as mirror or bronze, for example, Michelangelo Pistoletto's "L'Estruso," 1967 and Giuseppe Penone's "Patate," 1977.  

What "Arte Povera" addresses is a kind of renewed perception to nature, industry and man's relationship to his environment. The movement stands in direction opposition to the idea presented in Futurism's manifesto (the movement that took place before "Arte Povera.") As the Futurists worked during the time of Fascism regime that rejected the past and celebrated the stuff of modern life, the aforementioned artists used the "new materials" in conjunction with the "stuff of the past" to emphasize a new sense of freedom.  In the sense of renewed sensibility, the extracted quote above indicates that Celant was right about some aspects of what these artists were doing.

Giuseppe Penone
(Potatoes), 1977
Five bronze casts, potatoes
Installation dimensions variable
© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Courtesy Kunstmuseum Basel and Sammlung Goetz, München
Photo: Wilfried Petzi, Munich
Image courtesy Hauser & Wirth

At the beginning of his practice, Alighiero Boetti did not consider himself as an artist. His interest and curiosity in materiality and self-consciousness led him to explore the nature of material and their banal existence. In turn, his works present objects that are easily recognizable but with a touch of humor. The playfulness in his work seemingly stripped of ambiguity, in fact, present internally logical analytics and sensory imperatives.**  For example, the "Map" piece lays out the geographic positions of continents and countries meticulously and accurately.  Physically composed and embroidered by his wife at the time, the process and material is banal and domestic.  Yet, the finished piece presents a sense of complexity that consciously re-constructs the notion of globality and nationalism.  

On the note of a re-gaining and renewing sensory engagement, Boetti's "Ping Pong" made in 1966 uses lights that are commonly seen in bar tabac or places for popular entertainment. In an interview, he once said: "I don't want to waste time finding the art object. These things are suggestions, a mental method to help you see reality and life when we are all so conditioned and alienated that we cannot see anything anymore."*

Michelangelo Pistoletto
(The Etruscan) , 1976
Mirror, plaster, paint
Installation dimensions variable 
Figure: 200 x 50 cm / 78 3/4 x 19 5/8 in (approx.)
Mirror: 240 x 200 x 0.6 cm / 94 1/2 x 78 3/4 x 1/4 in
© Michelangelo Pistoletto; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Galleria Christian Stein, Milan, and Simon Lee Gallery, London / Hong Kong
Courtesy Kunstmuseum Basel and Sammlung Goetz, München 
Photo: Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler
Image courtesy Hauser & Wirth

On perceiving reality and gaining a different kind of self-consciousness, Michelangelo Pistoletto's mirror pieces place the spectator right to the his subject. For instance the piece that is in this exhibition, "L'Etrusco," 1976 presents a plaster-made figure of an Etruscan man painted to look like a bronze statue standing in front of a mirror. As the spectator approaches the piece, he is brought onto the "stage" within the theatrical oratory. The dichotomy created by the material (plaster rather than the substantive bronze) and the form of a grandiose figure, the representation is typical of "Arte Povera."  It is whimsical and ironic, at the same time, it is an intellectual introspection of the self versus the self perceived by others, (although these artists would oppose to being seen as "intellectuals.")

The presence of a frozen figure resembling a theatrical tableaux is in itself "empty," as the figure is simply named as "an Etruscan" rather than a specifically named figure at the height of c. 500BC Roman civilization.  In 1968, during his solo exhibition at Rome's Galleria L'Auttico, Pistoletto formed a theater troupe called "Zoo."  Together they staged scenarios in village streets, city squares rather than in mainstream theaters.*** As an actor and director, Pistoletto became interested in the interaction between the presented and the perceived. In this work, as the spectator watches the spectacle, his reflection in the mirror integrates him into the "play."  Henceforth, the dialogue becomes open and the interpretation becomes a self-judgement.

Luciano Fabro 
(Foot), 1972
Murano glass, silk
Height varies with room height 
Silk: 298 cm / 117 3/8 in
Height with telescopic metal pole: max. 335 cm / 131 7/8 in 
Glass foot: 69 x 103.5 x 84 cm / 27 1/8 x 40 3/4 x 33 1/8 in
 © Silvia Fabro (Archivio Luciano e Carla Fabro, Milan)
Courtesy Kunstmuseum Basel and Sammlung Goetz, München
Photo: Wilfried Petzi, Munich
Image courtesy Hauser & Wirth

This exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, which is on view until October 28th, has three-floors of 2-D and 3-D works which I have not covered in entirety. These two artists are just the ones that I find most significant of "Arte Povera."  Their whimsicality, freedom, and intelligent meditations on the deeper intellectual meanings of self-discovery enticed me to research further. The entire show paints a good picture of the movement that reflect the artistic endeavors to a renewed sense of perception and self-consciousness, at times through their unconsciousness.  

*Germano Celant, "Arte PoveraMilan, 1968," in Art in Theory 1900-2000: an Anthology of Changing Ideas (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 897-900.

**Christopher G. Bennett, "Substantive Thoughts? The Early Work of Alghiero Boetti," October , vol. 124, 2008, 75-97.

***Claire Gilman, "Pistoletto's Staged Subjects," October, vol. 124, 2008, 53-74.  

For related article click here.  


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