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Movements Arte Povera

Arte Povera

Started: 1962

Ended: 1972


Arte Povera - "poor art" or "impoverished art" - was the most significant and influential avant-garde movement to emerge in Europe in the 1960s. It grouped the work of around a dozen Italian artists whose most distinctly recognizable trait was their use of commonplace materials that might evoke a pre-industrial age, such as earth, rocks, clothing, paper and rope. Their work marked a reaction against the modernist abstract painting that had dominated European art in the 1950s, hence much of the group's work is sculptural. But the group also rejected American Minimalism, in particular what they perceived as its enthusiasm for technology. In this respect Arte Povera echoes Post-Minimalist tendencies in American art of the 1960s. But in its opposition to modernism and technology, and its evocations of the past, locality and memory, the movement is distinctly Italian.

Key Ideas

Although Arte Povera is most notable for its use of simple, artisanal materials, it did not use these to the exclusion of all else. Some of the group's most memorable work comes from the contrast of unprocessed materials with references to the most recent consumer culture. Believing that modernity threatened to erase our sense of memory along with all signs of the past, the Arte Povera group sought to contrast the new and the old in order to complicate our sense of the effects of passing time.
In addition to opposing the technological design of American Minimalism, artists associated with Arte Povera also rejected what they perceived as its scientific rationalism. By contrast, they conjured a world of myth whose mysteries couldn't be easily explained. Or they presented absurd, jarring and comical juxtapositions, often of the new and the old, or the highly processed and the pre-industrial. By doing so, the Italian artists evoked some of the effects of modernization, how it tended to destroy experiences of locality and memory as it pushed ever forwards into the future.
Arte Povera's interest in "poor" materials can be seen as related to Assemblage, an international trend of the 1950s and 1960s that used similar materials. Both movements marked a reaction against much of the abstract painting that dominated art in the period. They viewed it as too narrowly concerned with emotion and individual expression, and too confined by the traditions of painting. Instead, they proposed an art that was much more interested in materiality and physicality, and borrowed forms and materials from everyday life. Arte Povera might be distinguished from Assemblage by its interest in modes such as performance and installation, approaches that had more in common with pre-war avant-gardes such as Surrealism, Dada and Constructivism.

Most Important Art

Floor Tautology (1967)

By: Luciano Fabro

By the time he joined the Arte Povera group, Luciano Fabro was already a well-known artist associated with the likes of Piero Manzoni and Lucio Fontana, two important precursors of the movement. His Floor Tautology involves an area of floor, kept polished and covered with newspapers to dry. Shown in Germano Celant's first survey of Arte Povera, Fabro's celebration of an ordinary task was instrumental in his attempt to recalibrate the concept of fine art. The elevation of a duty associated with housework - and most often coded as women's work - became a theme in his later pieces that utilized bed sheets and other fabrics.

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Untitled  (1968)

By: Giovanni Anselmo

Giovanni Anselmo worked as a graphic designer, and began to experiment with the arts in his spare time. One of his first installations, which involved thin metal rods vertically attached to pieces of wood, suggested his fascination with the effects of nature upon inanimate objects. Similarly, Untitled (sometimes referred to as Eating Structure) comprises a small block of granite attached to a larger, plinth-like block by means of a head of lettuce and a length of wire. If the lettuce is allowed to dry out, the smaller block will fall, therefore the sculpture has to be regularly "fed" with lettuces to maintain its structure. Its concern with balance and gravity echoes some of the interests of American Post-Minimal art, though its comic tone, and its use of such mundane materials as a head of lettuce, is typical of Arte Povera's evocation of poor and rural life.

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Artist's Shit (no. 4) (1961)

By: Piero Manzoni

Piero Manzoni began his artistic career as a self-taught painter. As his style evolved, he continually questioned traditional methods and interpretations of art. While Manzoni is not considered a true member of the Arte Povera group (more of a precursor), his work reflects the principles of the movement. Supposedly containing 30 grams of excrement, Manzoni's Artist's Shit reprises such famous avant-garde provocations as Marcel Duchamp's presentation of a urinal as a work of art, in Fountain (1917). Ninety cans were produced, canned and labeled in an identical manner, mocking the practices of mass production and consumption, and satirizing the reverence usually accorded to artist's work.

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Giap's Igloo (1968)

By: Mario Merz

Mario Merz held the distinction of being the oldest of the Arte Povera artists; he was also married to the group's only female member, Marisa Merz. Already established as a painter in an Abstract Expressionist style, Arte Povera provided him with the opportunity to start his career anew. In the first of his signature igloos, Merz uses a phrase taken from a Vietnamese military general: "Se il nemico si concentra perde terreno se il disperde perde forza" ("If the enemy masses his forces, he loses ground; if he scatters, he loses strength"). Merz's igloos provide a focus for his preoccupation with the necessities of life - shelter, warmth, and food - though, as here, they also often contain neon tubes that suggest more sophisticated and modern experiences, such as those of advertising and consumption.

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32 Square Meters of Sea (1967)

By: Pino Pascali

Pino Pascali started out as a designer and illustrator for advertisements, and learned to push the boundaries between illusion and reality. Similar to his Cubic Meters of Earth pieces, Pascali's 32 Square Meters of Sea brings together the natural and artificial. Containers hold quantities of dyed water that replicate the variegated tints of the ocean, alluding to the effects of motion and light. Yet the containers themselves also remind us of how humanity attempts to control nature. The geometric shapes and industrial materials used to produce the sculpture echo American Minimalist sculpture, though Pascali's use of a simple, natural material such as water betrays its origins in the concerns of Arte Povera. To Pascali, the poverty of the materials was essential to the artistic process: "We need the intensity of someone who has nothing, to be truly able to create something."

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Structure for Talking While Standing (Minus Objects) (1965-66)

By: Michelangelo Pistoletto

Pistoletto's work often dealt with relationships . His earlier mirror works, which confronted self and image, explored concepts of identity. The Minus Objects series was developed around the idea of art that was only completed through the addition of human interaction. In this example, we can see how the structure connects to the viewer, allowing for a place to rest the arms and feet. Dialogue was also a concern to the artist, and Structure for Standing While Talking creates a bridge for conversation among visitors. Pistoletto originally conceived the idea after noticing marks left on the gallery walls where people had been leaning.

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Arte Povera emerged out of the decline of abstract painting in Italy, and the rise of interest in older avant-garde approaches to making art. In particular, its spirit can be traced to three artists: Alberto Burri, whose painting made from burlap sacks, provided an example of the use of poor materials; Piero Manzoni, whose work prefigured qualities of Conceptual art, and which reacted against abstract, Art Informel painting; and Lucio Fontana, whose monochrome painting provided an example of the power of art that is reduced to only a few elements and concentrated in its impact.

Arte Povera Overview Continues

The term Arte Povera was first used by art critic Germano Celant in 1967 to describe the work of a group of Italian artists. In the same year he organized the first survey of the trend, "Arte Povera e IM Spazio," which was staged at Galleria La Bertesca in Genoa, and which included the work of Alighiero Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali and Emilio Prini. All of the work made use of everyday or "poor" materials. For example, Boetti's Pile (1966-67) consisted of a stack of asbestos blocks; Fabro raised an everyday task to the level of art in Floor Tautology (1967), in which a tiled floor was kept polished and covered with newspapers to maintain its cleanliness; and in his Cubic Meters of Earth (1967), Pascali formed mounds of soil into solid shapes, using a natural but "dirty" material and forcing it into clean, unnatural lines in a critique of Minimalism. Overall, the organizer of the show chose to focus on the intrusion of the banal into the realm of art, forcing us to look at previously inconsequential things in a new light.

Only two months after the inaugural show, Celant wrote Arte Povera: Notes for a Guerilla War, a manifesto that added several more artists to his initial roster: Giovanni Anselmo, Piero Gilardi, Mario Merz, Gianni Piacentino, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Gilberto Zorio. With this declaration, Celant firmly associated himself and the Italians with a new movement in art, but also put forth a definition of Arte Povera that was more ambiguous than his previous iteration. This was most obvious with the inclusion of Pistoletto, since his mirror works incorporated elements of photography, a medium notably avoided by other members of the group. Notes for a Guerilla War linked the artists conceptually (rather than on any formal or stylistic basis) through what Celant saw as their common desire to destroy "the dichotomy between art and life."

Concepts and Styles

Arte Povera is most notable for its use of everyday materials, materials which contrasted with the apparently industrial sensibility of American Minimalism. At the same time the movement employed subversive avant-garde tactics, such as performance, and unconventional approaches to sculpture, such as installation. In their mission to reconnect life with art, the Italian Arte Povera artists strove to evoke an individual, personal response in each of their pieces, stressing an interaction between viewer and object that was unrepeatable and purely original.

Crucial in the formation and success of Arte Povera was Germano Celant, and in this respect Arte Povera is typical of avant-garde groups that have been given momentum and cohesion by a single voice. Out of what is often a vague similarity of ideas and approaches, an apparent coherence is presented, and so the interests of a particular group of artists can be more effectively promoted. Hence, Celant's interpretations of the artists associated with Arte Povera have remained prominent and important, and Celant often stressed the Italians' interest in individual subjectivity. For example, Michelangelo Pistoletto is known above all for works in which photographic images of figures are displayed on mirrors; Celant once described a different but related work, the simple metal construction Structure for Standing While Talking (1965-66), as a medium to create a personal dialog between art and viewer, free from any preconceived notions. Giovani Anselmo's early work also relied on human interaction to fully experience the art, which was loosely constructed in order to react to the slightest touch. Pino Pascali and Jannis Kounellis he described as experiencing life through sensuality, engaging the senses to create a feeling of wonder, as in Pascali's colorful and spiky Bristleworms, or the installation of live animals in Kounellis' Untitled (Twelve Horses). Celant's most dramatic pronouncement was saved for the igloos of Mario Merz, and perhaps reflected his hopes for the implications of Arte Povera: "He performs a constant sacrifice of the banal, everyday object, as though it were a newfound Christ. Having found his nail, Merz becomes the system's philistine and crucifies the world."

Later Developments

Celant succeeded in carving out a place for Arte Povera within the avant-garde. By illustrating a relationship to Futurism and Italian classicism, as well as to more contemporary styles such as Land art, he lent the movement a place in what could be seen as a living tradition. His exhibition Conceptual Art, Arte Povera, Land Art, held at the Galleria Civica dell'Arte in 1970, showcased this contextualization. By this time, though, the artists had an international presence and were trying to break free of the name that had associated them with poor materials. For example, they opposed the use of the name "Arte Povera" in the title of an important group show at the Kunstmuseum in Lucerne; to replace it, curator Jean-Christophe Ammann proposed "Visualized Art Processes."

Despite growing popularity, the movement dissolved in the mid 1970s as the individual styles of the Italian artists continued to grow in different directions. Their brief unity, however, had already made its mark on the history of art, although its importance was not fully recognized until decades later. Following a reassessment of the 1960s, with critics now paying greater attention to movements outside the United States in the period, Arte Povera has experienced a revival, and has been cited as a precursor for some recent approaches to sculpture. Significant reassessments have included "Gravity and Grace: Arte Povera / Post-Minimalism," at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 1993, and "Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972" at the Tate Gallery, London, in 2002.

Key Artists

Michelangelo PistolettoMichelangelo Pistoletto
Detailed View
Mario MerzMario Merz
Giovanni AnselmoGiovanni Anselmo
Alighiero BoettiAlighiero Boetti
Luciano FabroLuciano Fabro
Piero GilardiPiero Gilardi
Jannis KounellisJannis Kounellis
Marisa MerzMarisa Merz
Giulio PaoliniGiulio Paolini
Pino PascaliPino Pascali
Giuseppe PenoneGiuseppe Penone
Emilio PriniEmilio Prini
Gilberto ZorioGilberto Zorio


"The difficulty of knowledge, or of taking possession of things, is enormous: conditioning prevents us from seeing a pavement, a corner, or a daily space, and Fabro re-proposes the rediscovery of a pavement, a corner, or the axis that unites the floor and ceiling of a room. He's not worried about satisfying the system, and intends instead to disembowel it."
Germano Celant
"What is happening? Banality is entering the arena of art. The insignificant is coming into being or, rather, it is beginning to impose itself. Physical presence and behavior have themselves become art... We are living in a period of deculturation. Iconographic conventions are collapsing, symbolic and conventional languages crumbling."
Germano Celant
"On the other hand, Arte Povera reflects the 2,000-year 'stratification' of the Italian countryside, a criss-cross of ruins and fragments in which forms and rhythms cannot be contained in an orderly way."
Germano Celant
"For me, the work on the embroidered maps achieved the highest form of beauty. For the finished work, I myself did nothing, in the sense that the world is as it is (I didn't draw it) and the national flags are as they are (I didn't design them). In short, I did absolutely nothing. What emerges from the work is the concept."
Alighiero Boetti
"De-aestheticized art is as self-conscious about aesthetic content as if it were ritually taboo, and Arte Povera [the book by Celant] extends this fear of contamination into self-consciousness about the aesthetics of being a book […] In addition, poverty represents for it [Arte Povera] a kind of voluntary creative detachment from society, a refusal either to adopt the traditional role of the artist or to approve art values of any sort."
Harold Rosenberg
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