Arte Povera - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Arte Povera
Arte Povera emerged out of the decline of abstract painting in Italy, and the rise of interest in prior avant-garde approaches to making art in the 1920s and 30s, such as Surrealism. In particular, its spirit can be traced to three artists active in Italy in the early 20th century: Alberto Burri, Piero Manzoni and Lucio Fontana. Burri's work, which in part consisted of paintings made from burlap sacks, provided an early example of the use of poor materials as an avant-garde strategy, using burlap, tar and sand to create abstract works on canvas.
Manzoni and Fontana were close friends and key figures in the Italian art scene that Arte Povera emerged out of (although it did so largely after Manzoni's early death in 1963). Manzoni's work prefigured several key qualities of Conceptual art, and reacted against abstract painting and Art Informel, utilizing simple concepts and humorous subversion to challenge the boundaries of traditional artistic practice. His most famous work consisted of tins of his own canned excrement, which he sold to collectors at the equivalent weight price of gold. This scandalized the art world, but also revealed the limitless possibilities of the most base materials. Fontana, whose work chiefly consisted of monochrome paintings, provided another example of the power of art that is radically reduced to only a few choice elements. Rather than limiting its aesthetic impact, the relative paucity of components had the effect of concentrating its impact on the viewer.
The term Arte Povera was first used by art critic Germano Celant in 1967 to describe the work of a group of young Italian artists who were just coming into public attention. In the same year Celant 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. Boetti's Pile(1966-67), for example, consisted of a stack of asbestos blocks. Fabro embodied the conceptual nature of Arte Povera by raising 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. 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 its viewers to look at previously inconsequential material and activities 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 delineated the boundaries of the new movement, putting himself and the Italians squarely within it, but also putting 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". This description reveals the revolutionary impetus and insistence on alternative modes of society behind many of the Arte Povera artists, with the dissolution of the art/life boundary being a condition pursued by many other subcultural movements across the world in the late 20th century.
Concepts and Styles
Arte Povera is most notable for its use of everyday materials, referred to as poor due to their ubiquity and affordability. The use of materials like soil, food, water and cheap building materials contrasted with the industrial sensibilities of American Minimalism, which was seen by the artists as unsuited to the cultural context of post-war Italy. At the same time the movement employed subversive avant-garde tactics, such as performance, and unconventional approaches to sculpture, which often included elements of installation. In their mission to reconnect life with art, Arte Povera artists strove to provoke a subjective and personal response to each of their pieces, stressing an interaction between viewer and object that was unrepeatable and purely original.
Sculpture is the artistic medium most closely associated with Arte Povera. Stemming in part from the artists' rejection of abstract and minimalist painting styles, which dominated the international art market of the 1960s, artists created objects that required interaction from the audience or institution to function. An example of this might be Giovanni Anselmo's Untitled (1968), which required the gallery to continually replace the lettuce at the heart of the sculpture to maintain its integrity, or Michelangelo Pistoletto's series of Minus Objects, which required the viewer to engage and/or manipulate the object in order to extract its meaning, literally filling the void or 'minus space' in the sculpture.
Sculpture by Arte Povera artists also often attempted to bridge the natural and artificial, or at least draw attention to this distinction. This can be seen most clearly in their choice and display of materials, with works where, for example, water and earth might be constrained by geometric frames or structures. This contrast or dissonant pairing of materials can also be seen in the juxtaposition of industrial processes with bodily fluids, waste or things that would otherwise be discarded. By disrupting the then prevalent notion of the "grand object" the artist drew attention to the contradictions inherent in the system of value placed on art objects and the gallery space itself.
Curation is a particularly important aspect of the demarcation of the movement. Crucial in the formation and success of Arte Povera was Germano Celant, and in this respect 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 was articulated and then confirmed by Celant's critical writing and curation. By choosing new artists to include in the exhibitions, Celant was the architect of the idea that these practices might be considered a "movement". Several of the artists he included in the exhibitions had already been associated with earlier movements (like Abstract Expressionism in the case of Mario Merz) but were then given a new lease of critical relevance by their placement in relation to new artists.
Celant also placed the movement that he defined alongside others, such as Land Art, in order to better define it and increase the movement's profile. This allowed the interests of the group of artists to be more effectively promoted and heightened the cultural impact of each artist's individual practice. Celant's interpretations of the artists associated with Arte Povera through his curatorial practice have therefore remained prominent and important frames through which to see the movement.
Celant often stressed the importance of the Italians' interest in individual subjectivity. Michelangelo Pistoletto, for example, is known above all for works in which photographic images of figures are displayed on mirrors, combining technical skill with the uncanny but familiar experience of looking at a reflected image. This focus on subjectivity relates interestingly to the invitation to interact with scluptures and objects in Arte Povera. Celant once described a 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 preconceived notions. Giovani Anselmo's early work also relied on human interaction to fully experience the art, which was constructed in order to react to the slightest touch from its viewer.
The artists Pino Pascali and Jannis Kounellis, Celant described their practices as allowing the viewer to experience "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).
Later Developments - After Arte Povera
One of Celant's most dramatic pronouncements was made in relation to the igloos of Mario Merz, and is one which reflected his hopes for the wider cultural legacy of Arte Povera. As he wrote of Merz, "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." Celant succeeded in carving out a place for Arte Povera within the histories of the avant-garde through his tireless advocacy for those artists he saw as part of it. By illustrating a relationship to Futurism and Interwar 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 and international network of artistic practices. His exhibition Conceptual Art, Arte Povera, Land Art, held at the Galleria Civica dell'Arte in 1970, showcased this wider contextualization by placing Arte Povera work alongside the work of American Conceptual artists like Dennis Oppenheim and Sol LeWitt, and other European artists like Joseph Beuys. By the time of this exhibition though, several of the artists had developed their own international art market presence and were trying to break free of the movement that kept them associated with the sole use of 'poor' materials. In addition, several artists opposed the use of the name "Arte Povera" in the title of an important group show at the Kunstmuseum in Lucerne, for example, with curator Jean-Christophe Ammann proposing "Visualized Art Processes" as an alternative title for the exhibition.
Despite growing popularity, the movement dissolved in the mid 1970s as the individual styles of the artists continued to grow in different directions. Their brief unity and Celant's skill in articulating the concerns of the movement however, had already made its mark on art history, although its importance was not fully recognized until decades later. Following the reassessment of the 1960s that took place in the early 21st century, critics are now deliberately paying greater attention to movements outside the United States in the period. As a result of this critical shift Arte Povera has experienced something of a revival within the academy. The movement has also been cited as a precursor for some more recent approaches to sculptural practice, including the Young British Artists (YBA Gavin Turk cites Manzoni as a key influence, as he was on Arte Povera). Other movements or scenes influenced include the Japanese mono-ha group, whose focus was on the essence of the materials they used, as well as American anti-form or Post-Minimalist practices like those of Robert Morris or Lynda Benglis. Significant reassessments of Arte Povera 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.