“Camerado! This is no book/Who touches this, touches a man,” Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass. A profoundly secular transubstantiation, these two lines of poetry changed culture by enmeshing it with nature. Years later the effect of Whitman’s promiscuous continuities launched a new tradition in modern verse. In time the bard’s poetic friskiness overflowed the limits of literature, until it finally reshaped the essence of contemporary art.
In the late 1960s Whitman’s jet-setting spirit landed in Italy, where it met radical anti-authoritarian politics and begat what was, hands down, Europe’s most influential avant-garde group. Christened arte povera (poor art) by curator Germano Celant, the movement celebrated a new openness toward nature and simple, artisanal materials. Pioneered by about a dozen Italian artists, the scene marked a decidedly funky reaction to flashy modernist abstraction. But the group also rejected the puritanism of American-style minimalism. If vanguardists in New York and L.A. drew inspiration from heavy metal plates and shiny industrial surfaces in the Sixties and Seventies, povera (as it came to be called) proved to be all about unprocessed stuff — earth, rocks, fabric, paper, and rope, and the timelessness those materials evoke.
Shorthand for the kind of earthy, proto-environmental art that once invaded the world’s stark, white galleries, povera has come alive in Manhattan again, thanks to a trio of sculpture shows at Marian Goodman Gallery. The series of mini-retrospectives kicked off in February with an exhibition of the tableaux of Giulio Paolini, continues with Giuseppe Penone’s “Indistinti Confini/Indistinct Boundaries,” then moves on to Luciano Fabro. Like most of their Italian colleagues, Paolini, Penone, and Fabro, who died in 2007 at age 70, are primarily assemblagists committed to convening startling juxtapositions. Their art still leads to fresh revelations: Often profound and glamour-free, the works channel the fundamental electrical charge that exists between all compelling objects.
The youngest member of the povera movement, Penone was raised on a family farm outside Turin, the home of both Fiat and Slow Food. His connection to landscape was instantaneous, which led to the artist’s immediate adoption of certain recurrent natural motifs. His earliest works — made in a fever dream in the late 1960s — were made up of simple forest interventions. Using nails, lead, and copper wire to leave the imprint of his hand on the trunk of a tree, Penone signaled that he wished for “the relationship between [him]self and things to be equal.” Since then the Italian’s sculptures, installations, and drawings have been distinguished primarily by their overwhelming use of natural forms, as well as their desire to soar over the nature/culture binary.
Penone’s current exhibition — his first in New York since 2012 — includes both recent sculptures and a selection of key works dating from 1970 to 1997. Organized by Swiss curator Dieter Schwarz, this selection takes special note of Penone’s central artistic reversal. Rather than sight, Schwarz writes in the gallery brochure, it is “the sense of touch” that the artist has repeatedly sought to privilege as the “main device for accessing the world around him.” That distinction actively upends the West’s 500-year-old reliance on the eye as the primary tool for art making. In today’s lingo, the move defines the artist as a unique species of modern materialist. From the beginning of his career, Penone has concentrated on developing a peculiarly hands-on approach to the exploration of subjectivity.
Among the works in the exhibition that literally record Penone’s visionary tactility are two pieces that share the same title, Soffio di Foglie (or Breath of Leaves). The first work is a large 2014 acrylic-on-Japanese-paper drawing of several thousand leaves, each finely detailed, arranged together so that they resemble — depending on one’s mood — a school of chum or a swarm of bees. The second is a sculpture that consists of a fragrant pile of myrtle leaves arranged on the floor in a ragged horseshoe shape. The fact that the leaves bear the imprint of a body upon them evokes not just nature’s role as a passive presence, but the human susceptibility to synesthesia — the literal and figurative inspiration that can be derived from the mound’s musty, compost-like emissions.
Elsewhere Penone erects a forest of tree trunks made from classical sculptural materials. The artist replaces the wood of the trees with bronze and the bark with white marble, to the point where it’s difficult at a glance to discern that these sculptures are not, in fact, trees covered in quicklime, as one might encounter along a country road. Once the viewer cottons to Penone’s material substitutions, his trees turn strangely voluble, metaphorically speaking. One might be reminded not of Whitman but of Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”: “Daphne with her thighs in bark/Stretches towards me her leafy hands.” Despite the rapey nature of the Greek myth the poem cites (Apollo’s stalking of Daphne), the artist’s expansive borrowing places the emphasis squarely on sculptural metamorphosis and poetic transformation.
Metaphor and transformation, in fact, prove to be the engine and steering column of a highly lyrical project that gives voice to a sculptural tension found in virtually all natural and manmade things: the correspondence between the inside and outside of objects, which, conversely, also expresses itself as a clash between presence and absence. This fundamental contradiction is not resolved in Penone’s work, but it does come in for some significant realignment. Take the wall of heart-shaped clay lumps Penone first covers in sheets of aluminum and then exposes to view, like buds bursting open after a nasty winter. Titled Avvolgere la Terra (To Enfold the Earth), the sculpture inverts the role of earth and mineral — the container and the contained — making material their hardy indistinction.
Curiously for this lifelong sculptor, it is in a photograph that Penone best illustrates his penchant for poetic inversions. Rovesciare i Propri Occhi (To Reverse One’s Eyes) is a black-and-white print that depicts the artist wearing mirrored contact lenses. The work, from 1971, depicts Penone reflecting the surrounding landscape rather than surveying it. No longer the mirror of the soul, Penone’s eyes echo the world. It’s up to you, the viewer, to decide whether it’s chock-full of subjectivity.