It doesn’t take long to spot the tendencies of members of Arte Povera, the “poor art” movement that took shape in late-1960s Italy. Each of the poveristi had certain creative signatures — generally fertile, sometimes meandering toward shtick. Michelangelo Pistoletto did the mirror paintings, where the viewer is forced into the work, sharing the mirror’s surface with painted human figures. Alighiero Boetti had a geography obsession; he had maps woven by Afghan artisans, made books enumerating the world’s longest rivers, and played with postcards, magazine covers, and assorted lists.
The Fibonacci number sequences — written in neon spirals or scribbled on canvas — are Mario Merz’s, as are the steel-plate igloos. The wall sculptures of steel beams and metal shelves, laden with ground coffee or other goods, are by Jannis Kounellis. The marble pillars, swaddled in silk, that open at their bases into bird’s-feet of Murano glass, belong to Luciano Fabro. So do the upside-down outlines of Italy, painted gold or cast in lead or mounted on sticks, interpreting the country’s mood at the time of making.
Arte Povera emerged as Italy’s postwar industrial boom was losing steam and artists were questioning its dogmas. The movement got its name from a curator, Germano Celant, who coined it for a show in Genoa in 1967. In the works of seven poveristi he detected a shared interest in unpacking the artifices of modernity and extracting art from the gallery. There were clear international antecedents — Dada, Surrealism, Minimalism, Conceptual Art — but Arte Povera would retain a distinctly Italian character. It grew to comprise around fifteen core figures (with only one woman, Marisa Merz); all were Italian save for Kounellis, who had come from Greece to attend art school in Rome and settled in Italy.
Before this year, the last major group show of Arte Povera in New York was back in 1985, at P.S.1. By that time, however, a figurative backlash was underway in Europe (including in Italy, in the form of the Transavantgarde). But the poveristi toiled on, away from the spotlight; several are alive and making work today. Renewed attention led to several individual retrospectives in recent years, but not the kind of group presentation that launched the movement and asserted a collective identity.
That changes now, with two large shows up at once, combining for over 170 works — many of them hefty installations — plus ephemera and research materials. Both are shaped by collectors. At Hauser & Wirth in Chelsea, a survey show of Arte Povera sprawls across three gallery floors, with much of the work supplied by the former dealer Ingvild Goetz, who has a private museum in Munich. And in Cold Spring, in the Hudson Valley, Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu have opened Magazzino, an impeccable architectural conversion of a former dairy factory, where they are presenting a big chunk of their own lavish collection. Their first show is all Arte Povera; it is dedicated to Margherita Stein, a Turin gallerist who was an early and steadfast champion of the movement, which now draws high prices but in the 1960s was quite unsaleable, due to the attitude of the artists and their prosaic choices of material.
When Boetti’s first individual show, at the Christian Stein Gallery in 1967 (Margherita used her husband’s name to maneuver in the patriarchal Italian establishment), sold no items at all, Ms. Stein purchased the lot. Two of those pieces are now at Magazzino: a “portrait” that consists of a painted wood panel with cork letters spelling the subject’s name, and a bundle of PVC tubes standing like a classical column. Another poverista, Emilio Prini, wanted his work destroyed after it was shown. Once, insisting on showing a few pieces she had managed to find, Goetz had to hire a guard to look out for the artist, who’d threatened to come and vandalize it. Prini, who died last year, relented late in life. Six of his works are at Hauser & Wirth, some quite hermetic, like his coil of neon light wrapped thread-like around a wooden spindle, or his length of aluminum curved in a parabola.
Nearby is a quote from Prini (the gallery has clustered the works by artist, each with a representative text printed onto the floor). It reads: “Creative action must join hands with reality in every one of its aspects — climate, the people and things that stand around it.” That’s as good a statement as any of the Arte Povera approach: a collapsing of art and its context. “Poor” referred not to cheapness, but to stripping away unnecessary layers, inspired by the “poor theater” concept of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski.
The poveristi put work in unusual settings such as churches or garages; they made ephemeral or performance pieces that survive through photographs. In 1969, Kounellis tethered twelve live horses to the wall in the Rome gallery L’Attico. He reprised the work in New York in 2015, at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, where it drew objections from animal-rights activists.
Though contemporaneous with Pop Art, the poveristi rejected that movement’s smooth ironies, preferring to unmake the products and rituals of consumer society. They could be playful, even clever. Giulio Paolini made plaster casts of classical sculptures: Mimesi, on view at Magazzino, positions two casts of Praxiteles’ Hermes — a copy, copied — so their gazes intersect. Intervallo, at Hauser & Wirth, reproduces a statue of two wrestlers, but cut at midsection; the upper bodies are mounted sideways as if bursting from one wall, and the lower bodies disappear into the wall opposite.
Most of the poveristi’s gestures have entered the general stream, losing their shock value. What stands out is the engagement with the signifiers of Italian history — the sculptures and columns, the boot-and-heel map, the flag. (An Italian flag made of rags by Pistoletto greets visitors entering Magazzino.) Arte Povera’s main hub was Turin, the industrial capital and home of Fiat, the iconic manufacturer; one can read Arte Povera in part as reaction to the elevation of Italian design. Dialectics are everywhere: organic and inorganic substances, past and present, industry and rurality. They suggest a historical-materialist politics (that is, Marxian) but without the political program or list of demands.
Viewed today, the works made in Arte Povera’s busiest years, from the 1960s to the 1980s, hit on different registers. Some employ technologies — Pier Paolo Calzolari’s refrigeration units, Merz’s neon lighting, Giovanni Anselmo’s slide projectors — that anchor them to a time that feels faraway, overwritten by the Internet of Things. At Hauser & Wirth, smaller works on canvas and paper, made before the artists turned to installation or in parallel with that transition, remind us of the movement’s nuance and diversity.
And some of the large sculptural pieces are transcendent. Three wall-mounted works by Kounellis at Magazzino involve, variously, iron girders, steel plates, coffee, charcoal, burlap sacks, and a coat. Made late in his career (Kounellis died this year) but in forms he explored from the beginning, they echo his personal concerns with travel and commerce — he grew up in the port city Piraeus. But they are also Arte Povera at its finest: raw yet peaceful, industrial yet sensory, a passageway for the ghosts in the machine.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 19, 2017