Arte Povera Movement and Chronology

Synopsis

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.

Beginnings

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.

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."

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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.



Original content written by Tracee Ng
comment to editor

QUOTES

"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 in Arte Povera: Notes on a Guerilla War

"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, from the exhibition catalogue for Arte Povera e IM Spazio

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Minimalism
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Surrealism
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Dada
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Constructivism
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Alberto Burri
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Piero Manzoni
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Piero Manzoni was a twentieth-century Italian conceptual artist and a strong influencer of the Arte Povera movement. Largely considered an ironist, Manzoni's work was a critique of art consumerism and repeatedly challenged notions of the art object and how one takes in art. One such example was Manzoni's 1960 exhibition "Consumption of Art by the Art-Devouring Public," at his Gallery Azimuth in Milan, in which he hard-boiled eggs, printed his thumb print onto them, and then handed them out to the audience to eat.

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Lucio Fontana
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Alighiero Boetti
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Luciano Fabro
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Luciano Fabro was an Italian artist, theorist and author associated the Arte Povera movement, and is often cited as the unofficial father of the movement, albeit most of the artists were only loosely associated. Fabro's best known works were a series of sculpture reliefs made in the shape of Italy, fashioned out of glass, steel, bronze, gold and leather.

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Jannis Kounellis
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Giulio Paolini
Giulio Paolini
Goilio Paolini is an Italian artist, typically associated with the Arte Povera movement, although this association had more to do with a brief partnership with movement founder Germano Celant. Paolini worked in multiple media, including painting, photography, collage, drawing and sculpture. More so than most artists, part or present, Paolini was profoundly informed by his predecessors, and believed that no art work exists on its own; it is record of some historical past. This belief led Paolini to investigate the past and find artistic influence in sources both visual and literary.

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Pino Pascali
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Pino Pascali was an Italian sculptor associated with the Arte Povera movement. Pascali's distinct contribution came in the form of his "fake sculptures," or shaped canvases depicting abstract forms that resemble actual objects, reminiscent of theater sets that blur the boundaries between illusion and reality. Pascali also received acclaim for his weapon series, consisting of life-size models of guns, identical to the real thing except in function. Pascali's life was cut short by a motorcycle accident, dying at the age of 32.

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Emilio Prini
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Emilio Prini is an Italian conceptual artist and sculptor associated with the Arte Povera movement of the 1960s. Prini's work is in many ways performance based, or what could be called small theatrical moments spread out over time. One such example of this was Prini's piece of having a tape recorder record its own inner workings until it broke down. Similar to his contemporary Mario Merz, neon lights were a favored artistic tool. Prini sets out to alter environments with his work, and more so, heighten spectators' awareness that their surroundings have been altered.

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Giovanni Anselmo
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Giovanni Anselmo is an Italian artist associated with the Arte Povera movement. Working mainly as a sculptor - but also photography and drawing - and using mixed media including metal, plastic, water, stone and even perishable foods, Anselmo's work is highly conceptual at times, and will require constant "feeding" due to many of the perishable and tenuous elements he employs in his art.

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Piero Gilardi
Piero Gilardi
Piero Gilardi is an Italian artist, curator, writer and critic, often associated with the Arte Povera movement, albeit more loosely than some of his contemporaries. Gilardi's greatest contribution to the art world began in the 1980s and 90s when he created some of the first interactive computer-based environments, which furthered Gilardi's goal of using technology in art in order to restore the bond between urban man and nature. Gilardi's political beliefs have also made waves, voicing his dissatisfaction with the increasing commodification of art in today's gallery culture.

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Mario Merz
Mario Merz
Mario Merz was an Italian artist in the Arte Povera movement, and the husband of Marisa Merz. Fascinated with light, space and matter, Merz's work tended toward the utilitarian found object, but with a twist. Neon lights were Merz's preferred medium, and he would use these tools to manipulate everyday objects such an umbrellas, glass, and even igloos, and alter one's surroundings, whether in a museum's gallery or at an archaeological site.

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Gianni Piacentino
Gianni Piacentino
Gianni Piacentino is an Italian artist and designer, and one of the original founders of the Arte Povera movement. Piacentino's work is characterized by its minimalist design and industrial-like appearance, often incorporating design elements of motorcycles, airplanes and other symbols that denote speed and efficiency.

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Michelangelo Pistoletto
Michelangelo Pistoletto
Michelangelo Pistoletto is an Italian painter, theorist and action artist, typically associated with the Arte Povera movement. In his work, Pistoletto sought to break down barriers between performance and everyday life, making spectators part of the work. Among his best known works as his "Mirror Paintings" of the 1960s, in which life-size images of the human figures were applied to a polished, stainless steel background as if it were a canvas. The other work was Ball of Newspapers (1966-68), a 2-meter wide ball of newspapers, collected over 2 years, which the artist rolled through city streets.

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Gilberto Zorio
Gilberto Zorio
Gilberto Zorio is an Italian sculptor, conceptual and performance artist, commonly associated with the Arte Povera movement. Like many of his Arte Povera contemporaries, Zorio was fond of using non-art materials for his work, including light, water, energy and various industrial materials. What set Zorio's work apart were his experiments with the physical and chemical instability of certain materials, such as phosphorescent light.

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Futurism
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Futurism was the most influential Italian avant-garde movement of the twentieth century. Dedicated to the modern age, it celebrated speed, movement, machinery and violence. At first influenced by Neo-Impressionism, and later by Cubism, some of its members were also drawn to mass culture and nontraditional forms of art.
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Classicism
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Land Art
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Land art, or Earth art, a term coined by artist Robert Smithson, refers to artworks from the 1960s and '70s that employed land and other natural elements. It is typical of a time when artists rejected the traditional art object, expanded definitions of sculpture, and sought to move art outside the conventional art world structure of galleries and museums.

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Floor Tautology
Floor Tautology

Title: Floor Tautology (1967)

Artist: Luciano Fabro

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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.


Floor, newspapers

Untitled 
Untitled 

Title: Untitled  (1968)

Artist: Giovanni Anselmo

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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.


Granite, copper wire, lettuce - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

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

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

Artist: Piero Manzoni

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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.


Tin can, contents unknown - The Tate Modern, London

Giap's Igloo
Giap's Igloo

Title: Giap's Igloo (1968)

Artist: Mario Merz

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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.


Metal tubing, wire mesh, neon tubing, dirt in bags, batteries, accumulators - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

32 Square Meters of Sea
32 Square Meters of Sea

Title: 32 Square Meters of Sea (1967)

Artist: Pino Pascali

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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."


Aluminum and zinc containers, colored water treated with aniline - The National Gallery of Modern Art, Rome

Structure for Talking While Standing (Minus Objects)
Structure for Talking While Standing (Minus Objects)

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

Artist: Michelangelo Pistoletto

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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.


Iron, enamel - Pistoletto Foundation, Biella, Italy

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.