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, in particular what they perceived as its enthusiasm for technology. In this respect Arte Povera echoes tendencies in American art of the 1960s. But in its opposition to and technology, and its evocations of the past, locality and memory, the movement is distinctly Italian.
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:, whose painting made from burlap sacks, provided an example of the use of poor materials; , whose work prefigured qualities of , and which reacted against abstract, painting; and , 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, , , , and . 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 (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:, , , , , and . 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."
Celant succeeded in carving out a place for Arte Povera within the avant-garde. By illustrating a relationship toand Italian , as well as to more contemporary styles such as , 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.
"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