Summary of Arte Povera
Arte Povera - the Italian phrase for "poor art" or "impoverished art" - was one of the most significant and influential avant-garde movements to emerge in Southern Europe in the late 1960s. It included the work of around a dozen Italian artists whose most distinctly recognizable trait was their use of commonplace materials that evoked a pre-industrial age, such as earth, rocks, clothing, paper and rope: literally 'poor' or cheap materials that they repurposed for their practice. These practices presented a challenge to established notions of value and propriety, as well as subtly critiquing the industrialization and mechanization of Italy at the time.
Their work marked a reaction against the modernist abstract painting that had dominated European art in the 1950s, which they distinguished themselves from by focusing on the sculptural work rather than painting. The group also rejected American Minimalism, and in particular what they perceived as its enthusiasm for technology and dominance over the art world. Whilst in this respect Arte Povera echoes Post-Minimalist tendencies in American art of the 1960s in its opposition to modernism and technology, its evocations of the past, locality and memory have distinctly Italian aesthetic and strategic characteristics.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Some of the group's most memorable work comes from the contrast of unprocessed materials with references to the emergence of consumer culture. Believing that modernity threatened to erase collective memory and tradition (key aspects of Italian cultural heritage) Arte Povera sought to contrast the new with the old in order to complicate it's audience's sense of passing time.
- In addition to opposing the technological preoccupation of American Minimalism, artists associated with Arte Povera rejected what they perceived as its scientific rationalism. In direct contrast to its methodical and almost clinical approach to spatial relations, they conjured a world of myth whose mysteries couldn't be easily explained.
- Artists presented absurd, jarring and comical juxtapositions, often of the new and the old or the highly processed and the pre-industrial. By doing so, they evoked some of the effects of modernization, with its tendency to destroy experiences of locality and memory as it pushed ever forwards into the future.
- Arte Povera's interest in "poor" materials can be related to several other artistic movements of the 1950s and 1960s. The artists grouped under the term shared some techniques and strategies with movements like Fluxus and Nouveau Realisme in their combination of easily accessible materials with mischievous and rebellious subversions of their usual function. Germano Celant, whose critical practice shaped the definition of the movement, regularly placed Arte Povera in dialogue with these movements.
- Arte Povera is most often related Assemblage, an international trend that used similar materials. Both movements marked a reaction against the abstract painting that was perceived as dominating art in the period. This abstract work was viewed as too narrowly concerned with emotion and individual expression, and too confined by the traditions of painting. Arte Povera proposed an artistic practice that was much more interested in materiality and physicality and borrowed forms and materials from everyday life. Arte Povera can be distinguished most 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.
Artworks and Artists of Arte Povera
Artist's Shit (no. 4)
Piero Manzoni began his artistic career as a self-taught painter, coming from an upper-class background and influenced profoundly by the avant-garde artistic practices that he was exposed to as a young man and his circle of friends. As his style evolved, he continually questioned traditional methods and interpretations of artistic practice. Manzoni is not usually considered a true member of the Arte Povera group but more of a precursor (as he died before the first exhibitions curated by Celant). His work nevertheless reflects the principles of the movement and was profoundly influential in putting Italian avant-garde practices on the map of the art world in the 1960s, a condition that allowed Arte Povera to emerge.
Manzoni's participation and profile within an international avant-garde of European artists (including peers like Yves Klein) focused attention on Italian artists and proved inspirational to those working in the country. His gregarious personality and flair of publicity helped provoke an interest in Italian artistic practices amongst the art world. Whilst Manzoni's work was shown internationally and he travelled extensively, his identification with Italy and advocacy of a uniquely Italian cultural identity proved inspirational to Celant and, in turn, the artists he curated.
Manzoni's best-known work, Artist's Shit reprises famous avant-garde provocations such as Marcel Duchamp's presentation of a urinal as a work of art in Fountain (1917). Supposedly containing 30 grams of his own excrement, the piece was presented sealed and for sale to visitors to the gallery. Ninety cans were produced, canned and labeled in an identical manner at the cannery his father owned, mocking the practices of mass production and consumption, and satirizing the reverence usually accorded to artist's work. Importantly the audience is never able to conclusively know whether the cans actually contain the excrement without opening them and destroying the integrity of the piece. The cans were sold by the gallery at the then-market price of gold by weight in another provocative subversion of notions of value.
Tin can, contents unknown - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
This piece consists of an area of polished floor, marked off and covered with newspapers to dry, which also protect the cleaned floor from further marks or scuffs. This placement questions notions of value through the attention paid to a usually overlooked aspect of a room (the floor and the marks made upon it), and it asks its viewers to reevaluate the processes and time that go into keeping a floor clean. It also implicitly asks that the audience invest in keeping it clean by not disturbing the newspapers.
Here the piece's significance rests in its attempt to keep the floor clean and by inviting consideration of who usually takes responsibility for this activity. The elevation of a duty associated with housework, which is often socially coded as women's work, also became a theme in Fabro's later pieces that utilized bed sheets and other fabrics. Fabro's work here could even be seen as a precursor to later Feminist artists such as Judy Chicago, who enacted a similar foregrounding of unexamined (and predominantly female) work. The piece was first shown in Germano Celant's original survey of Arte Povera, where Fabro's celebration of an ordinary task was instrumental in Celant's attempt to recalibrate the concept of fine art.
Fabro was already a well-known artist by the time he was incorporated into the Arte Povera group. His work had previously been associated with the slightly earlier practices of Piero Manzoni and Lucio Fontana, two important precursors to the movement and to whom Fabro provided a concrete historical link.
Giovanni Anselmo worked as a professional graphic designer, but began to experiment with a visual arts practice in his spare time. This work was then incorporated into the Arte Povera movement. 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. The sculpture therefore has to be regularly "fed" with lettuces to maintain its structure.
The requirement to maintain the sculpture through near-constant refreshment of its natural elements reflects Anselmo's interest in the impact of nature on inanimate objects. Although the head of lettuce is an almost humorous choice of a common salad vegetable, it suggests the mastery of nature over human construction exemplified by the ability of tree roots to undermine foundations or masonry over time, for example. The piece suggests the supremacy of nature, and is perhaps even proto-enviromentalist in its insistence on careful tending of the plant-based aspects of the sculpture. Its concern with balance and gravity also 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
Mario Merz held the distinction of being the oldest of the artists considered part of the Arte Povera movement. He was also married to the group's only female member, Marisa Merz. Merz had already established himself as a painter in an Abstract Expressionist style, but abandoned this form after the context of the Arte Povera provided him with the opportunity to start his career anew. This reinvention of Merz's practice is an excellent example of how Celant's curation was foundational in the creation and maintenance of the notion of a movement.
Giap's Igloo consists of a dirt and wire igloo overlaid with neon lettering. It is the first of his signature igloos, which all combined rough structures with neon signage. Here Merz uses a phrase taken from a Vietnamese military general: "Se il nemico si concentra perde terreno se si 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 technology tubes that suggest more sophisticated and modern experiences, such as those of advertising and consumption. His use of 'poor' materials like dirt firmly place him in the orbit of the other Arte Povera artists, whilst the Igloo itself suggests a return to basic living or survival.
His use of neon alongside these "poor" materials implies the technological critiques present in several of the Arte Povera artist's work. The light fixture intrudes on the simplistic hut as a technological illumination that disrupts the simplicity and base nature of the structure. This perhaps implies a skepticism on the part of Merz towards representations of technology as a positive force, a notion that was characteristic of the movement's reaction against the increasing industrialization of Italy after the second world war.
Metal tubing, wire mesh, neon tubing, dirt in bags, batteries, accumulators - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
32 Square Meters of Sea
Pino Pascali's 32 Square Meters of Sea brings together the natural and artificial. The containers that make up the piece hold dyed water that replicate the variegated tints of the ocean, alluding to the effects of motion and light on open bodies of water. Yet the containers themselves with their rigidity and artificiality also remind its viewers of the ways that humanity attempts to control nature, and references the long history of artists' attempts to represent and approximate it. Whilst each square of water is a shade found in nature (perhaps even one familiar to the viewer) the rapid transition between them suggests artificial reproduction, technological constraint and human intervention. The unnatural shape, perhaps deliberately referencing the notion that there are 'no straight lines in nature', adds to this sense of the uncanny or unnatural.
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. Pascali started out as a designer and illustrator for advertisements, and learned to push the boundaries between illusion and reality, qualities that can be seen in this piece and others, such as his Cubic Meters of Earth works. To Pascali, the poverty of the materials he used was essential to the artistic process. As he put it "We need the intensity of someone who has nothing, to be truly able to create something". This intensity through simple and easily accessible materials can be seen clearly in this piece.
Aluminum and zinc containers, colored water treated with aniline - Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome
Structure for Talking While Standing (Minus Objects)
This piece is one of a series of sculptures that were meant to signify the "less-than-whole" nature of the Italian economic boom of the mid-20th century. The objects are incomplete in that they require participation or activation through the activity of their viewers. Pistoletto termed these works the Minus Objects around the idea of art that was only completed through the 'addition' of human interaction. This piece, inspired by the marks on the wall created by people leaning that Pistoletto noticed after an exhibition, is designed to be leant upon whilst conducting a conversation by offering a place to rest the arms and feet. Structure for Standing While Talking creates an almost literal bridge for conversation among visitors.
Pistoletto's work often dealt with relationships. His earlier mirror works, which confronted self and image, similarly explored concepts of identity. The Minus Objects were something of a departure however, and are often referred to as his first pieces that seemed to fully fit within the broader movement of Arte Povera. Several of the key concerns of the movement are represented, with both cheap and easily accessible materials being used in the iron bars that make up the sculpture, and the challenges to notions of value and significance within a gallery setting. This is a piece that reimagines the parameters of the interaction between viewer and artwork, but this only becomes clear when activated by the viewer's participation.
Iron, enamel - Pistoletto Foundation, Biella
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.
Useful Resources on Arte Povera
- Arte Povera (Themes & Movements)By Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev
- Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera: 1962-1972Our PickBy Corinna Criticos, Judith Kirshner, Robert Lumley, Karen Pinkus, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Francesco Bonami
- Arte Povera: Movements in Modern ArtBy Robert Lumley
- Che fare?: Arte Povera: The Historic YearsBy Friedemann Malsch, Christine Meyer-Stoll, Valantina Pro