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

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.

Overview of Arte Povera

Arte Povera Image

Saying, "I chose to use poor materials to prove that they could still be useful. The poorness of a medium is not a symbol: it is a device for painting," Alberto Sacchi turned to art while he was in a prison of war camp in 1944. His first works were made of burlap bags, and his series of Sacchi (Sacks) pioneered Arte Povera.

Key Artists

  • The sharp-witted Manzoni critiqued consumerism and repeatedly challenged notions of the art object.
  • 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.

Do Not Miss

  • Fluxus was an international network of artists of the 1960s who worked in fields ranging from music to performance to the visual arts. Taking their name from the Latin 'to flow,' Fluxus artists adopted an often anarchic and satirical approach to conventional forms of art, and their ideas paved the way for Conceptual art.
  • Performance is a genre in which art is presented "live," usually by the artist but sometimes with collaborators or performers. It has had a role in avant-garde art throughout the twentieth century, playing an important part in anarchic movements such as Futurism and Dada. It particularly flourished in the 1960s, when Performance artists became preoccupied with the body, but it continues to be an important aspect of art practice.
  • Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
  • Earth art, or Land art, a term coined by artist Robert Smithson, refers to artworks from the 1960s and '70s that employed the earth 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.

Important Art and Artists of Arte Povera

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

Artist: Piero Manzoni

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.

Floor Tautology (1967)

Artist: Luciano Fabro

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.

Untitled (1968)

Artist: Giovanni Anselmo

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.

Useful Resources on Arte Povera

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Content compiled and written by Tracee Ng

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Arte Povera Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Tracee Ng
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Jul 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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