Progression of Art
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 - The Tate Modern, London
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 - The National Gallery of Modern Art, 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, Italy