PRINT November 2007


Arte Povera

FORTY YEARS AGO this month, the critic and curator Germano Celant thrust arte povera upon the international scene. Amid tumultuous demonstrations at Italian universities that, like many other movements circa 1968, were aimed at institutional structures that preserved the stratifications of class, the twenty-seven-year-old Celant asserted that Italian artists were confronting their own social and cultural patrimony. Using the utopian rhetoric typical of twentieth-century avant-gardes, he wrote of a desire to escape the bounds of a social system that rewards conformity and limits experience, and argued, in stridently Marxist terms, that this system forces artists into producing bourgeois objects for an art market that requires the stability of the assembly line. Arte povera, Celant declared, was different—it was a truly revolutionary art that rejected the market’s pressure to conform by rejecting the very language of art. Instead of continuing to use a highly developed, or “rich,” system of representation that artists had been refining since at least the early Renaissance, arte povera foregrounded the experience of the thing itself, infinitely variable and free of formal or material conventions. For Celant, these “poor” inquiries were not so much a unified movement as a polysemous collection of individual actions and improvised episodes in an artistic guerrilla war.

Printed in the pages of Flash Art in November 1967, Celant’s “Arte povera: Appunti per una guerriglia” (Arte Povera: Notes for a Guerrilla War) is considered by many to be a manifesto (albeit an ersatz one, in the sense that it was not written by the participants themselves) for a loose association that came to include such artists as Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Gilberto Zorio. On the surface, the text appears to be business as usual for an avant-garde declaration: an exhortation to direct political engagement. Celant’s use of militant language—his evocation of artists taking to the “battlefield” and of “revolutionary existence”—is no surprise, since his essay appeared in print during the contemporaneous student and labor movements’ largest demonstrations in Turin and Milan. The sentiments also echo the approaches of these movements: spontaneous sit-ins, interruptions of lectures, and marches under any number of banners, including some that read WAR NO, GUERRILLA ACTION YES. By describing the artists’ tactics in similar terms, Celant aimed to position arte povera as parallel to libertarian politics.

Forty years later, however, arte povera is rarely discussed in such political terms. In terms of visual culture, most people associate the political movements of 1968 with the Situationist International’s activities—particularly its production of pamphlets, agitprop banners, and other printed matter—in France. By comparison, the radical language Celant applied to arte povera may take readers aback, since most accounts, especially those written in English, have considered these Italian artists’ works solely in terms of materials and processes. While a few recent publications—like the essays by Richard Flood, Frances Morris, Robert Lumley, and Karen Pinkus in the catalogue of the 2001 exhibition “Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962–1972,” co-organized by the Walker Art Center and Tate Modern, or the overview Arte Povera (1999), edited and illuminatingly introduced by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev—have begun to consider arte povera in a broader social context, the field is still plagued by the idea that its artists were primarily enamored of low, or literally “poor,” materials, and by the argument that arte povera’s antitechnological bent is a misinterpretation of American Minimalism. Given the apparent distance between Celant’s formulations and those of later historians, we are left to wonder where to locate this work. Has time proved Celant’s claims about the revolutionary potential of these artists and their works to be naively overblown? Or, instead, have mistranslations of the term arte povera, and misreadings of the works that the slippery term purports to describe, obscured our view?

At first glance, it is easy to understand why a work like, say, Anselmo’s Direzione (Direction), 1967–68, a triangular slab of schist with a compass embedded in its surface, might not be considered as “engaged” as an incendiary Situationist leaflet distributed at Strasbourg’s university. One is a sculpture, laden with all the baggage of bourgeois gallery and museum exhibitions, while the other is a piece of ephemera directly aimed at undermining the institution. What, then, could be gathered from an encounter with Anselmo’s rock that justifies Celant’s reading of it as matériel in a guerrilla war? The work presents itself as an ordinary object in real space, rather than as an illusionistic representation of three dimensions, but so do Minimalist works that predate it, so it was not revolutionary in purely formal terms. Nothing in Minimalism, however, is analogous to that compass—a mundane instrument through which Direzione complicates perceptions of the room it is in, demonstrating that the space around us is alive with invisible forces and energies. As objects, artworks like Direzione provide a tool or handle by which to tangibly grasp some of the abstract concepts underlying everyday experience: They expand consciousness through perceptual interaction. Rather than sloganeering as Guy Debord and others in France did between 1966 and 1968, Italian artists like Anselmo, Calzolari, Mario Merz, Penone, and Zorio addressed the fundamental bases of knowledge about the phenomenological world: gravity, magnetism, energy. By making such abstract and invisible concepts as universal magnetism palpable through demonstrations of their effects, these artists’ works opened up new ways of perceiving material interactions in the natural world that encouraged critical thinking and privileged an empowered subjectivity.

Penone’s major early work, Alpi marittime (Maritime Alps), 1968, demonstrates how these phenomenological encounters with materials can telescope to encompass broader social issues. This group of interventions—including a metal cast of the artist’s hand permanently grasping a growing tree trunk and a concrete frame, sized to the dimensions of his body, diverting a flowing stream—demonstrates, over time, the way in which touch and human presence can yield significant change. Overtly, Penone is engaged with the interplays between steel and wood, water and concrete—but since the steel and concrete are stand-ins for the sculptor’s touch, these works can also be read, in the social context of the radical political movements of the time, as sharing in a basic sentiment about the power of the individual. Like Merz’s contemporaneous Sitin, 1968, in which the heat of a neon tube slowly softens the wax on which it literally sits, Alpi marittime makes this power visible by demonstrating a material interaction.

For Celant, such works had a very particular political valence, as is perhaps most clearly articulated in his description, in “Notes for a Guerrilla War,” of the unnerving way that Zorio’s works reveal the instability and unpredictability of the presumptive natural order of things: “An unpredictable coexistence between power and existential precariousness spoils our tranquility and calls our claims into question, to remind us that every ‘thing’ is precarious, it is sufficient to force the breaking point to make it explode. Why not try with the world?” Here Celant likely had in mind works like Rosa-blu-rosa (Pink-Blue-Pink), 1967, a cobalt chloride and asbestos cement semicylinder that responds to atmospheric conditions, changing color as the presence of people around it affects the heat and humidity in the room. In his estimation, such works could serve as models, or even catalysts, of real social change. If viewers could understand the changeable and contingent forces of nature through Zorio’s demonstrations of chemical transmutation, the logic seemed to go, then they could see that the social world itself needed only a little push to reach a breaking point. Though subtle and overshadowed by Celant’s more militant rhetoric, this explication of Zorio’s art is arguably the most perceptive point in Celant’s text. For these artists, even in 1967, the connection to politics was very real, but it was fundamentally embedded in the works, part of their poetic address. Celant apprehended this, calling the productions and interventions of arte povera “social gestures in and of themselves . . . formative and compositive liberations which aim at the identification between man and the world.” The effect that works like Rosa-blu-rosa could have was not directly political but conceptual and systemic, tapping into the core of artistic social responsibility.

For Italian artists of the arte povera generation, ideological independence was paradoxically central to the critical engagement of their art. Celant argues as much in “Notes for a Guerrilla War,” maintaining that the artists’ “free attitude” toward materials, style, and history is precisely what makes it possible for them to open up to present conditions. Penone recently remarked to me that an artwork can have political content if it coincides with the needs of the work—its raison d’être—but one can’t force external content into the artwork’s integral language and form. Moreover, he suggested that since politics consists of direct action in society, its most effective language is certainly not that of art, which comes nearer to poetry in its logic and open address to the viewer. Indeed, forty years have shown that the most enduring politics of arte povera lies in the works’ openness and in the way they prompt viewers to confront the most basic understandings of the physical and social world. They transgress social structures and strata by altering perception itself. In this light, works like Anselmo’s Direzione, Merz’s objects run through by a neon tube, or Fabro’s partially mirrored glass may be just as capable of inciting a paradigm shift as Situationist actions were.

By involving the viewer in active perception, these and other arte povera works privilege the subjectivity of individual experience, a psychological event parallel to actual political mobilization. Further, many of the artists challenge viewers to comprehend paradoxes at the level of identity itself, revealing the ways in which identity is constructed by systems of representation rather than through self-awareness. For instance, Boetti’s Gemelli (Twins), 1968, a photo in which the artist’s image is doubled, introduced his “new” expanded identity as “Alighiero,” as he is referred to by friends and family, “e” (and) “Boetti,” as he is marketed by the art world. Similarly, Paolini’s Giovane che guarda Lorenzo Lotto (Young Man Looking at Lorenzo Lotto), 1967, is a simple mechanical reproduction of the titular artist’s portrait, but it reveals complex relationships among the sitter, artist, and viewer that problematize identity to the point of tautology: A linguistic “shifter,” the young man could be the painted sitter looking at Lotto, Paolini looking at the painted portrait, or the viewer looking at Paolini’s reproduction. Such works challenge viewers to comprehend ruptures in systems of representation, and to change the way they read the information provided. Thus activated, a viewer might then change the way he or she interacts with other representations and things in the world. Unlike the pamphlets and graffiti of the SI, then, this kind of production does not align itself with a political agenda through its ostensible content. Instead, it shares in the radical activities of the era via its tactics, most prominently the activation of the viewer in response to diminishing subjectivity in advanced capitalist society.

That said, differences between the French and Italian notions of artistic engagement around 1968 parallel the two countries’ divergent countercultural movements. Whereas the French student movement was explosive—climaxing quickly and trailing off precipitously—’68 in Italy was barely the midpoint in a slow burn that continued well into the mid-1970s, a decade of domestic terrorism known there (as in Germany and Brazil) as the “years of lead.” It follows that these varying conditions required separate models of engagement and distinct notions of the political role of the artist. The disparity between the two models became clearest in the moments when artists and demonstrators actually interacted. Could one imagine Debord siding against the students whose demonstrations temporarily closed the 1968 Venice Biennale, as some arte povera artists did? While all of the artists strongly sympathized with the students (who were treated brutally by riot police), some arte povera artists, such as Pascali and Fabro, and critics, like Carla Lonzi, expressed concerns that the exhibition was wrongly caught in a net of broader anti-institutional sentiment. In Pascali’s statement of (temporary) withdrawal from the Biennale, he maintained that it was, at the time, one of the few places where free expression was still possible, and argued that it was up to the artists to fix the acknowledged problems of their own institutions. Pistoletto, for his proposed contribution to the 1968 Biennale, invited other artists to collaborate with him on group projects and interventions. Though in the end Pistoletto withdrew his proposal, and the project was never realized, his impulse to subvert the institution from the inside was clearly in keeping with Pascali’s attitude. Such tactics would have brought the spirit of the countercultural movement into the Biennale by negating the reification of the singular artist as a creator, whereas the student protesters were stopped at the gates.

Arte povera’s model of tactical engagement is instructive today, since it protects artistic freedom and eschews partisanship. In short, such works focus on the macrocosm of human experience, not the microcosm of single-issue politics. Such fundamentally engaged works might outlive more narrowly political art. Though we can appreciate revisitations like last spring’s traveling show “The Situationist International (1957–1972)” from a historical standpoint, the inclusion of both Anselmo and Penone in this year’s politically oriented Venice Biennale suggests that their works are still alive and kicking. In fact, in that exhibition, Anselmo’s Dove le stelle si avvicianano di una spanna in più mentre la terre si orienta (Where the Stars Come a Step Closer While the Earth Orients Itself), 2004–2007, has a version of the 1967–68 Direzione in its core. You don’t need to know anything about the politics of the day—whether that day is in 1967 or 2007—in order to experience the altered perspective gained from stepping up onto a stone block, or from considering the magnetic fields tweaking the compass needle at its center. At its best, art does just this: It offers a glimpse of the big picture amid the daily barrage of information and implicates the perceiving subject as a responsible player. The relationship of such works to their audience and the multifarious experiences the works catalyze might alter one’s sense of self, community, or even worldview. This is what makes the arte povera model interesting and what ultimately makes its critique sustainable.

Celant’s challenging text reveals itself to be more allegorical than literal, as are the works he sought to describe, and the “guerrilla war” that he wrote about had implications for altering consciousness that, in many ways, exceeded the political movements to which it was allied. Even though arte povera’s tactical alignment to its political moment paradoxically relied on artistic autonomy, it yielded open works that continue to provide fruitful experiences long after its genesis in 1967. It is a model that just might hold one answer to partisan politics that today threatens to eclipse artistic freedom in favor of conspicuous engagement.

Elizabeth Mangini teaches art history and theory at California College of the Arts and is writing her dissertation on Arte Povera at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.