PRINT May 2012


Arte Povera in Naples

View of “Arte Povera più azioni povere 1968” (Poor Art Plus Poor Actions 1968), 2011–12, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina, Naples. From left: Giuseppe Penone, Soffio di creta (Breath of Clay), 1978; Pino Pascali, Bachi da setola (Bristle Worms), 1968; Mario Merz, Lance (Spears), 1966. Photo: Nicola Baraglia.

CAN A HISTORICAL EXHIBITION of Arte Povera, which necessarily reframes as sculptures works that were once performative and ephemeral, provide something new to contemporary viewers and still honor the unrepeatability of the first experiment? One answer was posed by “Arte Povera più azioni povere 1968” (Poor Art Plus Poor Actions 1968) at the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina (MADRE) in Naples this past winter. (The exhibition was part of “Arte Povera 2011,” a nationwide celebration coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Italian unification.) Curated by Eduardo Cicelyn and Arte Povera’s instigator, Germano Celant, the show directly appropriated the title of one of Arte Povera’s founding events: a three-day festival held in the southern Italian seaside town of Amalfi in 1968. The danger here, of course, is that attempting to reconstruct a historical event is like excavating an artifact—inevitably removing the object of study from the ground that provides its contextual meaning. Yet the MADRE show, which was touted as being “inspired” by Amalfi, delivered on re-creating a sense of witnessing something remarkable. It managed to move beyond hagiography to powerfully suggest what it might have been like to see these works for the first time.

Among scholars of Arte Povera, the Amalfi weekend is legendary. Funded by collector Marcello Rumma in an effort to bring contemporary art to southern Italy and curated by Celant, the ambitious project comprised objects, actions, and debates, all convened in a medieval arsenal. Many of the invited artists arrived with works in the trunks of their cars or improvised with what they found on-site, contributing to an atmosphere of ludic spontaneity. Although Celant’s theory of Arte Povera as an art freed of transcendent meaning and stylistic categorization had originally been applied primarily to Italian artists, here he also invited artists from the Netherlands and England. Amalfi marked the entry of the Italian artists into international conversations and signaled the emergence of a new generational phenomenon in Europe.

The archival photographs from Amalfi evoke nostalgia for a typically postwar, utopian model of art as participatory and emancipatory: Richard Long greeting Amalfitans on the docks, Emilio Prini and Ger van Elk playing soccer among sculptures, Michelangelo Pistoletto’s troubadours drawing crowds of children, Mario Merz cooking a pot of beans next to Gilberto Zorio’s giant bowl of fluorescent liquid. And yet already in 1968, Amalfi participant Piero Gilardi was warning that museums would soon try to take control over such open and experimental practices; he noted that “the physical nearness and the brief moments of individual identification and emotional understanding that distinguished Amalfi will be difficult to repeat.” The question is, How could such magic be conjured nearly forty-five years later, and could it be done without destroying the artifact itself?

To start, one must admit that Amalfi is ontologically unrepeatable. The artists in the original event are no longer young and no longer unknown. The works, brand-new in 1968, are now part of the canon. These are things the curators can’t control. But they do have a hand in the premise of the show, the works exhibited, and the location. Though a few objects in Naples were first shown at Amalfi, the checklist as a whole bore slight resemblance to the original. Gone were the non-Italian artists, such as Long and Jan Dibbets, whose presence in Amalfi contributed to those “brief moments of emotional understanding” praised by Gilardi, as well as some native Italians previously included. Instead, one found those whom Celant later deemed the official core of Arte Povera, including two who did not participate in 1968 (Giuseppe Penone and Pier Paolo Calzolari). The show thus painted a neat picture of what Celant (and the market) came to think of as the social nexus of Arte Povera and didn’t allow us to challenge that view or glimpse the messier idea as it was in progress at the time.

The choice of location, however, was inspired. The best decision these curators made was to install the exhibition in the recently annexed deconsecrated church of Santa Maria Donna Regina Vecchia, instead of in the main MADRE galleries. The unorthodox site, lacking the climate control and infrastructure usually required for such museum-quality works, presented problems (indeed, after installing in the old church, one participating artist joked that the title should be “Arte Polvere,” or “Dusty Art”), but it returned to the objects a kind of rawness. In this, the Naples presentation succeeded in creating an atmosphere in which the rebellious attitude toward stylistic and material consistency that originally made Arte Povera so powerful was alive and well. This had nothing to do with lowly materials; rather, a poverty of representation turned responsibility back to the viewer. The vagaries of light, sounds, smells, and other sensory associations competed with and informed the way we read the material structures in front of us, emphasizing the moment of encounter.

The early-fourteenth-century church is separated from the rest of the MADRE complex by a long, narrow alley of broken cobblestones. Peeking through a massive wooden door located some hundred feet down the passageway, one spied Jannis Kounellis’s fire-breathing daisy, Senza titolo (Untitled), 1967, suspended in the gothic cloister’s marble colonnade. There was not a guard in sight, and this lone work, plus a little poster at the other end of the courtyard, were the only signals that this might be the right place. Inside, Pistoletto’s Tendi di lampadine (Lightbulb Curtain), 1967, blocked direct passage into the nave and framed a collection of objects that immediately struck one as being foreign to the site.

Critic Angelo Trimarco wrote in the 1968 catalogue that the art at Amalfi was precarious, vital, and unstable, and the same could be said of the Naples installation, even though many works themselves were familiar. The artworks appeared to be mosses or fungi that just cropped up among the peeling frescoes while the building was in disuse. Mario Merz’s beeswax and neon Sit-In, 1968, nestled up against a side wall, while in an aisle, a single white candle burned on Calzolari’s refrigerated table covered in frost (Senza titolo [Lasciare il posto] [Untitled (Leaving a Place)], 1967–70). Pino Pascali’s brightly colored bottle-brush worms (Bachi da setola [Bristle Worms], 1968) crawled on the defunct altar, and Giulio Paolini’s Saffo (Sappho), 1968, a life-size photographic reproduction of the Greek poetess’s sculptural likeness, languished impiously in the choir. Meanwhile, Marisa Merz’s knitted copper-and-nylon shoes (Scarpette [Little Shoes], 1968) quietly crept up a wall toward leaded-glass windows. Yet the feeling of instability extended beyond the individual artworks to encompass the exhibition itself.

View of “Arte Povera più azioni povere 1968” (Poor Art Plus Poor Actions 1968), 2011–12, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina, Naples. Photo: Nicola Baraglia.

That these objects landed together on the dusty floor of the old church seemed to be a happy accident, and an unsteady alliance between the setting and the artworks gave the show much of its charge. The burned wire cage of Zorio’s Il fuoco è passato (The Fire Passed Through), 1968, encircled a slender gothic column. Nearby, a door opened to a small, unlit chapel, where one could barely make out a fourteenth-century painted Crucifixion and Annunciation, in the then-current style of Giotto. A rustling in the dark alerted the viewer to the presence of Senza titolo (Untitled), 1969, by Kounellis, a low rectangular cage of rats that shared the chapel for the duration of the show. I couldn’t help but think of the reported tensions that arose between artists and critics during the Amalfi debates. The situational, performative, and reception-oriented art of Arte Povera was an affront to the idealist aesthetics that had ruled Italian criticism in the first half of the twentieth century.

The best Arte Povera works present situations, tensions, and structures; they catalyze phenomenological experiences. Objects such as these are meant not to communicate concrete messages but to foster encounters between viewers and objects that the artists only initiate. Here, for instance, Luciano Fabro’s first “Italie” sculpture, L’Italia rovesciata (Overturned Italy), 1968—an inverted silhouette of the country—hung over the nave. When first shown in Amalfi, it could have been read as a critique of the top-heavy nation, whose northern regions were inequitably swollen with money from postwar industrialization. In 1969, a poster bearing its image was censored in Milan. It is still shocking to encounter the work, and the current European economic crisis has engendered another image of Italy out of balance. In Naples, though, the work was seen against a frescoed ceiling with faded heraldry and fleurs-de-lis. In 2011, with the nation commemorating the sesquicentennial of its unifciation, the context lent fresh piquancy: The 1861 risorgimento came under the Piedmontese Victor Emmanuel II and abolished the local rule of the Neapolitan Bourbons, whose complex (and ultimately failed) history of strategic royal marriage is marked by the heraldry on the church ceiling. When this work is shown in a more typical museum setting, one focuses on what the artist may have intended—that is, one focuses on the very notion of the open work—rather than actually experiencing the possibilities the piece can enable.

The MADRE presentation stood out from the rest of the group of “Arte Povera 2011” shows as the one that let the works be “poor,” iconoclastic, and even a little dangerous. In pushing for a productive irreverence, the curators could have chosen a location in which the works looked so incongruous that they would exhibit only a deadening apathy. But here, with nearly all the objects in one room, each affected and strengthened the experience of others nearby, all crowding one another, accumulating some dust, and retaining some of their vital openness. By eschewing a precise reconstruction and reframing the works with significant restraint, the curators accomplished the paradoxical task of preserving flux. Each exhibition in the series had highlights, but this was the only one that had me walking away with a sense of what it must have been like to discover this art in 1968, to stumble on something half-buried in the dirt and try to make sense of it all with only the tools at hand. We can’t dig up the past again, but if we let go of those things we think are so important to a “correct” reconstruction, it may still be possible to experience the excitement of the hunt.

Elizabeth Mangini is an Assistant Professor of Visual Studies at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.