PRINT November 2017



View of “Margherita Stein: Rebel with a Cause,” 2017, Magazzino Italian Art, Cold Spring, NY. Floor, from left: Giulio Paolini, Saffo, 1981; Alighiero Boetti, Mazzo di tubi (Bundle of Tubes), 1966. Wall: Alighiero Boetti, Clino, 1966. Photo: Marco Anelli.

IN COLD SPRING, New York, just a few stops before Dia:Beacon on Metro-North’s Hudson Line and across the river from Storm King Art Center, sits a new museum: Magazzino Italian Art. Its founders—Nancy Olnick, a New York City native, and Giorgio Spanu, from Sardinia by way of Paris—plainly envisioned the space as an additional destination along an already distinguished art corridor. Well before it opened its doors, Magazzino was expected to fill a pedagogical gap: the lack of a wide audience familiar with postwar and contemporary Italian art. Despite the relative prominence of Arte Povera as one of Italy’s chief aesthetic exports from the past century’s latter half—work by its exponents can be found in most of the world’s preeminent museums—its outlines remain vague even for a museum-going public.

Olnick and Spanu have amassed one of the world’s premier collections of postwar Italian art, with an emphasis on Arte Povera. As its name would suggest, this loose coalition of artists—led by the eminent critic Germano Celant—embraced “poor” materials in defiance of the industrialized pleasures of Italy’s postwar boom. Magazzino means “warehouse” in Italian, and the building began, in fact, as a farmer’s storehouse before being transformed and expanded by the Spanish architect Miguel Quismondo. The name also conjures Arte Povera’s beginnings in unofficial, workaday spaces, such as Turin’s Deposito d’Arte Presente (Warehouse for Present-Day Art), which served as an alternative exhibition space for several poveristi, as the movement’s practitioners are known. A site of spontaneous exchanges as much as an exhibition space, the deposito prefigured Arte Povera’s emphasis on phenomenological experience. Its spartan architecture (the space had formerly been a car showroom) seemed to foster chance encounters between objects rather than merely to display works. Yet Magazzino’s scrupulously mounted installations recall little of the Deposito’s ad hoc congress. With a whiff of Renzo Piano’s late-modernist geometry, Quismondo’s twenty-thousand-square-foot structure allows for different works to coalesce in striking clusters, elegantly situated, with plenty of breathing room, while lending a degree of pace and momentum to the overall hanging.

The poise and symmetry of some framings—whether of Giulio Paolini’s Mimesi (Mimesis), 1976–88, set before a window, or Mario Merz’s improvised igloo, From Continent to Continent, 1993, arranged before two untitled panels by Jannis Kounellis from 2001 and 1986, respectively—occasionally risk stripping some of the works of their sense of contingency. This hazard, however, is inherent in any museological enshrinement of art objects, and some of the architectural detailing—for example, exposed metal rafters—helps to offset the galleries’ polish. Certainly, the unusually wide range of practices that informed Arte Povera means that it benefits greatly from collective display, afforded here in spades.

In any event, the architecture’s flair seems well suited to Magazzino’s goal of featuring a younger slate of artists whose work builds on aspects of Arte Povera. Indeed, part of the space will be given over to temporary exhibitions on a rotating basis. The building will be part study center, too, with a library housing more than five thousand volumes open to scholars and the public.

As lifelong collectors, Olnick and Spanu have chosen to inaugurate their museum with an homage to another notable patron. Magazzino’s debut exhibition, “Margherita Stein: Rebel with a Cause,” is dedicated to the eponymous champion of Arte Povera, whose Galleria Christian Stein, founded in Turin in 1966, offered early shows to Alighiero Boetti, Lucio Fontana, Kounellis, and many others. The installation eschews a chronological overview—an appropriate choice, given that Arte Povera was an often-slippery phenomenon with both a lengthy prehistory and a protracted afterlife, exceeding any strictly confined dates or formal imperatives. A large number of the works on display date not to the movement’s brief apogee (roughly 1967 to 1972), but rather to the late 1970s, ’80s, and even to the past few years. Several pieces convey the range of Arte Povera’s engagements with brute materiality and phenomenological experience: Among these are Mario Merz’s Che fare? (What Is to Be Done?), 1968–73; Luciano Fabro’s Marmo colaticcio e seta naturale (Piede) (Marble Slurry and Natural Silk [Foot]), 1968–70; Giovanni Anselmo’s Direzione (Direction), 1967–78; and Pier Paolo Calzolari’s Rapsodie inepte (Inept Rhapsody), 1969. The last’s use of neon and ice (by way of a freezer unit) contrasts sharply with Merz’s Che fare?, wrought from neon tubing plunged into wax, into which it melts and sinks further. In each instance the mutability of substances dictates the work as much as does its initial composition, representing a favoring of nature over culture, of still-raw materials over aesthetic finish.

Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Sfera di giornali (Newspaper Sphere), 1966–96—a compact globe of newspapers rolled repeatedly over city streets—stands as one of the more iconic objects of a frequently-iconoclastic movement. Though it was begun before the group’s official formation, the sphere became a paradigmatic Arte Povera experiment: It is an artwork whose very existence is as contingent on action as on mere objecthood. The piece’s dates, too, reflect a temporal and spatial dilation irreducible to a gallery setting. While Magazzino’s mission statement identifies Arte Povera as the “last avant-garde movement of the twentieth century,” this is not quite right. Celant and his affiliates envisioned interventions that would defy the forward-marching logic of the avant-garde, refusing the clockwork of both the art market and of the “miraculous” Italian economy for which it stood as a proxy. Reaching back to atavistic and primitivist tendencies, Arte Povera eschewed modernist imperatives in order to recuperate outmoded ways of engaging with the world and its raw, brute textures: sensorially rather than intellectually.

No wonder, then, that Arte Povera is in the air these days. Its multifarious legacies—invocations of non-Western cultural histories as alternatives to late capitalism; explorations of ecological structures and natural substances; the notion that proverbial poverty is the antidote to our infelicitous exploitation of wealth—seem all too relevant in the present, when the relentless pursuit of progress seems to have left us sliding back toward the past.

“Margherita Stein: Rebel with a Cause” is on view through 2018.

Ara H. Merjian is associate professor of Italian studies and an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and department of art history at New York University.