New York

“The Knot: Arte Povera”

MoMA PS1

“The Knot: Arte Povera” was the latest in P.S. l’s admirable series of exhibitions exploring recent historical “isms” and regional European art, this time tying both strands together. Arte povera not only originated in Italy, it is post-Minimal, and so a logical successor to their preceding review of ’60s abstraction. At the time the term “post-Minimal” was introduced, in the late ’60s, it was defined as a continuation of the Minimal esthetic—nonart materials with a reductive bias—but with a new allegiance to complexity and an abandonment of clean high-tech materials for more visceral ones: rubber, latex, treated cloth, and rope coexisted with rocks and branches. This esthetic is one of the “knots” (to borrow curator Germano Celant’s metaphor) that ties this in some ways diverse work together. Most of the installations in this exhibition relied on a taste, with which the audiences of the ’70s had been inculcated, for the slight gesture, the aperçu. They were certainly spare, but spareness is the surest guarantee of elegance. Few attacked any esthetic notions of beauty, only notions of the worth, permanence, and seriousness of art. As a result, should the shared taste on which they rely be corrupted, the works will have achieved the ambiguous distinction of growing invisible—like a piece of classic clothing that looks neither period nor current—rather than becoming white elephants requiring expensive storage.

This invisibility and slightness is all quite intentional, of course: “knot art” aims to be not-art. In this exhibition an iconography of transparency dominated: mirrors; glass; Luciano Fabro’s crystal body parts in clear bowls. In removing the figure from art while simultaneously retaining it—by presenting the parts as ice sculpture that would melt away to nothing in the mouth (art feeding on itself)—Fabro correlated the corporeal and the ephemeral (or in hiswords “body” and “idea”). On the whole, the works in the show were as provisional, and precarious: Gilberto Zorio’s airborne canoe, one of its suspension supports slowly disintegrating in a bowl of acid; Giovanni Anselmo’s tensive rocks, kept by slim wires from slipping or falling to the floor. These constructions were tenuous because they were linear, rather than massive, sculpture; even in the rare case of a sculpture emphatically nonlinear—such as Marisa Merz’s incipient heads modeled in clay—it was fleeting, only half present. Celant makes this quality of self-abjuration quite clear: “How can we affirm an artistic procedure based not on linearity and stasis of forms and images, but rather on their contortion and distortion, on their fragmentariness and multiplicity . . . ? How can we make art in such a way that the visual flux is neither homogeneous or recognizable . . . These artists have a . . . passion for . . . vagabondage.”

The fervor with which Celant defends this work against the frivolous neo-Expressionist Italian art now in ascendency reminds one of the Fraticelli, the 12th-century missionaries who turned a passion for poverty into a passion for the sensual and were subsequently attacked by the very orders that had originally promoted the idea of holy beggary. For, as Celant points out, what cleared the way for the resurgence of painting was the opening up of infinite possibilities by arte povera. He does not mention the sensuousness of the diversiform materials, which could so easily (and did) turn libertine when employed by a succeeding generation. Someone like Michelangelo Pistoletto, with his art of squalor, has gone beyond his peers into that paradoxical realm of Fraticellian excess, of filthy purity. (One sees his scatalogical rhetoric, his naughty-knotty art, picked up in Francesco Clemente’s visual scatology.)

Arte povera is notoriously knotty (as most European conceptual art is for Americans) in its elliptical bent. It demands negative capability, a virtual embracing of doubt and irresolution. Indeterminacy also ensures elegance, but for it to be more than an impressive smokescreen there has to be a glimmer of coherence: in works with a conceptual component, specificity is all. Whereas some of the works were successfully determinate (Giulio Paolini’s groupings of classical statuary; Pistoletto’s mirrors, rags, and mica), others were too vague to remain anything but obscure. The seeming irreconciliation of the diverse forms taken by arte povera and presented in this exhibition proved the aptness of Celant’s metaphor: it is a fascinating knot.

Jeanne Silverthorne