Halifax and Oxford, UK

Michelangelo Pistoletto

Museum of Modern Art Oxford / Henry Moore Foundation Studio

Did arte povera really exist? So asked critic and curator Dan Cameron in a bold 1992 article. Was it a bona fide, intellectually and aesthetically cogent “movement” (whatever that might be)—or was it a very successful critical ploy to bruit the talents of some loosely related Italians with a conceptual or post-Minimal bent, on a world stage largely dominated by US stars? Last fall, the UK’s Italian Festival 1999 showcased work by arte poveristi Alighiero e Boetti at the Whitechapel (see Schwabsky, p. 115) and Michelangelo Pistoletto in Oxford and Halifax, plus Mimmo Paladino at the South London Gallery and Lucio Fontana at the Hayward (see Shone, p. 113)—reminding UK audiences of the Italian neo–avant-garde’s fascinations, and breathing air into questions like those above.

At least on the basis of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s volume Arte Povera (Phaidon, 1999), it seems fair to summarize arte povera’s primary texts as more partisan celebration than hard-nosed staking out of analytical ground. There’s a wealth of striking phrases and vivid imagery, but also a great many vague, global assertions and a troublesome glossing over of big contradictions. For instance: How can the acknowledgment of art’s historical determination—“Freedom is an empty word. The artist is tied to history” (Germano Celant, 1967)—be squared with the insistence on arte povera’s individualistic severance from the social domain: “a 'poor’ inquiry ... does not dialogue with the system of society or with that of culture… the artist rejects all labels and identifies solely with himself” (Celant, ibid.)?

If arte povera’s critical side possesses a certain mobility, Boetti’s and Pistoletto’s UK shows diverged considerably in terms of style and media, but shared a basic concern with spontaneity, improvisation, celebratory effect, and decoration over tough-nut conceptual or institutional inquiry. That description could stretch to cover this fall’s neo–avant-garde lineup generally (even, in a sense, Fontana, whose “theoretical” White Manifesto of 1946, with its modern rhetoric of progressivist synthesis, sits oddly with his triumphantly kitsch, boldly regressive practice). So, a heretical speculation: Was arte povera a case of “neo–avant-garde–Lite”? A “poetic” post-Minimalism well able to calm that still-active syndrome, Great British Anti-Intellectualism, the work of Boetti and Pistoletto (Fontana too), in offering playful spontaneity, gay colors, and “craft values” where conceptual dehydration was fearfully anticipated, was met with enthusiasm. For some writers, the Italians’ works formed a handy stick to beat the likes of On Kawara, Dennis Oppenheim, and Carl Andre (never really forgiven, over here, for making Equivalent VIII—in 1966); they also served as venerable ancestors for leading contemporary Brits—Fontana’s lavish emeralds and pinks sanctioning Gary Hume’s, and Pistoletto’s mirror-bottomed upside-down furniture, Rachel Whiteread’s play with volume and void.

“Immediately after the Mirror Pictures [1962-73] I multiplied works and styles as if I were twenty different artists at the same time,” Pistoletto stated in 1994; but Michael Tarantino’s skillfully curated Oxford show proves that Pistoletto was a hybrid creature long before he abandoned making the “Mirror Pictures.” Consisting of tissue paper or silk-screened images mounted on reflective surfaces, these works tease away at painting’s mimetic function, its calling-into-being of the spectator and the public nature of gallery viewing: In some, single figures or groups turn away from the viewer, shutting us out of the work, but apparently scrutinizing our reflection; in one, an unclimbable spiral stair corkscrews in and out of its reflective support; in another, a predatory dog eyes up gallery-goers’ ankles. A small but vital point: These works are not made from your standard bathroom-type glass-and-metal sandwich, but polished steel—a subtly distinctive medium. Darker than a regular mirror and bearing kinks, bumps, and myriad tiny scratches, the steel mines the tension between solid support and elusive reflection more radically than Pistoletto’s other (glazed) mirror works. These, to greater or lesser degrees, seemed hung up on the mirror for its own sake, ringing changes with facile elegance alone. Take the mirror-bottomed Cinque Pozzi (Five wells; 1965-66), for example. Why make five rather than one? Why color their fiberglass sides with pretty shades of yellow and green? Pistoletto’s Halifax display, exceptionally, took a measure of flak, maybe because it too seemed a formulaic exercise—this time, more reliant on perspiration than inspiration. Pistoletto’s “segno arte,” his farfalle-shaped “art sign,” served as ground plan for a maze of interconnected wire-mesh chambers; into these were fitted colorful, smartly finished, bow tie–shaped fabrications of everyday objects (a Ping-Pong table, a desk, twin beds, doors). The bow-tie shape rendered both “rooms” and objects gawky and perversely non-ergonomic—dystopic, even. Contrary to arte povera’s tenet of reducing the art-life opposition, the installation seemed to mark that divide as a howling gulf. Also on display were visitors’ own “segno arte” designs (the best one: a very small penguin, drawn, I’m sure, by a very small visitor); video recordings of Pistoletto Foundation performances; and information on Pistoletto’s Biella-based “University of Ideas,” founded last year to foster utopian, interdisciplinary forms of creativity. UNIDEE’S mission statement proposes the integration of all human activity (“economics, politics, science, religion, education, behavior”) as the artist’s prerogative. Gulp Pistoletto’s may be an intriguing, variegated, and attractive practice, but (as they say) I wouldn’t want him running my local hospital.

Rachel Withers is a frequent contributor to Artforum.