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Arte Ricca

Alex Coles discovers untold riches in Arte Povera

There is a story told by a certain reputable contemporary Spanish artist, once an assistant to Mario Merz, that judiciously sums up Arte Povera’s relationship to its American counterparts. Given how Arte Povera continues to be overshadowed by American post-Minimalism, it assumes an air of importance.

Charming inflections aside, it goes something like this: while installing one of Merz’s igloos on the second leg of a touring exhibition said assistant came under heavy fire from Richard Serra who was installing nearby. By Serra’s account the reinstalled Merz was hopelessly inaccurate: glass sheets were wrongly placed and the clamps were all out of joint – enough to shrink Don Merz’s heart. Patiently, the assistant spent the rest of the day matching the igloo to the photo he had from its previous installation. Eventually it was perfect enough to keep even Serra at bay. But to the assistant’s horror one of the sheets of glass slipped and shattered all the others. Calling Merz to inquire what should be done, he was calmly told not to worry: because the igloos were outdoor habitats they were thus liable to the assaults of nature – a flash of lightning hit the glass and the inevitable happened. And anyway, upon each fresh installation the nomadic igloo was supposed to be reconfigured. Later that day Serra collared the assistant and the story was relayed. Serra was disgusted.

Something of the tenor of Arte Povera is bundled up in this little story. Clearly, the serial attitude pervaded throughout Serra’s generation of American sculptors: besides obvious examples like Donald Judd and Carl Andre the seemingly chaotic early works of the likes of John Chamberlain also count. Unfortunately, an unattractive muscularity comes as part of the parcel, especially when hefty materials are pressed into political action, most pertinently by Serra himself. Arte Povera on the other hand tends to use materials and assemblage techniques that avoid this. Even so, for every difference there is also a striking correspondence between the output of the two countries: think of how Eva Hesse’s sculptures and also Serra’s own live animal habitats find correspondence with a plethora of examples from Arte Povera. Nevertheless, on the final count, even when a sculpture by Serra is premised on the scatological (the antithesis of the serial) it seems to curtail chance in favour of firm conceptualism. The opposition also makes its way into the different categories of perception the respective works are predicated upon. Where the bulk of American art of the 60s relies on optical sensation (even Pop and Minimalism), Arte Povera proceeds through tactile associations. Not unusually, much of it explores nuances in tone and texture alone. Lamenting Arte Povera’s relinquishing of opticality would however be a spurious act. For in many cases it is more than compensated for by a fusillade of baroque flourishes, each in turn exploring the tactile dimension of their chosen materials. Regrettably, when exhibited in a modern art gallery these flourishes tend to appear out of context and so are embarrassed into silence. Imagine Marcello Mastroianni trying to flirt with Anita Ekberg while moseying around the pared-down sidewalks of a Sam Peckinpah film instead of the Roman piazzas and Rococo vistas of a Fellini and you come near.

The two main exhibitions of Arte Povera currently on display in London, at Tate Modern and at the Italian Cultural Institute, turn on the individual artwork’s relation to its architectural location; that is, on whether it is dissonant or delectable. The historically thorough exhibition at Tate Modern, containing some 140 works, replete with an erudite, lavishly designed catalogue, nimbly choreographs the viewer around a number of the Tate’s exhibition spaces. Surely in a nod to the flexible installation methods piloted by critic Germano Celant in the late 60s, each of these spaces is filled to the brim (by the same token, Jon Thompson’s timely Gravity and Grace from 1993 granted Celant a full bow). Catalogue essay strong-arming aside, this exhibition reveals that although Arte Povera was meant to kick against painting it is through its dialogue with the medium that some of the best early results were achieved. This is no surprise given that a number of the artists started out as painters. The exhibition begins with Alighiero e Boetti’s Nothing to See, Nothing to Hide, 1969, a large stretcher divided into modular window panes, the traditional function of painting alluded to in the title having ebbed. From here on many of the works enlist either readymade elements or the viewer to fill in Boetti’s empty stretcher frame. His own Mimetic, 1966, simply tacks a piece of cheap material around a stretcher. A second glance reveals that this material is adorned with a military camouflage patterning – a rather literal swipe at the 60s generation of American pattern painters and their flagrant lack of resistance towards the war in Vietnam. In Three Ways of Arranging Sheets, 1968, Luciano Fabro extends Boetti’s play with fabric, attaching white bed sheets, folded with matronly care, to the stretchers. The work elegantly obviates the need for the effects produced by paint and canvas, the bed sheet substituting for both in the one gesture. The tonal and textural differences explored by Fabro are set off through the shadows cast by the slightest of movements in the fabric: a puckering here as the sheet is pulled tight over the stretcher, a rippling there as the fabric tugs back. In places these movements are so emphatic as even to pronounce into a sculptural curl, effects worthy of a Bernini sculpture. Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Three Girls on a Balcony, 1962-64, an early mirror painting, fills much of its reflective expanse with three female figures, presently turning the viewer into the third party. Likewise, his Lunch Painting, 1965, from the series of ‘minus objects’ offers a platform to sit and eat from, now goading the viewer into becoming a performer, perched in profile. A further selection from this series, Furniture, 1965-66, extends the play on utility, delicately transforming two paintings and a number of stretchers into a coffee table.

Giulio Paolini’s output from the early 60s performs yet more conceptual somersaults with the medium of painting. Just one example: the earliest work in the exhibition, Untitled (Plakat Carton), 1962, fills a wooden stretcher frame with a series of square colour swatches, teasingly presenting the stuff of painting without actually serving it up. To follow, both Giovanni Anselmo’s black and white photograph, Entering the Work, 1971, and the light projector installation, Invisible, 1971, make a mockery of the contemporary hair-splitting debates taking place in the States converging around the notion of the presence of the viewer in painting and Minimalism respectively. In the former, the artist literally trundles through a modulated colour field; meanwhile, the latter is only completed when the viewer is turned into a projection screen as the word ‘visible’ comes into focus on their shirt. Throughout all such cases, conceptual premise is imminent to formal innovation. And contrary to received opinion, it is here where the political acuity of Arte Povera lies. So it is unfortunate that certain artists from the group find it necessary to solder conceptual premise crudely to material stuff. Too often, the viewer is suffocated by the overt symbolic connections that the artworks beg. By example, Jannis Kounellis serves horseshit on a platter. Quite literally too. And while his more successful Untitled (12 Horses), 1969, is not here there are instead a number of other contemporaneous examples, such as Untitled (Freedom or Death, Long Live Marat, Long Live Robespierre), 1969, all glutted with stodgy poeticism.

By comparison, the exhibition at the Italian Cultural Institute is sparse, filling only two spaces – the downstairs gallery and the first floor dining room. The catalogue consists of a series of postcards and a slender volume including a ‘hello’ from both the director and the curator. At moments, the exhibition reveals how certain artists remained within the parameters of a given idiom between the early 70s and the present. Upstairs, above a large table, there sits a vibrant Boetti map tapestry from somewhere near the middle period of their production, which started in 1971 and concluded in 1998. Flooded with light from the side by a large bay window, it tells quite a different tale about geographical borders to its formerly similar sister from the beginning of the series in Tate Modern’s exhibition. More of these maps would have been no bad thing. This is not true however of Piero Gilardi’s natural history scenes. His Interactive Installation, 1999, the most recent work in the exhibition, conjures forth an exasperating gasp from the viewer. Represented in the Tate by a handful of fake carpets of pebbles and leaves, here Gilardi has expanded his format only slightly, placing a series of rubber fossils on top of a red carpet. Starting off so-so in the 60s he obviously went where no artist before him had gone as the decades progressed. On other occasions, the exhibition reveals quite the contrary tendency. A case in point is Fabro. Up until the late 60s he pursued a dialogue with painting, in the late 70s extending the finesse of the early work with a series of feet sculptures, eight of which cram into one room at the Tate. But in the two subsequent decades, he altogether relinquished both the eloquence and humour that characterised his practice so far. Marisa Merz also transformed her practice, moving on from the playfulness of the aluminium ceiling sculptures from the mid 60s. Not that it is apparent from this exhibition: in a classic moment that would make most curators feel queasy, the present curator, Sauro Bocchi, has mounted a blurred postcard on the wall as surrogate for her as yet unobtainable Portrait of Henri 0, 1974, beneath it penning: ‘work to follow’. Somehow, though, it seems to fit. Here again the elasticity of Arte Povera comes through.

Everything experienced thus far fades in comparison to the installation in the dining room. Now the curating is pitch-perfect. Pistoletto’s roughly hewn Newspaper Sphere, 1996, sings in its grandiloquent setting; and although this is Belgrave Square and not exactly the Palazzo Farnese, it is as near as we’ll get. The browning newsprint torn from an Italian newspaper and then fashioned into a sphere keys the viewer into the dilapidated state of the current interior, as the gold leaf flakes away, the vases crack and the glass in the mirrors becomes speckled with time. Together these effects highlight the antinomy that has always underpinned Arte Povera: its poor opulence. And nowhere in the Tate does this come through as strongly as at the Italian Cultural Institute. But the Pistoletto still has a further role to perform: part of the dynamic of Newspaper Sphere is generated from the way it pulls us into the past – to be precise, right back to his Ball of Newspapers (Globe), 1966-68, on display at the Tate – while simultaneously catapulting us into its future, towards Arte Povera’s reception in contemporary practice. Think of Gabriel Orozco’s Yielding Stone from 1992 as being just the tip of the iceberg. The igloos of Mario Merz on display at the Tate perform in a similar fashion. By extreme comparison, the same thing certainly can’t be said of the arid sculptures of Richard Serra. Still they are installed in the most deadpan way possible. Each time, too.

Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972 is at Tate Modern, London from May 31 to August 19.

Beyond Infinity was at the Italian Cultural Institute from May 31 to July 6 2001.

Alex Coles is an art critic and Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at SIAD, Farnham.

First published in Art Monthly 248: Jul-Aug 2001.

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