The Arte Povera movement, a few of whose members are still alive and working (major artists such as Jannis Kounellis and Mario Merz are gone), summed up the Sixties and Seventies position of revolt and anti-materialism. The group, mostly men with the outstanding exception of Marisa Merz, the wife of Mario Merz, pursued an art made of rough, often inexpensive or natural materials. The “poverty” of these materials was meant to confront the rising materialism of Italy’s new economy, having become miraculously affluent after its losses at the end of the Second World War. Mario Merz was a communist and drove a truck following his country’s defeat, and his art–glass igloos held together with clamps and embellished with numbers in neon belonging to the Fibonacci sequence–emphasized a certain lyricism that can be seen as a protest against the money-hungry mindset of a newer, richer generation. Much of the work posited an elegiac difference between the optimism of a buoyant economy and the older, more contained social exchanges that characterized Italy’s modernism before the war’s start. By most accounts, the major figure was the late sculptor Kounellis, originally from Greece, whose metal shelves, small heaps of coffee on balances, and model locomotives circling steel beams in abandoned factories made use of industrial, but useless artifacts as a counterweight to the superficial lives engendered by the new Italian lifestyle..
Kounellis’s work is melancholic, often quite literally dark in hue. Other artists, such as Giuseppe Penone, worked with unusual versions of trees, whose appearance was often made both strange and compelling by the artist’s willingness to work up mixtures of abstraction and naturalistic realism. The works of the artists belonging to Arte Povera cannot be marshalled under a single umbrella of style; however, they all belong to a certain idealism, based at least to some extent on traditional culture, in ways that repudiate the superficiality of contemporary life. Minimalism, which Arte Povera rejected, celebrates the industrial culture that has made America so powerful; indeed, while most of the artists practicing minimalism were politically committed to left-wing causes, including of course strong opposition to America’s incursions into Vietnam, their art demonstrates no specific condemnation of the war. Arte Povera’s extraordinary metaphorical transmutations of materials into works of real lyricism similarly rejects an openly oppositional politics for a poetic insight into sculpture–a genre notoriously hard to sell in a commercial sense! But the quality of poetic emphasis makes more sense as a position against the social troubles that accompany capital economies–Donald Judd’s work, for example, was not made by the artist himself, while the artists associated with Arte Povera feel very much like they took pride in their craft.
However we interpret the decisions made by the Arte Povera members, it is more than clear that their work presents a counterpoint to social hierarchies engendered by wealth. This cannot be proven directly; like so much contemporary art, the implications are intuitive and impossible to rationally explain. Yet lyricism itself, because of its inherent aura as a quality unable to survive within commerce, and given its utopian nature, its consequent inability to be sold as an object, may occupy the center of Arte Povera thinking, which consistently, if not openly, confronted the problem of materialism. This assertion can be argued about, given the fact that the opposition is conceptual and atmospheric rather than existing on a physical plane in which such resistance can be quantified or even described. Now that the Arte Povera movement is seen more or less historically, its moment survives in museum shows or large gallery exhibitions. Ironically, the work of a movement devoted to a voluntary poverty of materials is worth exorbitant amounts of money. A fairly recent show of its art was exhibited in a former bank in New York City on upper Madison Avenue–a neighborhood known for its wealth, not for its radical activities. Like so much of art made since the beginnings of modernism a bit more than a century ago, the impulse of change and revolt has been brought into the fold, economically speaking, by the cost of buying such art. Certainly, the Arte Povera artists imagined no such change when they made the work they did–their rhetoric was harsh, more or less revolutionary. But today we have unusual support for the scholarly exploration of a movement whose absolutism would have surely been intended, at the time, to repudiate a sympathetic reading of the drive toward luxury. But now the scholarly treatment of new art is well established. Francesco Guzzetti, the curator of the show reviewed here at New Paltz University’s Samuel Dorsky Museum, is Scholar-in-Residence for the Magazzino Italian Art Foundation, which supplied the works on paper on exhibit. Guzzetti’s position in regard to the Arte Povera materials is scholarly in a traditional sense–he has a doctorate in the field from an Italian university, as well as having spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard studying Italian art from the 1960s and ‘70s.
Increasingly, scholarly study of art has moved toward the regard of contemporary movements, which some more conservative scholars might feel is a contradiction in terms. Does it make sense to apply historical methodologies to art less than one hundred years old? This is certainly an accepted practice now, but that does not mean it works, since the historically based investigatory methods lend themselves to exploring contexts established by time, a way of working not possible for art made in the last three generations. There is something deeply troubling about the exploration of contemporary culture as if it were going to last for centuries. This is simply untrue for most art today; indeed, it was never true even for the great movements in art like the Renaissance; many minor artists existed whose work is barely considered now. The Magazzino Italian Art Foundation has been established with private money, not public funds. As a result, its work is oriented toward a way of seeing that privatizes Arte Povera, certainly one of the most public-minded movements we can think of in recent years. I can’t think of work with a higher intention than the efforts produced by Arte Povera artists, who wanted to establish a more historical, less commercially influenced way of making art. But the traditional intellectual support structure, the high journalism and art-journal criticism that explained and explored new art, is gone. What we have instead are the blogs, whose readership is small and insufficiently powerful to make a difference in the way both the art world and the general public see art. The situation borders on the tragic, in the sense that contemporary art has always been indirect, given to suggestion rather than confrontation regarding the social and visual constraints hemming in progression in art. And the current academic/museum structure giving credibility to new art functions without critical regard. New art doesn’t fully make sense in a museum atmosphere, even should the Dorsky Museum provide Magazzino’s fine show with an institutional housing, we must regard, at least partially, the institution as a historical memorial to a once-vibrant way of making radical work.
This does not mean that we can dismiss the support system surrounding contemporary art; it is necessary in the face of indifference and hostility by the general public. But the results have become too in-grown to feel fully comfortable with. In “Paper Media: Boetti, Calzolari, Kounellis,” the work we come across does not represent the three artists at their most ambitious, but it does communicate the way they think in a fashion that might be harder to discern were the pieces masterworks of the movement. Instead, the artists use the modest medium of working on paper to present an ongoing dissatisfaction with social mores, as well as a continuing advance into visual areas that were in need of change. In Boetti’s case, the small work Senza titolo (invito Stein) (1966-67) is composed of eight different materials, lined up in two vertical roles. The materials used include paper, camouflage fabric, Plexiglas, cork. This small inventory of different kinds of substances is a way of negotiating Arte Povera’s nearly obsessive interest with differing kinds of matter. There is nothing precious among the substances I’ve listed, in keeping with the movement’s penchant for a modest architecture of art. Boetti often worked with the conceptual underpinnings of poor materials–some of his finest work is done with a ballpoint pen. This inventory of various stuffs may serve as a reminder of what can be worked with in art, no matter how humble its origins. In another work by Boetti, a mixed-media work on paper titled Mario Merz (1987), Boetti has painted his fellow artist’s name in multiple colors in three rows, with the name spelled out vertically from one row to the next, beginning on the left. It is a homage to a major artist by a gifted one, in a visual language that is beautifully hued and able to be read as two words,
Calzolari’s 1968 piece, Senzo titolo, consists of a spiral of rock salt circling on top of a piece of painted cardboard. It is a beautiful, schematic image, created with the simplest of means. It is important to remember the primacy of the artists’ use of impoverished materials–this is central to the tenets held by the movement practitioners. It precedes Robert Smithson spiral jetty, completed in April 1971, but the two works are not so far away from each other in meaning. Both enact a primary design as a recognition of the natural world–Calzolari, in his use of an extremely rough substance like rock salt; and Smithson, in his construction of an ancient form in the middle of an even older landscape. Given that Calzolari’s work is so roughly produced, it makes sense to see it in light of an art that rejects deliberate beauty in favor of a more committed search for a pattern that would challenge established esthetics. The other work by Calzolari to be discussed here, an untitled work from 1967, consists of two red, curved rods rising upward toward the right from what could be a mass of clouds in the lower left of the left diptych. A yellow mass toward the upper right of the compositions’s center acts as a background for the upper rod; the gestalt of the painting might be purely abstract or verging on the figurative, it is hard to tell. Calzolari’s informal, ephemeral presentations enact a resistance in the face of work that takes itself more seriously–and is intended to cost much more. His deliberate awkwardness in these two works suggests an impatience with anything finished, that is, finalized as a work of art. In a sense, much of the Arte Povera work has to do with the process of its making, so that some sort of awareness about the ongoing modification of a creative impulse becomes available to the audience. The easy transparency of the two works mentioned here might be considered glib, but they are not. Instead, they form a principled opposition to any formalism associated with hierarchy.
The untitled ink-on-paper work from 1980, done by Kounellis, consists of a field of faces, simply drawn, one head next to the other. One hesitates to write out anything seemingly definitive with Kounellis’s art, which tends to be transient and contingent in the moment. It is an image of an anonymous crowd, perhaps forming a link with Arte Povera’s own form of anonymity, in the sense that materials tend to dominate personal creativity. The 1960 drawing, called Segnali (Signs), consists of the number “33” in the upper left, to which is attached something like a dash. Beneath it are three hyphens, next to which are a multiplication sign and a plus sign. These symbols form a language with which one can communicate without words–another way of impoverishing the exchange of meaning and in so doing, enriching it as well by making technical difficulty a barrier to the signs’ comprehension. Kounellis was a very subtle symbolist as an artist, making work whose implications were felt as much as they were directly known. As a result, his art retains an atmospheric depth other kinds of art that are more easily understood do not. The beauty of these two drawings has at least as much to do with their implicit content as they do with their outward visual status. There is nothing wrong with this–indeed, the approach leads to unspoken intelligences we would not otherwise have. But it results in a narrower meaningfulness, in the sense that symbolism tends to read in a particular fashion, rather than being open to extended discussion of its depths. But no one I can think of in recent art history does this as well as Kounellis does.
To finish: the medium of works on paper is inherently limited, or modest. But the three artists in this show are of a major caliber. They have been able to take the limitations of their materials and turn it into work of genuine importance. This art, like most contemporary art, does not effectively relate to work before modernism. But it does envision an equivalence between, by implication, between the modesty of the materials and the wish of the artist to adapt to a much broader, not necessarily art-educated, audience, than contemporary art has enjoyed. Whether this can actually be done is questionable, as the context of the artwork is distant from an easy understanding of its visual meaning. So it is left to an art audience rather than a general public, despite the radical, close to populist, leanings of the artists in this show. Unlike creative people in America, who have succumbed to literalism because of their need to develop a transparent politics in their work, the art of those participating in Arte Povera remains metaphorical in intent. But expression of thought or feeling via metaphor is inherently difficult. Now that, at least in America, the art-world populace has been growing by leaps and bounds, it is easy to forget that we are talking among ourselves. But that is the truth, and it is a melancholic one in the sense that, more than ever, art remains a prisoner of its own conceptual inventions. Intellectualizing art may be necessary as a way of pushing the imagination forward, but we lose many in our audience along the way. The wonderful thing about Arte Povera is its willingness to render its view with materials that belong to the commonplace, a decision with real political meaning. That such a motivation is inevitably distant from common culture as it was then and now is sad to the point of being tragic–in a small way. However wonderful the Arte Povera artists may be, and to this writer they are the most important art group worldwide in several decades, their achievements now are being experienced in the corners of a university museum, where academicism and over-reading take place on a regular basis. This is a shame, for as this small show makes clear, Arte Povera always understood the inherent impulse toward revolt in contemporary art.