Magazine article Artforum International

Parallel Revolution: Elizabeth Mangini on Arte Povera

Magazine article Artforum International

Parallel Revolution: Elizabeth Mangini on Arte Povera

Article excerpt

FORTY YEARS AGO this month, the critic and curator Germano Celant thrust arte povera upon the international scene. Amid tumultuous demonstrations at Italian universities that, like many other movements circa 1968, were aimed at institutional structures that preserved the stratifications of class, the twenty-seven-year-old Celant asserted that Italian artists were confronting their own social and cultural patrimony. Using the Utopian rhetoric typical of twentieth-century avant-gardes, he wrote of a desire to escape the bounds of a social system that rewards conformity and limits experience, and argued, in stridently Marxist terms, that this system forces artists into producing bourgeois objects for an art market that requires the stability of the assembly line. Arte povera, Celant declared, was different--it was a truly revolutionary art that rejected the market's pressure to conform by rejecting the very language of art. Instead of continuing to use a highly developed, or "rich," system of representation that artists had been refining since at least the early Renaissance, arte povera foregrounded the experience of the thing itself, infinitely variable and free of formal or material conventions. For Celant, these "poor" inquiries were not so much a unified movement as a polysemous collection of individual actions and improvised episodes in an artistic guerrilla war.

Printed in the pages of Flash Art in November 1967, Celant's "Arte povera: Appunti per una guerriglia" (Arte Povera: Notes for a Guerrilla War) is considered by many to be a manifesto (albeit an ersatz one, in the sense that it was not written by the participants themselves) for a loose association that came to include such artists as Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Marisa Merz, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Gilberto Zorio. On the surface, the text appears to be business as usual for an avant-garde declaration: an exhortation to direct political engagement. Celant's use of militant language--his evocation of artists taking to the "battlefield" and of "revolutionary existence"--is no surprise, since his essay appeared in print during the contemporaneous student and labor movements' largest demonstrations in Turin and Milan. The sentiments also echo the approaches of these movements: spontaneous sit-ins, interruptions of lectures, and marches under any number of banners, including some that read WAR NO, GUERRILLA ACTION YES. By describing the artists' tactics in similar terms, Celant aimed to position arte povera as parallel to libertarian politics.

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Forty years later, however, arte povera is rarely discussed in such political terms. In terms of visual culture, most people associate the political movements of 1968 with the Situationist International's activities--particularly its production of pamphlets, agitprop banners, and other printed matter--in France. By comparison, the radical language Celant applied to arte povera may take readers aback, since most accounts, especially those written in English, have considered these Italian artists' works solely in terms of materials and processes. While a few recent publications--like the essays by Richard Flood, Frances Morris, Robert Lumley, and Karen Pinkus in the catalogue of the 2001 exhibition "Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972," co-organized by the Walker Art Center and Tate Modern, or the overview Arte Povera (1999), edited and illuminatingly introduced by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev--have begun to consider arte povera in a broader social context, the field is still plagued by the idea that its artists were primarily enamored of low, or literally "poor," materials, and by the argument that arte povera's antitechnological bent is a misinterpretation of American Minimalism. Given the apparent distance between Celant's formulations and those of later historians, we are left to wonder where to locate this work. …

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