Magazine article Art Monthly

Arte Povera 1968

Magazine article Art Monthly

Arte Povera 1968

Article excerpt

MAMbo Bologna 24 September to 26 December

'Nature', Alighiero Boetti remarked in the 1990s, 'is a blind, stubborn force that races for this fundamental purpose alone--life and existence.' At the height of Italy's economic miracle, in the mid 1960s, the artists grouped under the heading of Arte Povera (a core that settled at 13 individual practitioners by 1970) turned with outstanding mobility of means towards nature, the artisanal and the organic as a counter position to the perceived hastening proximity of visual art to science, rationality, mass-media and industrial production.

Although primarily reflecting the practices of artists based in Turin and Rome, the earliest exhibitions of the tendency labelled by the critic Germano Celant took place in neither of these cities. Both happened in commercial galleries, the first in September 1967 in Genoa and the second in Bologna, the city known as 'La Rossa' for its postwar political domination by the Communist Party. When, shortly before that show opened in late February 1968, Celant developed his definition of Arte Povera with revolutionary terminology, the chosen venue must have seemed highly appropriate. With the Vietnam War polarising left and right, Celant expressed an insistence on ideological dissent and claimed that the artist 'now becomes a guerrilla warrior', erasing the separation of art and life and identifying solely with himself.

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In fact the birth of the brand established a long-lasting dilemma. Having purportedly set out to contest prevailing cultural, philosophical and political systems with stylistic inconsistency and the surprise tactics of the guerrilla, the first manifestations attributed to 'the free self-projection of human activity ... concerned with contingency, events, a historicism, the present' occurred in conventional bourgeois settings. And so it largely continued to blur into ambiguity the anti-establishment spontaneity that Celant had aspired towards (with two notable exceptions, the 'Deposito d'Arte Presente' in Turin in 1968, and the 'Arte Povera & Azioni Povere' exhibition in Amalfi in 1968-69). Now, 'Arte Povera 2011', a cycle of eight major exhibitions, confirms Arte Povera as a national institution.

The first instalment returns the limelight to Bologna and related shows quickly follow in mostly public museums in Turin and Milan, Bergamo, Rome, Naples and Bari. Thus the 'revolutionary way of existence [that] turns into the Reign of Terror' (in Celant's phrase) by the artists' 'rejection of any and all systems and of all codified expectations', has entered the new century with its historiography strengthened. This overview, with almost 250 works (including a new commission by Gilberto Zorio in Rome) co-curated by Celant and Gianfranco Maraniello, opened not with any significant anniversary in Arte Povera's evolution in mind (it is, after all, a cumbersome 44 years since its Genoa outing) but as Italy marks 150 years of national unity. Although the enterprise has attracted pitifully little state funding, the task of positioning Arte Povera as a cultural asset has advanced strongly, a process begun in the 1970s when the spearing, empirical and direct language with which the work itself proclaimed the plenitude of universal life stabilised, with varying degrees of pertinent articulation, into the personal traits of the surviving artists associated with it.

The dilemma highlights the essential ambiguity of Arte Povera as a 'movement' rather than the separate careers it came to encompass. As Tommaso Trini, the era's most perceptive observer, pointed out in 1969: 'Arte Povera is an artistic process that has managed to reject many attempts at definition.' Before effectively disbanding it in 1971 to pursue the 'permanent abolition of art' through action, Celant's own assessment of Arte Povera as a cohesive expression passed through distinct phases in search of a credible reading: as militant 'guerrilla war' in 1967; through a conceptual definition exemplified by Emilio Prini and Giulio Paolini; to acceptance of the 'concrete singularity of the objectual body'. …

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