"Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972"

By Crow, Thomas | Artforum International, September 2001 | Go to article overview

"Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972"


Crow, Thomas, Artforum International


TATE MODERN, LONDON

"Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972," an overdue museum survey devoted to the Italian art phenomenon of the 1960s, attains its full contemporary significance via its transcontinental bounce from Minneapolis to London. Conceived by Richard Flood at the Walker Art Center, the exhibition was cocurated by Francis Morris of Tate Modern, where it first appeared. The great brick pile of the Bankside power station makes an entirely appropriate setting for the show's debut, as it underscores the degree to which we have come to live in an arte povera world.

The origins of that world extend back to that mid-'60s moment of mutual recognition among a group of impatient young Italian artists, almost all sculptors of one kind or another, which in turn coincided with the arrival of a new kind of exhibiting space and a new kind of energetic art entrepreneur. In 1967, Gian Enzo Sperone, a gallery owner of the same generation as his artists, expanded his quarters in Turin into an expansive industrial space, one that possessed none of the jewel-box virtues normally associated with the discreet commerce in the fine arts. By the end of the following year, both Fabio Sargentini in Rome and Italian expatriate Leo Castelli in New York had appropriated large spaces previously given over to functions as far removed as possible from the aesthetic: Sargentini's Galleria L'Attico took over an underground parking garage and debuted with Jannis Kounellis's untitled installation of twelve stately horses stabled for three days around the perimeter of a facility built to serve the mean s of transport that replaced them; while Castelli secured the fringe-Manhattan warehouse where Robert Morris assembled his "anti-form" generation of American sculptors at the end of 1968.

By those gestures, the improvised physical spaces of the artist's studio, carved from the underused precincts of business and manufacture, became the preferred venue for the spectator's encounter with contemporary art. A private space, heretofore reserved for the rigors of work and the intimate company of friends, had gone public. Of the countless galleries and museums recently converted from obsolete structures, often with old fixtures and fittings left intact as tangible remembrances of the past, Bankside's transformation is only the most prominent. At the new Tate, the ceiling hoist that runs the length of the enormous Turbine Hall will always test the formal strength and integrity of any sculpture placed beneath it (thus far they have all been found wanting).

So, it makes sense to return to Italy in the '60s to take stock of the tendency in sculpture that seems to be most diagnostic of the ambience we now find so natural for advanced art. There was, however, a more delicate and reflective side to this body of work, and indeed this is how the Tate installation chose to lead the viewer into it. Dominating the first galleries were several physically slight but visually arresting "tautological" sculptures realized by Luciano Fabro between 1964 and 1967, a kind of geometric drawing suspended in air by means of thin, extruded aluminum, less illustrating than managing to be such basic spatial entities as a wheel, a cross, a pole, and so on. Next in line was Giulio Paolini's reticent, philosophical investigations of the matter of painting as a medium: its support and its palette. Flood and Morris provided an extensive sampling of this lesser-known work, which easily stands comparison with (and reproaches to a degree) the more flamboyant exercises in this vein by jasper J ohns before and Gerhard Richter after.

The show then turned a kind of corner with the abrupt appearance of Pino Pascali's Un metro cubo di terra (One cubic meter of earth), 1967, a dark, compressed mass answering precisely to the description in its title, threateningly suspended from the wall by an invisible support well above the spectator's head. After that came the heavier artillery--literally so in the case of that same artist's Le Armi (Weaponry), 1965, mock ordnance such as cannons and machine guns cobbled together from bits of scrap metal into brutally convincing likenesses of the real things. …

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