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Arte Povera

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

(Phaidon Books)

The Pop Art movement has kept an overwhelming stranglehold on the generalist perspective of the 1960s art world, and its influence lasts today with images of anonymous mass culture gone global, with Andy Warhol memorabilia as pervasive as Beatles schwag. Yeah, yeah, I’m flattening the whole movement, but I’m using it as a segue. See, originally I was supposed to review a Phaidon book on Pop Art—ooh ooh, soup cans, rock! However, since Phaidon was suspiciously out of review copies, I had—I mean, got—to review their book on Arte Povera instead.


Since my sole undergraduate art history course completely passed over this mysterious movement called Arte Povera, I came to this book blind as a bat and only marginally interested, somewhat chagrined that I hadn’t gotten a free coffee table book on Pop Art that would mos def rack up my social status, if only people would visit. But this is beside the point. The point, the point, the point. The point is that rarely do we—and I’m speaking to likeminded generalists, not art-history experts—hear of the artists who responded to Pop Art. Rarely do we hear of the ways in which Pop Art was reacted against and critiqued.


The 13 artists identified here as the ‘definitive’ Arte Povera group did it through a merging of art and life. Appalled by the consumerist bent of Pop Art, but intrigued by its defiance of ‘high art’ conventions, these artists sought to relate art to nature by incorporating into their work natural processes like the Fibonacci sequence, gravity, and electricity. An Italy-based movement, Arte Povera, its label coined by critic Germano Celant in 1967, literally means “poor art.” Celant’s initial conception of Arte Povera saw it as anti-consumerist and interested in using a ‘poverty’ of actions and materials to explore the relationship between life and art. The movement had about three solid years, during which it became international (from 1968 to 1969) before it lost unity in the ‘70s as each individual artist split off in his or her own direction. Though the movement was reassessed in the ‘80s, Phaidon’s book marks the first comprehensive assessment of the movement.


With the beautifully designed Arte Povera, Phaidon once again makes art from documentation of art. This first extensive look at the movement is informative, exhaustive, and wonderful to look at. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s clear prose paired with the generous selection of images make for a textbook appealing to both the art-historically challenged and those verging on expertise. The book consists of a preface, a chronological survey, a collection of images from the major artists and a handful of peripheral artists, and a collection of relevant documents covering the group as a whole and each artist individually.


The tedious nature of that last section, Documents, is forgivable on the grounds it is geared towards art critics and art historians. Meanwhile, the heart of the book more than makes up for the overdetail in other parts. While Christov-Bakargiev’s introductory survey of the movement helpfully positions Arte Povera within its context and illuminates its influence with retrospect, this survey doesn’t dominate or make obsolete the artwork, which is given ample room in an uncluttered Works section.


From Giuseppe Penone’s self-portrait in mirrored lenses to Gilberto Zorio’s self-portrait in cow hide, the selected images are left to speak for themselves, with some help from descriptive, generally noncritical, text. The whole idea of “pairing life and art” seems vague and “like, duh” until you see it in action. Mario Merz’s obsession with the Fibonacci sequence, for example, is applied to a series of photographs of 1, 1, 2, 3… men eating in a cafeteria. Giovannie Anselmo’s “Respiro” consists of a sea sponge held between two iron bars. As temperature rises, the iron expands to squeeze the air from the sponge; conversely, when the temperature drops, the sponge re-absorbs the air. Throughout this long-winded process, the piece is reacting to and changing with the environment, and the sponge appears to be breathing. Other compelling examples of Arte Povera works include Jannis Kounellis’ “Senza titolo [12 Horses]”, in which Kounellis arranged twelve live horses of various breeds around the gallery walls, and Marisa Merz’s use of hanging tubes made from thin strips of aluminum.


All of these works get the necessary space here: The layout is stylish without overwhelming the work it presents. Phaidon has a long history of putting out beautifully designed books to compliment the art upon which they comment, and Arte Povera is no different—pretty enough to hook the casually interested, and fascinating enough to keep them involved.

Megan Milks is currently working on a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has had critical work published on Venuszine.com, Lost Magazine, Grapevineculture.com, and Sparknotes; her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Pocket Myths, Forge, and Wreckage of Reason, an anthology of experimental women writers. Like once a year, if that, she publishes a magazine called Mildred Pierce, which more people should know about.


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