Hauser & Wirth is just temporarily renting the old Dia building on West 22nd Street in Manhattan while, a few feet over, its forthcoming permanent home rises into the Chelsea skies, but it’s settled into the place quite thoroughly. There’s a Roth Bar on the ground floor, faithfully recreated, because what’s a temporary gallery without an artwork-slash-tavern attached to it? And take the building’s steep stairs up three stories to the gallery space and behind a false wall are endless offices, with books to the ceiling, nooks created to form miniature conference rooms.
There, on Monday morning, sat Ingvild Goetz, who has one of the largest art collections of contemporary art in Germany, housed at her museum, the Sammlung Goetz in Munich. The Polish-born collector (who goes by Jeanny with friends) is not often in New York, but then again, neither is the work in the show that she organized for Hauser & Wirth: a comprehensive, museum-scale show of 150 works by Arte Povera’s key figures: Alighiero Boetti, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and many others. Most of the pieces are from her own holdings.
“It’s not going to travel anywhere, it’s too difficult to move them to New York,” she said, sitting the conference room in gold hoop earrings. And so the presentation at Hauser & Wirth’s pop-up, on view through October 28, will be the only opportunity to see her show.
Similar exhibitions drawing on the Goetz collection, also aiming to encompass the breadth of Arte Povera in all of its madcap glory, have been staged in Europe, most recently in 2013, when “Arte Povera. The Great Awakening: Boetti, Kounellis, Merz, Pistoletto from the Goetz Collection” was up at the Kunstmuseum Basel, but this is the first such undertaking in the States. While some visitors may have had the chance to visit Magazzino, the private museum in Cold Spring, New York, that opened in May and focuses on postwar Italian Art, Goetz think that this show can help introduce New Yorkers to a movement that is still not shown in great depth in most U.S. institutions.
“A lot of people in New York still don’t know much about Arte Povera,” she said at a talk at the gallery earlier this week. “That’s why it was so important to have the voices of the artists in the show too, to explain the work in their own way.” Printed quotations from them are sprinkled throughout the show.
She said that recent shows in New York investigating other under-recognized avant-garde moments—like “Gutai: Spendid Playground” at the Guggenheim in 2013 and “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s” at the Guggenheim in 2014—have made her confident that there’s an appetite for such work. It also happens to be the 50th anniversary of the start of the movement, and one that has deeply felt political undertones. It was, after all, art that was made in a period of political upheaval, as radical forces angled for power.
“I think it’s fair to say that it’s having a moment now,” Goetz said.
Perhaps more than any other single collector, Goetz has been responsible for burnishing the reputation of these Italian artists. When she first encountered the work in the 1970s, she was a dealer with a gallery in Zurich that she called Art in Progress, showing difficult work by process-based conceptualists. But by the 1980s, she had decided to give up the gallery model and spend her time cultivating her collection and narrowing its emphasis dramatically.
“I had pieces from different great artists, and now I thought I want to be a private collector, how can I do it?” she said. “I don’t want to just have a piece here, a piece there. So I sold everything and concentrated on the Arte Povera.”
It was 1984, and she sold her Agnes Martins, her Cy Twomblys, and instead began to scour the globe for Arte Povera works, visiting the artists along the way.
“The moment when I met them, I also included them in my collection,” she said.
She’s very hands-on when planning exhibitions at the Sammlung Goetz, she said, and jumped at the chance to again play around with work in a new space. She had a model of the Dia building constructed for her in Munich so she could move the works around in different permutations. Her exhibition seems like a well-orchestrated collection of the hits, with Michaelangelo Pistoletto’s Orchestra di stracci – vetro diviso (1968), a grand example of his work with rags and heaps of clothes, nearby Boetti’s immortal PING PONG (1966) and Mappa (1988).
In addition to the spotlight put on Arte Povera up the Hudson at Magazzino, New Yorkers were treated to perhaps the movement’s most famous work two years ago, when Gavin Brown staged Kounellis’s Unititled (12 Horses), 1969, as a goodbye to his gallery’s West Village location. What a send off it was: the 12 steeds snorted and hoofed in the space for three days. It was the first time the work had been shown in North America, and it was met with protests from some animal-rights activists.
Untitled (12 Horses) does not appear in the Hauser show, and in fact there are no live animals that I spotted, despite the fact that one of the works in it, Pier Paolo Calzolari’s Sezo Titulo (1972), lists as its materials the following: tempera on canvas, bedframe, mattress, cotton, carafe, walnut, rose, goldfish. “Due to animal welfare guidelines, it is no longer permitted to include living creatures in an exhibition,” reads a text that accompanies the work. And so on the mattress there’s a very sad-looking goldfish-less carafe of water. There’s a picture of the original work next to it, goldfish included, but that doesn’t quite have the same effect as the real thing.
Some of the context of these pieces is lost to time, and perhaps in translation, as the mood of political turmoil that once surrounded them can’t really be airlifted and recreated wholesale in a Chelsea gallery.
“It’s a real problem, because you can’t show it how it was, and it was so good how they did it,” Goetz said at the talk. “But you cannot repeat it—it was an ephemeral work, how they created it. They would get crazy to see how clean it is here, because they did it in a spontaneous way.”
But the ambitious wit of Calzolari and his comrades is nevertheless in full view in some places. Mario Merz’s playfully absurd Crocodilus Fibonacci (1991) is just that, a fibonacci sequence written in neon with a crocodile on top, and it’s got a playfulness that gives way to a soft, quiet beauty. It’s set alongside much less subtle work by Luciano Fabro, Piede (1972), two gigantic sculptures of feet made from Murano glass and marble.
Maybe the most striking thing here is Pistoletto’s L’Etrusco (1976), a bronze in the style of art made by the ancient Italian civilization, a man staring into a mirror in a pose that suggests something distinctly non-ancient, some kind of modern existential crisis. It’s the past looking back at us now. As Goetz explained to me in the conference room, the Arte Povera mad geniuses were obsessed with the now, and obsessed with obliterating what came before, but at some point, you have to come to terms with the thousands of years that Italians have made beautiful art.