It’s not every day that actual fire and ice feature in an exhibition, but such are the raw, earthy materials from which Arte Povera works were often wrought. Named in 1967 by the critic Germano Celant, Arte Povera constituted less a strict movement than a loose fraternity of artists working in Italy with “poor,” everyday materials—over and against the sleek industrial components of Minimalism (abroad) and the consumerist blandishments of the “economic miracle” (at home). And a fraternity it was; with the exception of Marisa Merz—a fellow traveler with the group rather than an actual member, and absent from this show—Arte Povera’s ever-shifting roster comprised exclusively male artists. Drawn from the collection of Ingvild Goetz, the Hauser & Wirth exhibition included objects and installations by all the chief exponents, the selection spanning 1958 to 1994—for although Arte Povera officially disbanded in 1972, its individual practitioners continued working in the style long after the collective exhibitions ceased.
All the Poveristi were represented in this three-floor survey by their most characteristic tendencies or materials: Mario Merz with neon signs displaying the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, Giulio Paolini with conceptual meditations on the canvas support and its various surrogates, Alighiero Boetti with an embroidered map. Yet unexpected works complemented the better-known ones. Two of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s early paintings—a 1962 tempera titled Presenza (Presence) and a 1961 oil-and-acrylic self-portrait—shed light on the spare figuration of his later mirror paintings. Some of Jannis Kounellis’s early canvases, such as Marzo (March, 1963), offered a glimpse of his activity before Arte Povera, while an untitled 1988 piece comprising a burlap sack of stone and coal dust fixed between two steel girders attested to the persistence of the Arte Povera vocabulary long after the group’s dissolution. Indeed, the rather diffuse temporal boundaries of Arte Povera complement its willful spatial ambivalence, in which installation and display environment often appear indistinguishable.
Precariousness and contingency play prominent roles in Arte Povera work. Consider Giovanni Anselmo’s untitled 1967 piece consisting of a slightly curved standing plexiglass sheet whose ends are held back by a thin metal rod. At any moment, it seems, the sheet could become unfastened and go flying. Physics and gravity appear as salient as aesthetics in this piece, which conflates art, objecthood, and event. Pier Paolo Calzolari took Arte Povera’s interest in natural materials even further in an untitled 1972 installation that originally incorporated a live fish in a carafe of water. Before a large blue-painted canvas hung on the wall sits a bed frame and mattress topped with walnut halves, an upright rose, and the carafe—now deprived of the fish, due, as a notice states, to animal cruelty concerns. Although absent of fauna, the exhibition featured other organic substances, from a dried lettuce leaf in a 1968 work by Anselmo to Giuseppe Penone’s 1977 pile of potatoes to a bed of dried laurel leaves in the same artist’s 1989 Fingernail and Laurel Leaves (in which the “fingernail” is a large oblong piece of glass).
“Arte Povera,” Mario Merz once remarked, “clings to rafters and it clings to trees.” Indeed, the giant doors and windows on Hauser & Wirth’s ground floor—their industrial metal frames bearing the signs of age and use—appeared almost indistinguishable from the works in the show. One could easily have mistaken them for some scraped panels by one of the artists. I don’t think this would have bothered Merz in the slightest. “We are conditioned in such a way that we are not able to see a floor, a corner, or an everyday space,” Celant wrote in his 1967 manifesto for the movement. Leading viewers to a heightened perception of floors and corners, of elemental materials like cement and water, wood and rock—often at the expense of “content”—Arte Povera is as bound up with the world at large as it is grounded in specific images and objects.