Pino Pascali’s Ponte (Bridge, 1968)—a nearly 30-foot-long sculpture made of steel wool wrapped over an armature of metal wire—represented a rare early appearance in art of the humble household product. The sculpture is an outstanding example of arte povera, the Italian art movement of the late ’60s whose practitioners—among them Pascali, Mario Merz, Alighiero Boetti, and Jannis Kounellis—worked with ordinary, inexpensive (povera) materials. These artists substituted hardware-store supplies and even live animals for the marble and bronze that made up centuries of Italian sculpture.
The term “steel wool,” in Italian (lana d’acciaio) as in English, combines the industrial and the natural. The fine, fuzzy strands of metal do indeed evoke a strange hybrid of organic substance and factory product. Much like felt, steel wool is impermeable and, at the same time, extremely malleable. To make Ponte, Pascali used vast quantities of the stuff and rolled it into sturdy bundles that could be fit around the scaffolding structure. The sculpture was made for his second exhibition at the gallery L’Attico in Rome. Pascali was so short on time as the March 1968 opening approached that he had to put his mother and father to work rolling the material.
By using steel wool, Pascali was, consciously or not, making a fine play on the polarity between premodern and 20th-century technology. The cables used in suspension bridges, made of steel cord wound in ropelike lengths, can be viewed as analogous to the fine threads of steel that are intertwined to produce the wool. But the modern bridge itself could not be further from Pascali’s Ponte. Rather, his bridge feels distinctly homemade. It reads convincingly as a means for getting from tree to tree in a jungle.
The jungle analogy is not accidental. Pascali included in the L’Attico exhibition catalogue photographs of his pet chimpanzee, Cita, as well as photographs of himself costumed in raffia, evoking a fantasy of primitive man. He also had himself photographed for the catalogue inside a second steel-wool sculpture entitled Trap (now in the collection at Tate Modern). For Pascali, the modern tendency to romanticize the primitive derived from popular culture. An avid fan of the B.C.comic strip and Tarzan movies, he, in his contemplation of a fictional “primitive man,” substituted a spirit of play for the mysticism or reverence of the German Expressionists and Surrealists before him. Their inspiration came from ethnographic museums; his came from Hollywood.
The gallery L’Attico was located on the top floor of a building near the Spanish Steps. Giorgio di Chirico still lived across the street, and the ancient traditions of the city were evident at every turn. Inside the “attic,” however, it was another story. The gallery was run by Fabio Sargentini, a man in his mid-20s, who decided in 1967 to represent his peers Pascali and Kounellis. In so doing, he displaced his father, who had founded the gallery devoted to Surrealist and abstract painting. Tragically, the March 1968 exhibition was to be Pascali’s last: the following September he was killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 33. Ponteremained in Sargentini’s collection for more than 40 years.
The end of the ’60s was one of the most remarkable periods for sculpture in the history of modern art. Amid the social and cultural turmoil, painting was often scorned for its association with luxury, while sculpture, with its more varied materials and formats, provided a more fertile field for artists wanting to declare their liberation from precedent.
In the United States, such prodigiously gifted artists as Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, and Bruce Nauman redefined sculpture. New York museums paid more attention to the local scene than to the groundbreaking work being made in Europe. In 2008, seeking to develop a more transatlantic picture of the period, MoMA acquired Ponte, which—as a key work in the arte poveramovement—will remain on view through May 9 in the museum’s second-floor contemporary galleries.
Ann Temkin is chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art.