Introduced by the Italian art critic and curator Germano Celant in 1967, ‘arte povera’ literally translates as ‘poor art’. As a movement was concerned with eliminating the idea of art as an exclusive activity. Demonstrating openness to new materials, the artists associated with the movement rejected traditional materials such as oil paint or bronze. Instead they employed ‘valueless’ found objects and materials such as stones and soil.
Origins of the term
Italian art critic Germano Celant first introduced the term Arte Povera, or ‘poor art’ in the late 1960s to describe a loosely affiliated group of artists emerging in various Italian cities including Turin, Milan, Genoa, and Rome. Celant observed an increasing trend towards the use of ordinary, humble materials including earth, branches, rocks, soil and clothing, which deliberately blurred boundaries between art and everyday life. On the hugely experimental nature of the materials explored Celant wrote, 'Artists began working with animals, deserts, wax, rubber, ice, sulphur, glass and snow – unstable but vital elements that materialised thoughts and concepts'.
These materials appeared in various non-traditional platforms including street theatre, performance and assemblage, challenging the prevalent and increasingly commodified Minimalist forms of art that came before, as Celant recalls, '… there was a perceptual shift from the notion of the artwork as product, as a decorative commodity, towards the artwork as idea and concept, energy and transformation, nature and body – extending beyond the traditional forms of painting and sculpture that had predominated until Pop Art'. Many Arte Povera artists also saw the industrial nature of Minimalist artworks as a threat to cultural memory and identity - instead they sought ways to invoke elements of myth, storytelling and political commentary back into art forms with emotionally charged matter that connected to the human spirit, often with locally sourced materials.
In 1967 Celant began what would essentially become a one-man campaign to promote his notion of Arte Povera. He began with the landmark exhibition Arte Povera IM Spazio (The Space of Thoughts) at Galeria La Bertesca in Genoa, an event widely regarded today as the birth of the Arte Povera style, including work by Alighiero Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis and Pino Pascali. The show revealed a new generation of artists exploring raw, basic materials and their relationship to space, such as Boetti’s Pile, 1966-67, a stack of asbestos blocks, and Pascali’s Cubic Meters of Earth, 1967, with mounds of soil formed into solid shapes.
As a hugely prolific writer, Celant published essays and articles on Arte Povera with fighting talk, arguing vociferously on the vital importance of this new wave of art. His article, Arte Povera: Appunti per una Guerriglia (Arte Povera: Notes for a Guerrilla War), became the group’s manifesto, which many artists added their names to in support including Mario Merz, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Gilberto Zorio. In the following years, Celant organised further exhibitions under the Arte Povera title at the Galleria La Bertesca in Genoa, 1967, the Galleria De Foscherari in Bologna, 1968 and the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna in Turin, 1970, amassing new recruits to his cause along the way.
Several artists rose to prominence during Celant’s Arte Povera campaign in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Celant praised Jannis Kounellis for his unique ability to engage the senses with unusual and arresting materials such as Untitled, 1960, exploring the smell and weight of a suspended bag of coal. Mario Merz made experimental juxtapositions of materials, combining neon lighting and wax in Che Fare?, 1968-73, and brushwood with beeswax in Lingotto, 1968, prompting Celant to write, 'He performs a constant sacrifice of the banal, everyday object, as though it were a newfound Christ. Having found his nail, Merz becomes the system’s philistine and crucifies the world'.
In 1970 Celant organised the exhibition, Conceptual Art, Arte Povera, Land Art at the Galleria Civica dell’Arte, placing the Arte Povera style in a wider, international context. By this stage artists associated with the style had begun to branch out in opposing directions and the movement had disbanded by the mid-1970s, but its use of raw, pure materials continued to be felt with the rise of Land Art, Earth Art and Environmental Art in following decades. The sensory physicality of Arte Povera’s ordinary matter also had a lasting influence on many artists associated with the international Fluxus movement, including the pioneering wax, felt and coal assemblages of Joseph Beuys, while the concept of melding everyday matter into works of art continues to influence contemporary practices today.