Alchemists and Nomads: The Artists Who Sparked A Movement

Arte Povera, translated as “poor art,” describes the work of a group of radical Italian artists working in the late 1960s.

 

The term was coined by Germano Celant (1940-2020), a visionary art critic, philosopher and curator who organized the first Arte Povera exhibition in 1967. His groundbreaking group show at the Bertesca Gallery in Genoa sparked a movement, defined by a collective of artists whose radical use of materials, though “poor”, translated to conceptually rich works that sought to provoke change. From 1993 on, Celant served as artistic director of Fondazione Prada in Milan, presenting shows of Walter de Maria, Louise Bourgeois, and Anish Kapoor among others. He also served as a curator of contemporary art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Based predominantly in Turin and Rome, the Arte Povera artists rejected the principals of figurative art and classicism, creating works from everyday materials including jute, wood, coal, and even fire. Celant described these artists as “alchemists” and “nomads” who conducted guerrilla warfare against accepted norms and institutions.

The movement’s key protagonists were Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri, Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Giuseppe Penone, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Pino Pascali, and Michelangelo Pistoletto, among others.

 

Here’s an elevator overview of these Arte Povera artists whose seminal works inspired Merida’s newest textile collection, Atelier 2022:

 

  • Alberto Burri (1915-1995), predates Arte Povera but could be considered the father of the movement, having first explored the use of unconventional materials such as fire, jute, wood and iron at the end of the 1940s.
  • Known for his gestural cuts to the canvas, Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), the founder of Spatialism, opened doors for the next generation of artists to experiment with new ways of transforming traditional materials to create artistic expression.
  • Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994), who produced a substantial number of works in a variety of materials, including complex wovtextiles, believed that art is not what is represented, but the idea behind it.
  • Giovanni Anselmo (b. 1934) explored his place in the vastness of nature, and the laws that govern the universe, in a series of works that employ a wide variety of organic and inorganic materials.
  • Giuseppe Penone (b.1947) is best-known for his iconic tree sculptures, which have taken over galleries and art institutions across the world.
  • The work of Jannis Kounellis (b. 1936) often returns to themes of history and memory, using raw materials such as coal, stones, and wool. Though best known for his installations and performance-based art, Kounellis refers to his work as paintings, even though they transcend the medium’s boundaries.
  • Mario Merz (1925-2003) explored the idea of organic creation with his “continuous” drawings, while his signature igloos examine man’s relationship to nature.
  • Pino Pascali’s playful works transformed materials such as hay, cans, brushes and fake fur. In 1968 art dealer Fabio Sargentini invited artist Pino Pascali to exhibit in his Rome gallery, L’Attico. Tragically, Pascali was killed in a motorcycle accident before the exhibition was staged, and Jannis Kounellis was asked to take his place.
  • Kounellis’s show was daringly unconventional, consisting of a dozen live horses tethered to the gallery walls. Popular with critics and the public alike, Untitled (12 Horses) became legendary, encapsulating the idea that art could be made from anything and didn’t have to be commercially viable. The exhibition is widely regarded as marking the birth of Arte Povera.
  • Another acknowledged leading figure of the movement is Michelangelo Pistoletto (b. 1933), whose now iconic mirror paintings played with the representation of reality by inviting the viewer to enter the work. Uomo Appoggiato (Man Leaning) represents the artist’s dealer Gian Enzo Sperone. As with his work in the Tate, Uomo in Piedi (Standing Man), the work requires the viewer’s participation to complete the portrait.
  • Other proponents of the movement as it took hold in the 1960s include Luciano Fabro (1936-2007), whose conceptual sculptures are highly sought after, and Giulio Paolini (b. 1940), acclaimed for his minimal and conceptual works subverting classical materials such as canvas and plaster.

 

At the end of the 1960s a number of major international exhibitions took place outside Italy, opening a dialogue between the Arte Povera protagonists and American artists such as Bruce Nauman, Richard Long, Sol Lewitt and Walter de Maria. The influence of these artists continues to reverberate in 2022, with a wave of exhibitions taking place in galleries and major museums across the globe.

Explore the Atelier 2022 Collection to see how these groundbreaking artists inspired Merida’s newest textiles, currently on exhibition in the Merida Gallery at the New York Design Center, Suite 500.