An Introduction to Arte Povera

A group of anti-elitist artists started the movement.

Jannis Kounellis, Exhibition View, 2013, Galería Kewenig, Oratorio de Sant Feliu, Palma de Mallorca, Spain

In 1967, Italian art critic Germano Celant coined the term Arte Povera, meaning ‘poor art,’ to describe a group of young, anti-elitist artists who were determined to break away from the status quo of the mainstream art world. Arte Povera was not a fixed, unsympathetic movement, and it would have been contradictory to its views on society to construct a set of codes like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (Italian, 1876–1944) had done with the Futurist Manifesto in 1909. This influential avant-garde movement championed a type of art that ran counter to the prevailing styles of the market and challenged the commercial tendencies of the West in the mid-1960s. As a reaction to the tumultuous Italian economy, at that time, many artists favored moving toward an art form that was more conceptual, experimental, and less frivolous than that of their American counterparts.

Artists associated with this movement worked within a number of aesthetic disciplines, including sculpture, assemblage, and performance. Giovanni Anselmo (Italian, b.1934), Alighiero Boetti (Italian, 1940–1994), Jannis Kounellis (Greek, b.1936), Mario Merz (Italian, 1925–2003), and Michelangelo Pistoletto (Italian, b.1933) capitalized on the social and political power of the movement, using it as a vehicle for their work. These artists explored the dynamic of the natural and the man-made, and reinterpreted these concepts in an art form that used industrial, organic, and ephemeral materials such as coal, textiles, and live energy sources to create art relevant to everyday life. Moreover, the gallery space often became part of the experience as well because the art was designed to draw attention to the venue itself and its role in shaping the audience’s relationship to the works on display.

Lingotto by Mario Merz

Merz, Mario, Lingotto, 1968, Sperone Westwater, New York, NY

Some of the main proponents of Arte Povera continue to work today. Michelangelo Pistoletto was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2003 Venice Biennale and currently has an exhibition, Année 1, le Paradis sur Terre, running through September 2, 2013, at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. In addition, the Galería Kewenig in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, is currently featuring a solo exhibition of new works by Jannis Kounellis. In the manner of Arte Povera, Kounellis takes a non-traditional gallery space and imbues it with materials that reinterpret and narrate the conflict between the sacrosanct and the secular. Pistoletto and Kounellis, alike, challenge the idea that Arte Povera is an inferior art form rooted in modest ideals and lacking refinement, quality, and intellectual permanence.

Jannis Kounellis will be on view from July 3 to September 14, 2013, at Oratorio de Sant Feliu, Palma de Mallorca, Spain.

Exhibition View by Jannis Kounellis

Jannis Kounellis, Exhibition View, 2013, Galería Kewenig, Oratorio de Sant Feliu, Palma de Mallorca, Spain

Karen Vanegas is a client services representative for artnet Galleries.

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